Robert ‘Pom Pom’ Whiting was born in Canning Town in January 1884. He worked as a labourer and ship-builder in the local docks. He played goalkeeper for Thames Ironworks, later West Ham United. He moved to Tunbridge Wells Rangers and in 1906 was scouted to play for Chelsea, where his powerful goal kick earned him the nickname ‘Pom Pom’ after a long-range naval gun.
In 1908 he was transferred to Brighton and Hove Albion, making 320 appearances over seven seasons. At the outbreak of war in 1914, the government encouraged men from the same town or profession to enlist together in ‘pals’ units. Certain papers and public figures praised the patriotism of newly recruited rugby and cricket players, while criticising footballers as feminine and their fans as working-class shirkers. Though many top footballers had already signed up, this media pressure convinced more to register and fans to become ‘die-hards’, following their favourite players onto the battlefield.
In December 1914 Bob Whiting enlisted in the 17th Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment, joining over 400 professional footballers and officials. He trained in White City, was promoted to Lance Sergeant in June 1915 and sent to France in November. Whiting contracted scabies in the poor trench conditions, and in May 1916 was sent back to Brighton for treatment. His wife Nellie was able to visit him regularly, and during his recovery she fell pregnant with their third son. When Whiting was due to return to France, he decided to stay with his pregnant wife and went absent without leave for 133 days. This was a serious military offence that risked a death sentence. He was arrested for desertion and sent for trial in December. His absence had coincided with the costly Somme offensive where 420,000 British soldiers had died.
At the court martial he was labelled a coward, demoted to private, and sentenced to nine months imprisonment with hard labour. However, the losses at the Somme left the army desperate for able-bodied soldiers, even those convicted of military crimes. Whiting’s sentence was suspended and he joined his battalion just before the Battle of Arras. On 28th April 1917, Whiting was tending to wounded soldiers when he was hit by shellfire. He never had a chance to meet his son. Nellie, now a widow, had to endure local rumours that Bob had been shot for cowardice. She published a letter in the Brighton Argus from Bob’s commanding officer telling of his honourable death in battle.
Whiting was caught between two competing masculine ideals, a patriotic soldier and a dutiful family man. He was labelled a coward for leaving his battalion but he bravely risked execution to look after his wife. In a way, these two values did unite at Arras, where he died fighting for his country while caring for wounded soldiers. While his body was never recovered, Whiting’s name is honoured on the Arras memorial. In 2010, he was one of those remembered at a service for the Unknown Soldier in Westminster Abbey.