IN a quiet corner of Mold Cemetery lies a gravestone which tells a tragic family story.

According to the 1911 Census, The Whitley's, of 3 Maes y Dre, Mold, consisted of father Walter and his wife, Mary along with their children Ellen 17, Walter 15, who along with their father worked at the the Tin Plate Works, and youngest, daughter, May who was seven and at school. Mary had given birth to seven children, six of whom had survived, but her and Walter would lose three more of their children including young Walter who would become one of Mold's most famous casualties of the conflict which was about to bring death and destruction to millions across Europe.

Planned to neutralise the key Belgian ports of Zeebrugge and Ostend, both used by the German Navy as a base for submarines and light shipping, the Raid on Zeebrugge was launched early on the morning of April 23,1918.

The operation was intended to block the access of German shipping and submarines in and out of both ports. German submarines, torpedo boats and ships were based at the inland docks in Bruges and were using the Bruges shipping canal to access the English Channel via the two sea entrances at Zeebrugge and Ostend. Vice-Admiral Sir Roger Keyes, commander of the Dover Patrol, devised a plan to block the ports. The operation would take place with about 75 ships and over 1,700 men in a night-time operation. The state of the tide, calm weather, favourable wind for the smoke screen and an absence of fog were crucial to the plan and its timing.

The main force of the attack was to be at Zeebrugge, with a smaller offensive launched against Ostend. In preparation for both however the elderly British cruiser Vindictive was used to land 200 troops at the entrance to the Bruges Canal in order that they could destroy its formidable shore batteries.The operation began badly however. The prepared smokescreen to cover the Vindictive as it landed its troop contents proved ineffective in the face of unexpected winds.

Under crippling fire the old cruiser moored in the wrong location, its guns effectively out of action.

The idea had been for the Mersey ferry, Daffodil to hold Vindictive in place just long enough for the Vindictive troops to disembark, before coming alongside to land her own troops but this was impossible and troops had to climb first from Daffodil to the Vindictive and then attempt to board the harbour wall from there. Iris II also struggled to land her troops and all three vessels suffered heavy casualties.

Vindictive managed to return to Britain, but of the 1,700 men involved in the operation, 300 were wounded and more than 200 killed, including Pte Walter Whitley who was mortally wounded and died in the Royal Naval Hospital at Chatham, on July 17 1918 aged 22. Despite the heavy losses the raid was promoted by Allied propaganda as a British victory and resulted in the awarding of eight Victoria Crosses

Just two days later, on July 19, a letter held in the Flintshire Record Office, shows Nurse Stiffe from the Royal Naval Hospital, writing to Mary Whitley and offering her condolences on Walter's death and commenting on his bravery and patience under suffering.

Unusually for a combatant in First World War, Walter's body was able to be returned to his family and his home town and a photograph taken on the day of his funeral, shows huge crowds lining the streets of Mold to welcome back their hero.

The inscription on Walter's gravestone, paying tribute to 'The Zeebrugge Hero' summed up the mood of his grateful birthplace: "Well done, well done ye hero bold / England swells it to and fro / Love for your country you have shown / Left dismayed the Zeebrugge foe / Sleep on brave heart in perfect peace / Your task on earth is done / For Christ our king shall crown you with / The crown of life you’ve won"

For more information on Walter Whitley please visit Mold Museum.