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Harry Whiting 1895-1984

Parents:       Henry Whiting and Eliza Iron (1)

Born:           6th July 1895 in Haverhill.(1,3)

Baptised:    ?

Married:      Nora Dorcas Bailey, 20, of Willesden, father unknown, on 6th October 1918 at Harlesden Baptist Chapel, Willesden, Middlesex. (2)

Children:     Harry C Whiting b.1925

Died:            1984, Brent, Middlesex.(3)

 
Bio:             Harry was born on 6th July 1895 in Haverhill (1,3), most likely at 10 Chauntry Row. On the 1901 census he can be found living at this address with his parents Henry and Eliza and elder sister Celia, 14. They are all working in some capacity for Gurteen's; Henry is a carman, and Eliza and Celia are tailors at the clothing factory. On the 1911 census the family are living at 18 Mill Road, Haverhill, and Harry's parents and sister are still working in the same jobs. Harry is an errand boy at an ironmongers. The Great War was three years away at this point, and Harry went on to join up and serve in the Royal Garrison Artillery. It was this conflict that provides us with a fascinating window into Harry's life during this time. Harry not only wrote an account of his wartime activities (5), but his service records survived the bombing during the Second World War that destroyed many of these documents.

Just before the war, Harry had moved to 17 Barry Road, Stonebridge, London, where he was lodging with his Uncle Frank, Aunt Priscilla and cousins Cecil, Stanley and John. He was working as a factory hand in a biscuit factory, and his call-up  was deferred as the factory made biscuits for the troops and he was deemed a pivotal worker. He wasn't too happy with this, however, and decided to join up. It wasn't until 8th November 1915 that Harry signed up at Harlesden for 'the duration'. He was given the number 67903 and joined the Royal Garrison Artillery, which was also the regiment in which his cousin Cecil was serving. A description of Harry taken on enlistment is given on his service records (4). He was 5ft 9ins, 143 pounds with good physical development and under 'distinctive marks' it said 'eyebrows meet, 2 scars right side of cheek'. He gave his next of kin as his sister Celia at 18 Mill Lane, Haverhill.  

Harry was given his call-up papers and told to report to Mill Hill Territorial Centre where he was given a voucher and a ticket to Dover. He arrived there on 18th November 1915 (4). Harry takes up the story at this point: "On arrival at Dover, we were met by an N.C.O. who was to show us the way to Fort Burgoyne.  We went into a pub, had a drink and started on the long walk up hill to the Fort, arriving at about ten o’clock in the evening, very hungry and cold.  The cook I could never forget, for he baked some potatoes and gave them to us with lots of butter.  They went down very well.  Next morning we were told to report on the square in alphabetical order and go to the quartermaster for our uniforms and then to parade in the afternoon to be vaccinated.  As my initial is ‘W’, I was on the end of the queue and at five that evening the doctors finished work for the day and told us to report in the same order.  Next day, quite a number of new recruits had arrived and therefore the queue was even longer than previously, and come the end of the second day I was handed my pay book stamped that I had been vaccinated, but in fact this was not so.  Next morning there were twelve of us paraded in front of an officer and informed we had been selected to be signalers in the 100th Siege Battery, Royal Garrison Artillery.  We were given a voucher to obtain food and railway tickets to Bexhill, where we would be met and escorted to a camp at Cooden."(5)

Harry was taught morse code, how to use a field telephone and lay wire - all the skills a signaller would need. His records show he received a "very good" 2nd class certificate of Signalling and Telephony at Bexhill on 24th January 1916.

"While we were at Cooden, the Women’s Voluntary Service used to call at the camp and bring us gifts and it was then that I found that there was quite a bit of talent amongst my comrades.  There were two brothers, Cecil and Johnny Schofield, whose father was well known in the music halls in London.  We also had a good cornet player and a lay preacher, and Morgan Davis, a Welsh policeman who had a very fine voice.  I could play the accordion and mouth organ, so the W.V.S. ladies asked us if we could put on a concert and they got us a hall in Horsham.  The public was charged to come in, but the troops were allowed in free.  It was a huge success, and with the money taken the W.V.S. bought wool to make us socks and scarves, and purchased tobacco and cigarettes which they brought up to the camp.  They then asked us if we could do a Sunday Service at one of the churches in Bexhill, the entire service being run by us soldiers.  Having a lay preacher to take the service, my other comrades acted as sidemen and to take the collection, and we had a soldier at the door to welcome the congregation in.  The notices were put up around the town and the church was filled."(5)

Later Harry was sent to train at Tynemouth where got to familiarize himself with the 5.9 Howitzers the Artillery would use in action. He took part in shooting practice near the coast at Dungeness where the guns were trained on an old barge which was pulled along by a tug. 

The 100th Siege Battery relocated to Portsmouth then Folkestone before being sent to France. Harry's service records show he embarked at Southampton on 18th May 1916 before landing at Le Havre on 20th May 1916. Harry recalls that the 100th Siege Battery RGA were at Bray-sur-Somme, near Albert for a few weeks before being ordered to Aix Noulette near Vimy Ridge where they changed their guns with the 1st Siege Battery who had 4.6's that had been used in South Africa as opposed to 5.9's. He mentions that a Major Bassett was in charge of his unit, and that the 49th Royal Army Medical Corps had a first aid post a quarter of a mile from where they were based. Harry recalls that they received their first casualty, Bombardier Richardson, who was killed by a sniper on the sunken road from Aix Noulette to Bully-Grenay (now Bully-des-Mines). This may well be a trick of the memory, however. Records suggest that this was Bombardier No.948, Stanley Graham Richardson, 33, originally from Newcastle, who was with 100th Siege Battery, but that he was killed on 20th October 1916 which doesn't quite fit with the timescale considering that war-diaries place the 100th SB in this area from June to August 1916(7). He was buried at Bienvillers Military Cemetery(6). The war-diaries record that Bombardier Richardson was hit by shell fire whilst laying wire at Hannescamps - Bombardiers Gibb and Wake were also injured in this incident. Bombardier Richardson died two hours later.

Harry's Battery took part in the Battle of Arras, and he recalls advancing with the troops in the second wave of attack. He was part of a team of two telephonists and an officer who carried reels of telephone wire to provide communication with the guns of the battery. Harry said how he "had seen so many killed and wounded on the ridge, I had hardened to it and looked on it as a matter of course."(5)

After the fighting at Arras, 100th Siege Battery returned to Aix Noulette and Harry manned a telephone exchange in a line manned by Portuguese troops fighting on the side of the Allies. In one incident, Harry came across a party of Portuguese soldiers who obviously suspected them of being the enemy. They were marched at bayonet-point to the Portuguese headquarters where they were interrogated. Once their identity had been established, the Portuguese cooked them "one of the best dinners we had had for a long time" and gave them identity cards to prevent any future confusion. Harry and his comrades managed the telephone exchange near the Portuguese lines for five months during which time he got on well with them, exchanging souvenirs as well as the odd bottle of wine.

Harry's cousin Cecil Frank Whiting, who served in 91st Siege Battery RGA, was killed in an accident on 17th November 1916. Harry apparently visited him shortly before his death (see Cecil's page) but from his account it seems that Harry has got the year confused. He mentions the incident as if it happened in 1918 saying that 'soon after that' was when he was treated for the effects of a gas attack, which his Service Records record as occurring in April 1918.

Harry recalled being in Arras at Christmas 1916, before returning to Aix Noulette just afterwards. In the new year Harry remembers manning an observation post in a trench near where the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry were based:
"My pal Morgan Davies and I were doing another twenty four-hour spell in the front line trench and found that the line was being held by the K.O.Y.L.I. The Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry. Our observation post, being about twenty yards from the next dug out was manned by six K.O.Y.L.I. Periodically along all the lines the infantry would keep firing very lightly from their pistols; the colours being white, green and red as a signal to the artillery. They were like rockets and would burst and show the colours as they were coming down. The white ones would show the whole of no mans land up like day. The green ones were that everything was quiet and the red ones were to let the artillery know that something suspicious was going on, and to open fire on that part of the line. The trenched were dug in a zigzag way, about every twenty or thirty yards, so if a shell burst in the trench it prevented the damages going very far. One evening about 10 O’ clock, the Germans came over on a silent raid, that is without the aid of artillery support, and got into the next dug out to us. We heard a bit of noise going on but took no notice. Next morning when we looked out of our dug out we saw five stretcher bearers of the R.A.M.C. bring out five of the six K.O.Y.L.I who had been killed: the sixth they had taken back with them as a prisoner. They had thrown a hand grenade into the dug out first, then went in and rushed them, bayoneted them. They were in a terrible mess. On two or three later occasions, the opposing trenches at this point were so close, the Germans would try to tunnel to our trenches, and when near put some explosives in and blow the trenches up. As long as we could hear them tunneling we knew we were safe, when we could hear nothing it made us think." (5)

Harry returned home on leave for the first time on 15th September 1917. His leave ran for ten days from 14th to 24th September. He remembers this episode fondly: "We arrived at Dover and caught the early morning train to Charing Cross. From there I went and spent a few days with an aunt of mine, and then saw my young lady and asked her if she would come down to Suffolk with me to see my parents, to which she agreed. We had a lovely time together and came back to London for a few days before I was due to return. One evening when we went out for a walk along the canal towpath, a zeppelin appeared overhead and started dropping bombs.  My young lady, later to be my wife was very upset and frightened and I thought, “they can’t even leave me alone for a few days while I’m on leave”. Nothing was very strict, but I had a relative who was a manager of one of David Griggs big stores, and took my ration card over to him, and did very well. He also gave me fifteen shillings worth of French pennies, which had been taken in the shop as English money which the bank would not accept. They were very heavy, but I took them and exchange them for French post cards when I got back. I got a shilling a day and the government informed me that if I made an allowance of a sixpenny a day for my parents out of my shilling, they would do like wise. That continued on until just before the end of the war, when I got married." (5)

Harry seems to have elaborated the episode which featured a Zeppelin; there was no such raid over London by Zeppelins between these dates. However, there was a raid by Gotha bombers over London on the 24th September in which several people were killed(8). This may have been the incident to which he was referring.

On returning to France, Harry's battery took part in the battle of Cambrai in November 1917. This fierce offensive featured a counter-offensive by the Germans in which the men of his battery were forced to flee in the face of a German attack. While he was manning an observation post Harry recalls seeing "our infantry coming towards us and hundreds of Germans a short distance behind them advancing, and our own men did not seem to be making a stand. I reported it to the officer and when he saw what was happening he told me to smash the telephone and run for it". Harry and his companions managed to escape the German attack, and his recollection that it was eventually stopped by Guardsmen tallies with war-diaries that show that on 30th November 1917 "the enemy advanced through Villers-Guislain and into the battery position which was swept with machine gun fire at a range of 250 yards. Personnel were ordered to retire and breech-blocks were taken away... the enemy were then in the position, but were subsequently beaten back by a counter attack and the battery position was made battalion H.Q. for the 3rd Coldstream Guards, under the command of Major Bingham." (9)

Harry's Service Records show that he received 28 days Field Punishment on 22nd February 1918 for 'whilst on active service, failing to comply with Battery orders in that he failed to visit his gun at the hours appointed on 18.2.1918'. Harry mentions this incident in his account: "I got myself into a spot of bother with the Americans. As I said before our guns were in the street, and me being a telephonist when on duty we used to have a little hut to sit in with a telephone. In case of action we would call the gun crews out, and pass on any instructions from the officers. I was on a eight hour stretch of duty from two until ten, I was to take all the telephone messages and walk out every quarter of an hour to ensure that no-one was interfering with the ammunition. At nine forty in the evening I made my last inspection and started to write a letter to my young lady and forgot to go out. When the orderly officer, a half-caste from German East Africa, and Sergeant Horner came in and the officer asked me if I knew what my duties were, and when I last went out to inspect the ammo.  He said it was twenty minutes since I last went out and that I was under arrest. At that I reached for my rifle, and being a bit quick tempered, told him to get out of the bloody bibby, or hut. I was given twenty eight days first field punishment for that, but having been with the battery since its formation the Major spoke up for me and asked if I could do the time with the battery. Otherwise it would have meant going behind the lines and being strapped to a gun wheel for two hours every day. I had a two gun escort and was put on all the rough and dirty jobs in the battery, such as chopping the fire wood and getting the coal for the cooks, and washing all the greasy pans and dixies. The Sergeant Major told me to clean the windows in the basement office. It was as left by the civilian office staff that used to work there with swivel chair, an office desk and an old fashion oil lamp on the table. The windows were very black and dirty so I got a bucket of water and did not know that there was a stone in the bucket when I decided that it would help to clean the windows if I threw the bucket of water over them first. In so doing the stone went straight though the window, breaking glass all over the papers on his table, knocking the lamp over, that alone landed in pieces. When I told the S.M. what had happened he was furious and the language he used is not fit to print, and I was in his bad books." (5)

Harry was injured in a gas-attack on 8th April 1918 when he was near Armentieres:

"when I was on observation duty with my mate and officer, the Germans fired over two thousand rounds of gas shells into the town and we were given orders to evacuate. We went back to a small place called Uskenham, just at the back of Armentieres, and when we got to the railway crossing my friend and I decided to go back into town and get our kit bags. As I said before we had quite a lot of silver in them and thought it would go the same way we got it. That is where we made a big mistake. It was a good mile to the billet and we never met anyone, and on the way back I started to loose my sight. I remember getting back to the railway crossing again and then I could see no further. I do not know what happened to my mate as I never saw him again. I was placed on a form with others and after a time an ambulance arrived and we were loaded in. I think it held four stretchers and I was put on the bottom one, because I put my arms up and touched the one on top and put my arms out and touched one on the level with me. I do not know what happened to my kit bag, as I never saw it again. We eventually arrived near some water as we were put on a boat or barge and we could hear the engine, and water splashing. It did not seem very long on the water for after a while we were taken off and taken to a tent and given first aid. It could not have been far behind the lines as the German shells were still landing quite near and pieces were falling on top of the tent. There they started giving me treatment every two hours, night and day. It seemed as if they opened my eyes with matchsticks and rubbed sand in them, it was so painful. After a few days treatment I gradually began to get my sight back and then I was taken to Fourteenth Hospital at Le Trepot and stayed there about a moth to recuperate. It was on the coast with a nice lined promenade and the harbour jutting out about a hundred yards into the sea. I was given plenty of good food to eat and was free to do what I liked, with no drills and very little discipline. Then I had to go before a medical board and was considered fit to go up the line again to another battery, the 234th Siege Battery."

He returned to action on 17th May 1918. Harry's second home-leave saw him marry his sweetheart Nora Bailey on 6th October 1918 at Harlesden Baptist Chapel, Willesden. Nora Dorcas Bailey was born on 18th May 1898 in Westbury, Wiltshire (11), the illegitimate daughter of Emily Bailey, a glover, who is shown living in Warminster Road, Westbury, on the 1901 census with her widowed mother Jane Bailey, 55. Nora can be seen on the 1911 census aged 13, living at 70 Carlyle Avenue, Stonebridge, Harlesden, with her stepfather John Chapman, a bricklayers labourer, her mother Emily and her 6 month old step-sister Kathleen. She was attending school.

When he returned, Harry had difficulty finding his battery and it was not until just before Armistice Day that he located them. The war was over on 11th November 1918, and after this Harry was billeted in France and Belgium with various families until he could finally be demobbed on 14th March 1919. He recalls with some amusement: "I had not been home long when I received a letter from the War office telling me they had overpaid me by four pounds and would I please return the same. After receiving three such letters they finally gave up hope of my returning the four pounds and I heard nothing further."(5)

Harry had survived the war, and this is a testament to the way that he managed to keep his perspective during this troubled episode in his life. He received both the British War and Victory Medals for his service.

After the war, Harry returned to work and lived with his wife Nora at 70 Carlyle Avenue, Stonebridge Road, Harlesden, the home of her mother and stepfather, before moving to 37 Shrewsbury Road, Willesden and then 30 Stacey Road, Willesden, from 1956 (10).

Harry and Nora had a son, Harry C Whiting in 1925. Nora died in 1979 in the Brent district, London (12). Harry lived until 1984 (3).

Many thanks to Bob Revie for Harry's account of his wartime experiences

Sources:      

(1) Birth Register. 3rd Quarter 1895, Risbridge District, Volume 4a Page 739

(2) Marriage Register. 4th Quarter 1918, Willesden District, Volume 3a Page 658

(3) Death Register. 4th Quarter 1984, Brent District, Volume 11 Page 507

(4) British Army Service Records, National Archives, WO363, ancestry.com, image 83196, 41 pages.

(5) 25 page account written by Harry Whiting of his experiences during the war.

(6) CWGC, Casualty Details, http://www.cwgc.org/find-war-dead/casualty/266279/RICHARDSON,%20STANLEY%20GRAHAM

(7) http://1914-1918.invisionzone.com/forums/index.php?showtopic=188127

(8) Fredette, Baldwin and Crouch (2006) 'The Sky on Fire: The first battle of Britain, 1917-18', University of Alabama Press.

(9) War diary of 100 Siege Battery RGA, WO95/227/8. The National Archives.

(10) London Electoral Registers, 1832-1965, Ancestry.com

(11) Birth Register. 3rd Quarter 1898, Westbury District, Volume 5a Page 143

(12) Death Register. Dec 1979, Brent District, Volume 11 Page 0711