John William Whiting 1870-1897
Parents: John Whiting and Emily Binks (1)
Born: 1870 in Little Wratting. (1)
Baptised: 26th June 1870 at St Mary's Church, Little Wratting.(2)
Died: In Sherani, India, on 29th August 1897(?)(5)
Bio: John William or John, as he appears on censuses, was born in Little Wratting early in 1870 and lived with his grandfather John Binks and parents in Haverhill Road, Little Wratting on the 1871 census. He is still here residing at a private house in the village on the 1881 census where he is a scholar living with his parents and grandfather.
However on the 1891 census we have to travel quite some distance from Little Wratting to find John's whereabouts, it turns out he is residing at the Rifle Depot at Winchester Barracks and is serving as a private in the Rifle Brigade.(3) He is single, and his age is given as 20.
What happened to John after this point is hard to ascertain, particularly as the National Archives appear to hold no Muster Rolls for the Rifle Brigade after around 1888.
Searching through the Chelsea Pensioners Army Service Records (WO97) that are available online at Findmypast(4) reveals no trace of John either. This suggests that he may have died in service.
A transcription of a memorial to fallen members of the 3rd Battalion Rifle Brigade at Rawalpindi, in what is now Pakistan(5), may well hold the key to what happened to John.
The memorial '..to those below who died during the Tochi Valley Expedition 1897-1898', records the death of 'Lance Corporal John Whiting - Died Sherani - 29th August 1897. Aged 25'.
Could this be our John? We know he was a private in the Rifle Brigade in 1891, and the rank of Lance Corporal is the the lowest non-commissioned Officer rank and the one immediately above Private so it is not hard to imagine he could have achieved promotion to this rank in the intervening 6 years. His age on the memorial is given as 25 although we know he was actually 27 in 1897. However his age was already one year out on the 1891 census, being given as 20, and I feel that 25 is at least close enough not to discredit the theory that our John and the person on the memorial are in fact one and the same person.
If this Lance Corporal was indeed John William Whiting, then how was he likely to have met his end? in the heat of battle, perhaps?
The 3rd Battalion Rifle Brigade were part of the Tochi Field Force and 'The object with which the Force was sent up was to punish the Madda Khel section of the Darwesh Khel Waziris concerned in the attack on the Political Officer's escort at Maizar on the 10th June, 1897. On that occasion out of a force composed of 12 sabres, two mountain guns, and 300 rifles, with 6 British officers, the losses sustained amounted to 3 British officers killed, and the remaining 3 wounded (two of whom have since died), one Native officer killed, 22 noncommissioned officers and men killed, and 25 wounded.'(6)
This ambush of a representative of the British Government and the subsequent slaughter of his escort would clearly have been seen as an affront to British supremacy and one that needed immediate retaliation.
The troops deployed had to endure a gruelling march to reach their objective. 'The assembly point for the force was at Datta Khel, approximately 15 miles N.E. of Maizar. The Rifle Brigade travelled by train to Khushulgarh, arriving the morning, 30th. June. That evening at 8pm. they started an eight-day march to Bannu, averaging 14 miles per day. The daytime temperatures were well in excess of 100 degrees F. and marching was confined to night when it was a slightly more bearable 98 degrees F. Despite many cases of heat apoplexy the Rifles suffered no fatalities, unlike the Argyll's who lost three men dead from that cause. At Bannu they rested for three days before resuming the march westward through the Tochi valley, until arriving at Miranshah, some 3,000 feet above sea level. At least it was cooler here, but there was still the choking dust to contend with, relieved only by sudden downpours of rain. After resting at Miranshah the Rifles marched on to Datta Khel, arriving 18th. July. Out of 801 Riflemen who had begun the 170-mile march only 726 had completed it'(7)
From these accounts of the Tochi Valley expedition it appears certain that John died of illness during the campaign.
The London Gazette stated 'the duties devolving on the troops have been of an unusually trying nature owing to the unhealthiness of the climate..amidst much sickness, which has resulted in a heavy death-toll, the good discipline, the endurance, and the soldierly qualities of all ranks have been most marked'(6)
Aside from the initial bloodshed at Maizar, during this campaign It is interesting to note that deaths in battle from 21st June to 25th November 1897 amounted to only 9, and this included officers and men who later died of their wounds. It appears none of the Rifle Brigade died in battle, but as we have seen instead received the worst of the sickness that accompanied the troops on their expedition. 'On the 27th. July, the Rifles marched to Sheranni to join the 1st. Brigade in the systematic destruction of all the houses there and around Maizar, as punishment for the treacherous ambush of 10th. June. Although the tribesmen had all fled the Force had other problems to endure, Dysentery and fever were rife. By August and early September the number of men reporting sick daily was in three figures.'(7)
An extract from the Timaru Herald of 15th August gives another good account of events from the perspective of an Argyll and Sutherland Highlander. (click here)
The Rifle Brigade Chronicle records 'The Battalion suffered greatly from dysentery and enteric fever, caused by bad water and a low-lying camp.'(8)
It is during the weeks soon after that Acting-Corporal no.1070 (as he is referred to in the chronicle casualty list) John Whiting met his end.(9)
Of the 1137 men in 3rd Battalion during 1897, 112 died during the campaign.
A trip to the National Archives to look at Muster Rolls will hopefully confirm that John served in the 3rd Battalion of the Rifle Brigade. However, because his full name is mentioned correctly as John William in the GRO Army deaths register for 1897(10), I think we can state with a fair amount of confidence that he and Lance Corporal Whiting are the same person.
(1) Birth Index. 1st Quarter 1870, Risbridge District, Volume 4a Page 451
(2) Suffolk Baptism Index, SFHS, Clare Deanery 1812-1900
(3) 1891 Census. Class: RG12; Piece: 938; Folio 118; Page 24; GSU roll: 6096048.
(6) London Gazette, Issue 26937, 11th February 1898, Page 858
(8) The Rifle Brigade Chronicle, Record, 3rd Battalion, p223. http://archive.org/stream/riflebrigadechr02owngoog#page/n286/mode/2up
(9) The Rifle Brigade Chronicle, Record, 3rd Battalion, Deaths, p229. http://archive.org/stream/riflebrigadechr02owngoog#page/n292/mode/2up
(10) Army Returns, Deaths, Index p40, Station: Sheranni, Year: 1897 page: 172. John William Whiting, 25.