Researched and written by Anne Wright
2/Lt G Whittet
7th Battalion, Queen’s (Royal West Surrey) Regiment
Killed in action, 13.7.1916
Gilbert (Jack) Whittet went straight from school to war. He had intended to go to university but instead sought a commission as soon as possible and joined the Queen’s (Royal West Surrey) Regiment. Gilbert was born in Weybridge on 4 October 1895, the youngest child of Alexander and Lizzie Bertha (nee Willis) who had married on 12 September 1883 at Christ Church, Streatham Hill. Both parents were born in London, but Weybridge was already Alexander’s home at the time of his marriage; he was the proprietor of A. Whittet & Co., Seed Crushers, of Weybridge Oil Mills (probably Ham Haw Mill). The oil was used for making paint, linoleum and foodstuffs. Gilbert’s siblings, Alexander Willis, Charles Gordon and Winifred Muriel were all born in Weybridge and baptised at St James’ Church; as was Gilbert on 2 January 1896. The family home was at West Oaks, Portmore Park Road.
Gilbert was educated at Radley College from 1910 to 1914. He was a keen rower and rowed for his college at Henley in his last year. Soon he was commissioned to the Royal West Surreys and crossed to France over 26/27 July 1915 with the 7th Battalion. They had their first experience of the trenches at Dernancourt on 9 August; they returned to the line on 22 August and suffered their earliest multiple casualties with 4 men killed and 17 wounded. So began a pattern of rotating in and out of the trenches over a period of months; they were often in the line at Becourt and in billets at Mericourt, Ville-sur-Ancre and Dernancourt. The routine was broken on 25 October when Gilbert and his comrades paraded before the King and the Prince of Wales. His last Christmas Day was spent in very wet trenches.
Life resumed in the same fashion in the New Year and well into the spring of 1916. They were sometimes in billets at La Nueville-de-Corbie and Suzanne. Gilbert spent five days in hospital in May and missed the battalion’s opening assault on the first day of the Battle of the Somme on 1 July as he was at Divisional School from which he returned two days later. The impact had already been devastating: 174 men had been killed, 284 wounded and 56 reported missing in 12 hours of fighting near Montauban. On 4 July the battalion was reorganised and by the morning of the 13th they held the southern edge of Trones Wood and Trones Alley (north-east of Montauban).
They were continually under shell fire and with others tasked to clear the Germans from the Wood. When Gilbert’s battalion advanced they were met with heavy rifle, machine gun and shell fire. The enemy had been told to resist at all costs. The attack ground to a halt; the British bombardment seemed to have done little damage, there had not been time to reconnoitre the ground in advance and support troops were not available when needed. Between noon and the end of the action at about 9pm on the 13 July 4 officers were killed, 7 wounded, 2 reported missing, 22 other ranks were killed, 150 wounded and 44 reported missing. Gilbert was one of the dead; he was 20 years old. Major C M W Price reported that he had been shot, ‘.…. whilst leading his men in a gallant attack in Trones Wood……He was a splendid officer and a great favourite with us all.’ Gilbert has no known grave and is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial (Pier & Face, 5D & 6D) next to Thiepval village on the main Baupaume to Albert road.
Gilbert’s obituary in The Radleian of 28 October 1915 paints a picture of a quiet, dedicated and unassuming young man:
There is a place in the hearts of many of us for the quiet, courteous unselfish boy who was killed in action…he had risen to a position of authority [prefect] in the school and had gained the affection of many and the respect of all.
His parents donated a stained-glass window to the Chapel at Radley College dedicated to the memory of their son and his friend James Edward Hutton Freeman, Royal Flying Corps, whose home was in Walton-on-Thames; he was killed three months before Gilbert. It was unveiled on 28 July 1917. They also honoured the life of their young son in his home town with gifts to All Souls Chapel in St James’ Church of a silken flag of St George and the figure of St John in the Triptych. A beautiful Altar Service Book was also dedicated to his memory as well as a stone statue of St George on the south wall.
Their eldest son, Alexander, also served in the war as a Captain in the Royal Field Artillery; he survived to take over the family business. Winifred Muriel served with the Red Cross Voluntary Aid Detachment. Both parents remained in Weybridge until their deaths; Alexander in 1930 and Lizzie Bertha in 1935. Their name continues to resonate in Weybridge not only in the parish church, but in Whittets Ait, now a private island on the River Wey, close to Weybridge Lock.
Archives of Radley College, Oxfordshire
Oarsman Killed in Action, Globe, Friday, 21 July 1916
1913 Kelly’s Directory, UK, City and County Directories, 1766-1946, www.ancestry.co.uk
London, England, Church of England Marriages & Banns, 1754-1932, www.ancestry.co.uk
Gifts to All Souls Chapel, St James and St Michael and All Angels Parish Records, Surrey History Centre, 3204/10/8
Lt Jack Whittet, Surrey Advertiser, Saturday, 22 July 1916
Surrey, England, Church of England Baptisms, 1813-1912, www.ancestry.co.uk
University of London, OTC Roll of War Service, UK, Memorial Books WW1 & WW2, 1914-1945, https://archive.org/details/rollofwarservice00grea