Charles Whitham

Born: 3 June 1888

Died: 6 October 1918

Studied at RCA: October 1912- 20 November 1915

Charles and his older sister Alice were the children of Charles Yates Whitham, a coal dealer, and his wife, Emily. Born and brought up in Harpurhey, Manchester, the 1911 census lists him as an art student living with his parents. By the time Charles won a national scholarship to the College in 1912, he had attended classes (some in the evening) at the Manchester School of Art, presumably at the same time as he was working as a lithographic printer, as noted on his College forms.

Just like many other students Charles wrote on these same forms the sensible dual objectives for studying: he wanted to be a ‘Specialist Decorative Designer, and teacher’ or ‘artist-craftsman and teacher’. Unfortunately, there is very little detail in his student file about his time at the College, although brief reports about each of the disciplines he had undertaken indicate he was both keen and capable.

After three years Charles gained his ARCA diploma in Painting in 1915 with later correspondence indicating that around this time ‘the Board’ (of Education) suggested an appointment to Vice-Principal at the recently established School of Art and Crafts, Lucknow. Instead he returned to his studies in the autumn with permission being granted to attend engraving classes on Friday and Saturday. Something, however, seems to have changed his mind in a matter of weeks: a note in his file stated he was a ‘Very able man indeed. Left 20.11.15 Joined the Army ‘.

Within a couple of months Charles had completed training with London University’s Officer Training Corps (OTC), becoming a Second Lieutenant (temporary) in January 1916 and beginning service with the 1/17th (Reserve) Battalion, London Regiment. In the summer he wrote to the College Registrar from the officer’s club at Tidworth Camp (now in Wiltshire) making it clear that he still wanted to take the full diploma ‘on my return’, apparently aware of other students in a similar position who had received official acknowledgement of their plans. But he was also anticipating embarkation for France, and, perhaps with this in mind, appears to have arranged for ‘Miss Flexen’ (Nellie) –  another student at the College  –  to collect a couple of his framed tiles from the Pottery.

His service file shows, however, that, for the time being, he remained this side of the Channel, and during the following year was able to use his background in art and design, becoming a camouflage instructor for the Territorial Forces, touring and lecturing  for the Southern Command. By March 1918 Charles, now a lieutenant, clearly wanted to use his experience and skills more directly, making a request to transfer to the Royal Engineers (camouflage section). On the face of it this seems an entirely reasonable request. But despite calling attention to the awards he had won in the past and his being designated a ‘First Class’ instructor, the army was far more interested  –  overwhelmingly by this time – in seeing manpower in terms of quantity rather than individual qualities. His file contains a curt note from a superior officer dismissing Charles’s request on the basis that ‘this officer is not required […] There are enough artists there [and] officers of actual active service experience are necessary and are found in France’. A more tactful, but equally negative, response was sent to Charles on behalf of the General Officer Commanding (GOC London).

During the late summer, Allied operations in Artois gained momentum, with Charles embarking some time in September for France simply as an additional officer, but still with the 1/ 17th battalion forming part of 140th Brigade in the 47th (2nd London) Division. Those in the division already in France had been preparing to leave for Italy, but plans were postponed. Instead they were set to prepare for operations near Lestrem, north of Bethune.

Charles is noted in a war diary entry on 20 September as ‘Subaltern of the day’ in charge of B company, undertaking routine activities behind the lines. But at the beginning of October the battalion moved towards the front line, somewhere near the Rue Tilleloy, close to the village of Laventie, ready to take over from the 1/19th Battalion of the London Regiment (141st Brigade) on 5 October.

At 1am that night clocks were put back an hour to establish ‘Winter Time’ with the war diary mentioning  –  providing no detail whatsoever – that in the following hours ‘an attempt was made to extend [the] Line to the Right, but the enemy was found to be holding that part of the line in force, and inflicted heavy casualties on the party attempting to carry out the operation’. Charles is noted as ‘killed’ along with three ordinary ranks (ORs), with a further eighteen ORs wounded. This differs somewhat from the statement in the University of London’s ‘Roll of Honour’ that Charles ‘was killed by a bomb while on patrol near Cambrai’  –  in reality many miles to the south.

Poignantly, among his few belongings returned to his family was an unopened letter to Nellie. But this was not the last correspondence retrieved from his very short time near and in the front line.  Two years after the war Charles’s father was advised that in a consignment of effects belonging to deceased ‘British officers and men’ (ordinary ranks) returned ‘by the German Government through diplomatic channels were certain letters in the name of the late Lieutenant Charles Whitham, London Regiment’, although no information could be supplied ‘regarding the circumstances of their recovery’. This suggests an explanation had already been sought by the authorities about where they had come from: after all it is unlikely that Charles would have carried a cache of letters with him during an operation, or that they would survive a bomb blast: the fact that they turned up also raises questions about what might actually have happened the night he died.

Charles’s body was not recovered. He is, however, commemorated on the Vis-en-Artois Memorial, Pas-de-Calais, France.

Student file – Royal College of Art Archive
Student file, Form 16 – Royal College of Art Archive
Student file, Form 16 – Royal College of Art Archive
Student file, Form 6 – Royal College of Art Archive
Student file – Royal College of Art Archive
Student file, Form 231 – Royal College of Art Archive
Student file – Royal College of Art Archive