Oliver Richard Whiting joined the permanent staff of the Mint as a third-class workman on 1 January 1914, at the age of 16. He came straight from school, having graduated from St Aloysius’ College, Milsons Point, with a fine academic record. His father, Richard Thomas Whiting (1857–1948), was foreman of the Melting Department at the Mint. He had joined the establishment at the age of 12 as a boy workman in 1869, and progressed through the ranks, from second-class to first-class workman, to second foreman of the Melting Department, and finally to foreman. Oliver’s grandfather, also Richard Whiting, had been part of the original detachment of Royal Engineers who had arrived in NSW from London in 1854 to establish the Sydney Mint. Corporal Whiting and his fellow sappers and miners were specially trained to assemble the prefabricated building components of the new Mint and then to serve as its industrial workforce.
Oliver Whiting enlisted in the First Australian Imperial Force (AIF) in March 1916, declaring his age to be 21 years and nine months, although he was barely 19. He was extremely keen to enlist and warned his family that he intended to put up his age. In any case, his father would have been well aware that Arthur Kilgour, one of his son’s workmates, had already done the same. He would have known, too, that another young man, the Mint Superintendent’s son Keith Colley, had just enlisted at the age of 18. Colley was a student, not a member of the Mint workforce, but he had been born at the Mint in November 1898 and had lived there all his life, with his parents and sisters, in official staff accommodation at the rear of the Mint site.
Whiting sailed for the front in September 1916. He arrived in England at the end of October, and then proceeded to France in December 1916 as part of the 2nd Reinforcements of the 36th Battalion. Over the next six months the 36th Battalion was mainly involved in minor defensive actions, and it was not until 7–14 June 1917 that it fought in its first major battle, at Messines (Mesen) in Flanders, not far from the Belgium–France border. Messines was an important success for the British Army leading up to the beginning of the Third Battle of Ypres several weeks later, and it was the first large-scale action involving Australian troops in Belgium.
Whiting was reported as killed in action on 9 June 1917, just a week shy of his twentieth birthday. News of the death was cabled to his family on 25 June 1917, and a family notice was published in The Sydney Morning Herald on 30 June 1917 stating simply that this dearly beloved ‘only son’ and ‘only brother’ was ‘killed in action, somewhere in France’. The news reached Arthur Kilgour and Sid Hoptroff, Whiting’s Mint comrades in France, on 29 July 1917. Kilgour wrote in his war diary that the news had ‘fairly stunned’ him.
A month after he had first received news of his son’s death, Richard Whiting wrote to the army seeking ‘any details’ about the circumstances, but none were available. In February 1918, Whiting senior, on sick leave from the Mint with ‘heart strain’, wrote again to the army authorities, this time asking about his son’s personal effects. He had heard from a soldier in France that the articles had been collected by the Red Cross.
Oliver Whiting has no known grave. It is only in the files created by the Wounded and Missing Enquiry Bureau of the Australian Red Cross that there is any reference to a possible place of burial. It is a passing reference in a file created about Private Percy Sieman of the 36th Battalion, killed in action on 10 June 1917. One eyewitness, whose service dossier records that he was himself wounded in action on 9 June, stated that ‘on June 10th 1917 P.H.Sieman was killed outright by a shell with Captain F. Piggott and Private Whiting, all were buried together where they fell ... It happened at Ploegsteet [sic] just off Messines’.1 Another witness reported that he saw both Sieman and Piggott killed by a shell at Messines Ridge and that Lieutenant Juleff of the 36th Battalion ‘buried them both in the Plugstreet [sic] Military Cemetery. I did not see the graves’.2 This second statement is annotated with the words ‘Whiting also buried’.
The Red Cross report for Captain Francis Piggott makes no reference to Whiting but complicates the story. One witness said that Piggott was killed at Messines Ridge on 10 June 1917, ‘a shell hit him and killed three or four others at the same time’.3 Another informant claimed to have buried Piggott in Ploegsteert Wood, about 100 yards from the Charing Cross dressing station, while yet another says that he was buried the day after he was killed at the back of the trench, on the right of Messines Ridge, and that there were many others buried there.
Piggott and Sieman are now both interred at Toronto Avenue Cemetery, Ploegsteert Wood, Belgium, along with 76 other Australian soldiers, two of them unidentified. Whiting’s name is one of some 56,000 inscribed on the Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres, all men without known graves. The memorial was completed in July 1927. By that time Richard Whiting had received a small package of his son’s effects, as well as his son’s Victory Medal, a Memorial Scroll and a bronze Memorial Plaque, sometimes referred to as the ‘Dead Man’s Penny’. He had also received, in April 1921, a brochure titled Where the Australians rest published in November 1920 by the Australian Government and ‘designed to bring comfort to relatives and friends of fallen soldiers of the Australian Imperial Force’.4