1914

WW1

Oliver Richard Whiting
1918

Oliver Richard Whiting

1897–1917

Black and white portrait photo of young man in suit.
Studio portrait of Oliver Richard Whiting, taken around 1914 when he joined the workforce of the Sydney Mint. He was a tall young man, 6’1” (185.5 cm) in height. Private collection
When the World War I honour roll was unveiled at the Sydney Branch of the Royal Mint in October 1920, just one of the seven names on the board was followed by the fateful words ‘killed in action’. The surname was one that had been associated with the Sydney Mint since its establishment in 1854.

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.

Bearded man, with bow tie and suit.
Richard Whiting (1829–1885), former corporal, Royal Engineers, and Foreman of the Melting Department of the Sydney Mint 1869–85. Private collection.
Bearded man in suit and tie.
Richard Thomas Whiting (1857–1948), Foreman of the Melting Department of the Sydney Mint 1904–18. Private collection
One of a collection of 7 loose photographs relating to the Sydney Mint.
The staff of the Sydney Branch of the Royal Mint, February 1879. Oliver Whiting’s father and grandfather are standing together in the back row, fourth and fifth from the right. There are two other father-and-son duos in the photograph. City Photo Co. Courtesy State Archives & Records NSW

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.

Letter written on 13 July 1917 to the Deputy Master & Comptroller of the Royal Mint, London, from the Deputy Master of the Royal Mint, Sydney, informing him that ‘Oliver Richard Whiting, Third Class Workman in this Branch’ had been reported killed in action. The letter mentions the Whiting family’s long association with the Sydney Mint.

Pictorial war news in the Sydney Mail, 1 August 1917. The main news images are flanked with small photographs of men recently killed in action, including Private O R Whiting of Chatswood, published under a confronting call to arms: ‘Fill up the gaps! More men wanted’. 

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.

No known grave

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.

  • 1. Australian Red Cross Society Wounded and Missing Enquiry Bureau Files, 1914–1918 War: 1DRL/0428, 2130, Private Percy Henry Sieman, 36th Battalion, Australian War Memorial.
  • 2. Ibid.
  • 3. Australian Red Cross Society Wounded and Missing Enquiry Bureau Files, 1914–1918 War: 1DRL/0428, Captain Francis John Piggott, 36th Battalion, Australian War Memorial.
Stark black and white photo of battlefield with river.
A view of the Douve River looking towards La Potterie farm south of the river between Ploegsteert Wood and Mesen (Messines) in Belgium, 11 November 1917. On the night of 10 June 1917, 200 men of the 36th Battalion formed up for an attack on a section of enemy line towards La Potterie. There they were caught by a German bombardment. Australian War Memorial EO1292

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

  • 4. ‘Where Australians rest. A gift for the bereaved’, The Argus, 29 November 1920, p6.
Where the Australians rest: a description of many of the cemeteries overseas in which Australians – including those whose names can never now be known – are buried. Booklet published in November 1920 by the Australian government for the next-of-kin of soldiers killed in action. Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection, Sydney Living Museums.