Major Wilfred Robert Whitson

Biography of Major Wilfred Robert Whitson

Wilfred Robert Whitson was born on 30th May 1887. He enrolled as a student of engineering at the Glasgow and West of Scotland Technical College, later known as the Royal Technical College, now the University of Strathclyde, in session 1904-1905. The student register records his first name as ‘Wilfrid’, and indicates that he was then living at 7 Windsor Quadrant in Glasgow. Wilfred took an evening class in Mathematics, and day classes in Dynamics, Experimental Physics, Electrical Engineering Laboratory, Electrical Engineering Lectures, and Mechanics, gaining second class certificates of merit for the latter two classes. Two of his brothers, Ralph A. Whitson and Ernest J. Whitson, also attended the College. Wilfred did not take any further classes there, but went on to graduate with a BSc from the University of Glasgow in 1910.

In 1909, it was reported that he was to be 2nd Lieutenant in the 9th Battalion Highland Light Infantry but little is known of his military activities between 1909 and 1915. By 1915, he was already serving as Captain with the 9th (Glasgow Highland) Battalion, Highland Light Infantry also known as the Glasgow Highlanders. Their military dress set them apart from the rest of the Highland Light Infantry as they wore kilts rather than trousers.

According to Shoulder to Shoulder by Colonel A. K. Reid, which provides a first-hand account of the movements of the 9th Battalion from 1914-1918, on June 2nd 1915, the 9th relieved the 2nd Highland Light Infantry at the Vermelles front in France. Reid commented that the weather was good and trenches were in good condition leading the men to think ‘that it was not such a bad war after all’. However, orders were given to patrol no man’s land and to dig a more advanced line, which had the unfortunate outcome of fatiguing the men.

Despite this, the men were given regular periods of rest and they took the opportunity to organise their own concerts for the troops, the first of which took place at the Bethune Theatre in July 1915. Though their is no mention of Wilfred taking part in this first concert, he was known to have performed a popular music hall song written and composed by Arthur Wimperis & Herman Finck in 1914 and recorded by Basil Hallam who was killed in action at the Somme in 1916. Wilfred was given high praise for his performance of this song at the second concert given at the same theatre in August, with Reid highlighting in Shoulder to Shoulder that ‘When they came on to sing in the chorus of Capt. Wilfred Whitson’s song “Gilbert the Filbert the Colonel of the Knuts” the audience nearly took the roof off the house’. The song itself is a cheeky number, which, if performed well, would most certainly rouse the troops:

I'm Gilbert the Filbert the Knut with a K
The pride of Piccadilly the blasé roué
Oh Hades, the ladies, who leave their wooden huts
For Gilbert the Filbert the Colonel of the Knuts.

Alec Weir in his 2013 book Come on Highlanders! noted that in happier times Wilfred was even known by the nickname “Gilbert the Filbert”, but this was not to last. Though the summer had been somewhat ‘uneventful’, Reid describes how, on the 29th September 1915, the Glasgow Highlanders marched to the front line at Givenchy. Wilfred's brother Harold White Whitson, who was serving as 2nd lieutenant with the 2nd Battalion Highland Light Infantry had already been killed in action at Givenchy on the 25th September.

On the 1st July 1916, the Glasgow Highlanders were at the front at La Bassée, but a surprise attack in the dark on the 14th July led to orders being made that the Highlanders should march to Flatiron Copse and dig in front of the enemy's position. ‘A’ company was led by Captain T.H.H. Warren , while Wilfred led ‘B’ company to the edge of the wood near to the enemy's position. The plan seemed to be going well, but when the two companies were half way to the position, they came under heavy fire, which wounded Captain Warren. Wilfred made the decision not the advance the companies as this would lead to many more casualties and ordered the men to lie down.

Wilfred would once again be show his ability to take command later that year. On the 1st November 1916, while the Glasgow Highlanders were occupying the trenches south-east of Lesboeufs, their much-loved officer in command Colonel Stormonth Darling was killed by a sniper. Wilfred assumed temporary command, finishing the plan of attack that Darling had already begun planning for the following afternoon. Conditions at these trenches were horrendous and with the loss of Darling the men's morale plummeted. Wilfred reported to General Baird describing the impaired physical conditions of his men, many of them were laid up with trench foot or suffering from exhaustion. However, the response he received from the general did not prompt much relief. Though Baird sympathised with the men particularly after the loss of ‘the best commanding officer a unit ever had’ he merely encouraged that they have the ‘determination to win through’. Unfortunately, the planned attack failed and by the following evening Major John Menzies who had now reached the battalion assumed command. As a testament to the love the men had for their fallen commander, a party of volunteers remained behind to retrieve and return Colonel Darling’s body home to Britain.

Despite the failed attack, Wilfred was promoted to Major and attached as second in command to 9th Battalion, Suffolk Regiment in August 1917. The 9th Suffolks fought during the opening day of the Battle of Cambrai on 20th November, where 150 prisoners were captured. However, on the 30th November 1917 the enemy attacked the British line penetrating to Gouzeaucourt. It was during this assault that Wilfred was killed in action.

While Wilfred Whitson’s family memorial states that he was attached to the 2nd Battalion Highland Light Infantry, there is no evidence that this is true. His brother Harold was attached to the 2nd, which perhaps suggests a misprint on the memorial. His father, Alexander Whitson applied for both sons (Harold and Wilfred) to receive the Star Medal for their service during the campaign in France or Belgium between 5 August and 22 November 1914. He was awarded this alongside the Victory Medal and the British Medal. This suggests that Whitson was one of the first officers to serve at the outbreak of the Great War.Major Wilfred Robert Whitson is also remembered on the Roll of Honour of the Royal Technical College of Glasgow and University of Glasgow.

Summary

Major Wilfred Robert Whitson
Rank: Major
Regiment: Highland Light Infantry
Degree: BSc
Awards: N/A
Comments: Killed in action 30 November 1917
Note/Press Clipping: Ch 4/4/2/3/909, 1261
Photo ID: N/A

Sources

Commonwealth War Graves Commission record

‘9th (Glasgow Highland) Battalion, Highland Light Infantry’ London Gazette June, 22 1909, London, p. 4771.

Highland Light Infantry Chronicle, January 1915, John Horn Ltd; 1915, ‘Roll of Honour’ Evening Times, Glasgow.

1988, Reid, A. K. Shoulder to Shoulder The Glasgow Highlanders: 9th. Bn. Highland Light Infantry 1914 -1918, Ed. Alec Aiken, Unpublished history of the Glasgow Highlanders in the First World War

Gilbert the Filbert - Basil Hallam. [online] Available at: http://monologues.co.uk/musichall/Songs-G/Gilbert-The-Filbert.htm

2005, Weir, A. Come on Highlanders! Thrupp, Stroud, Gloucestershire: Sutton Pub.

1916, Highland Light Infantry Chronicle, January 1916, John Horn Ltd.

British Army WWI Medal Rolls Index Cards, 1914-1920 for W R Whitson [online] Available at: www.ancestry.co.uk

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