Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Whittle, John Woods (1882–1946)

by Stephen Allen

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

John Woods Whittle (1882-1946), by unknown photographer, c1919

John Woods Whittle (1882-1946), by unknown photographer, c1919

Australian War Memorial, P01383.014

John Woods Whittle (1882-1946), soldier, was born on 3 August 1882 at Huon Island, near Gordon, Tasmania, son of Henry Whittle, labourer, and his wife Catherine, née Sullivan. John enlisted as a private in Tasmania's 4th (2nd Imperial Bushmen) Contingent which reached South Africa on 24 April 1901, saw action in the Cape Colony and returned to Tasmania in June 1902. Soon after, he enlisted in the Royal Navy and served for five years as a stoker before joining the Permanent Military Forces. On 23 July 1909 at the archbishop's house, Hobart, he married with Catholic rites Emily Margaret Roland; they were to have six children.

Transferring to the Australian Imperial Force on 6 August 1915, Whittle was given the rank of acting corporal and in October sailed as a reinforcement for the 26th Battalion. By April 1916 he was in France with the 12th Battalion. Wounded in action on 18 June, he was promoted sergeant in October. Early in 1917 he was involved in the fighting during the German withdrawal to the Hindenburg line. At dawn on 27 February his battalion attacked the outpost villages of Le Barque and Ligny-Thilloy. On the left flank with Captain J. E. Newland's 'A' Company, Whittle bombed an enemy machine-gun post, forced the Germans to flee and won the Distinguished Conduct Medal.

The 12th Battalion carried out a diversionary attack on the village of Boursies on 9 April 1917; Whittle led his platoon in the initial assault. The Germans resisted fiercely and counter-attacked at 10 p.m. Whittle checked and steadied the forward posts until Newland came forward to organize the defence and regain lost ground. After a four-day spell out of the line, the battalion advanced close to Lagnicourt. At 4 a.m. on 15 April the enemy mounted a surprise counter-attack. 'A' Company was forced from its trenches to a sunken road where Newland and his men made a stand. Whittle saw the Germans bringing up a machine-gun. He 'rushed alone across the fire-swept ground', attacked the enemy with bombs before the weapon could be brought into action, killed the crew and captured the gun. For his heroism at Boursies and Lagnicourt he was awarded the Victoria Cross.

Wounded again during the German offensive of March 1918, and once more in late July, Whittle returned to Australia with other V.C. winners in October 1918 to take part in a planned recruiting drive. Following the Armistice, he was discharged on 15 December and lived in Sydney. He made a desperate plea in 1932: 'I have been trying to struggle on for some time, but the children are badly in need of boots and clothing for the winter, and I cannot get any work'. Within a month he was employed by the Western Assurance Co. On 7 February 1934 he saved a small boy from drowning in an ornamental pool in University Park; though Whittle departed without giving his name, the deed became widely known.

Survived by his wife, three daughters and a son, he died of a cerebral haemorrhage on 2 March 1946 at Glebe and was buried in Rookwood cemetery. Whittle and Newland were the only Australian V.C. winners of World War I to have been permanent servicemen before the war. One of Whittle's sons, Ivan Ernest, had joined the A.I.F. and was killed in September 1943 when a bomber crashed into the 2/33rd Battalion marshalling area near Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea.

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Defence Department, Official Records of the Australian Military Contingents to the War in South Africa, P. L. Murray ed (Melb, 1911)
  • L. M. Newton, The Story of the Twelfth (Hob, 1925)
  • C. E. W. Bean, The A.I.F. in France, 1917 (Syd, 1933)
  • L. Wigmore (ed), They Dared Mightily (Canb, 1963)
  • Reveille (Sydney), 1 Apr 1946, 1 Jan 1969
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 28 Aug 1918
  • Argus (Melbourne), 12 Oct 1918.

Citation details

Stephen Allen, 'Whittle, John Woods (1882–1946)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/whittle-john-woods-9088/text16023, published in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 19 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

John Woods Whittle (1882-1946), by unknown photographer, c1919

John Woods Whittle (1882-1946), by unknown photographer, c1919

Australian War Memorial, P01383.014