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John Lawrence Whitham (1881–1952)

by Peter Burness

This article was published:

John Lawrence Whitham (1881-1952), by unknown photographer

John Lawrence Whitham (1881-1952), by unknown photographer

Australian War Memorial, H15840

John Lawrence Whitham (1881-1952), soldier, was born on 7 October 1881 at Jamalpur, Bengal, India, son of Lawrence Yates Whitham, a major in the Indian Army who brought his wife Ellen and family to Hobart in 1886 and joined the local police force. John worked as a clerk and in his spare time served in the volunteers from 1898.

In 1902 he went to the South African War as quartermaster sergeant of the Tasmanian company of the 3rd Battalion, Australian Commonwealth Horse. At the war's end he transferred to the South African Constabulary with whom he remained until 1904. He then served with the Tasmanian Senior Cadets and was commissioned lieutenant in 1908. In 1910 he embarked upon his full-time military career: commissioned lieutenant in the Administrative and Instructional Staff in July, he was posted to South Australia; in 1912 he was selected for duty on the staff of the inspector general; he was a captain when World War I began.

With the formation of the Australian Imperial Force, Whitham was given command of a company of the 12th Battalion. He embarked on 20 October 1914 and, after training in Egypt, landed with the battalion at Anzac on 25 April 1915. He led his company throughout the first day until he was wounded and evacuated. He rejoined the battalion in May, as a major and its second-in-command. In August he briefly commanded the battalion, but next month was invalided ill and did not return to Anzac.

In Egypt in February 1916 he was appointed deputy assistant adjutant and quartermaster general for the 2nd Australian Division. After crossing to France and following the Pozières operations, he was transferred to A.I.F. Headquarters staff as a lieutenant-colonel. In May 1917 he was given command of the 52nd Battalion, a unit formed partly from his old 12th Battalion. Several weeks later he led his battalion throughout the bloody fighting beyond Ypres, Belgium. Whitham's battalion was billeted near Locre, France, when the German 1918 offensive commenced. He assisted in having the brigade rushed south and on 3 April placed his men in a defensive position near Dernancourt. During the month the 52nd Battalion played a vital role in two of the most critical actions in which the Australians were engaged on the Western Front. He commanded the battalion when the Germans attacked at Dernancourt on 5 April and, twenty days later, led it in the counter-attack which recaptured Villers-Bretonneux. The repulse at these two points blunted the enemy's offensive and saved the city of Amiens.

In May the depleted 52nd Battalion was disbanded and Whitham was transferred to command the 49th. Next month he was sent as an instructor to the Senior Officers' School at Aldershot, England, and rejoined his command too late to lead it in battle before the war ended. He remained in France and England throughout 1919 as a liaison officer with British Army Headquarters. In 1920 he attended staff college at Camberley. On 12 April he married Olive Young, née Le Pays, a widow, at St John's parish church, Littlewick, Berkshire. They came to Australia in 1921. Between the wars Whitham was director of organization and personal services, and base commandant in Tasmania (1933-35), Queensland (1935-37) and Victoria (1937-39). Too old for active service in World War II, he commanded the Volunteer Defence Corps in Victoria. In 1944 he transferred to part-time duty and retired in 1946 as an honorary lieutenant-general.

A thoroughly professional soldier, both as a staff and a regimental officer, Whitham had been appointed C.M.G. in January 1916; following his work at Villers-Bretonneux in 1918 he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order. He was mentioned in dispatches three times. 'Tall and distinguished in appearance; courteous to the point of gentleness; dignified but lacking any trace of pomposity; stern … but … courteous', he was also described by Charles Bean as 'one of the nearest among Australian battalion commanders to Chaucer's “parfit gentil knight”'. General Whitham retired to Wahroonga, Sydney. Survived by his wife, he died of cancer on 12 May 1952 in Concord Repatriation Hospital and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • L. M. Newton, The Story of the Twelfth (Hob, 1925)
  • C. E. W. Bean, The A.I.F. in France, 1918 (Syd, 1937)
  • Reveille (Sydney), Feb 1939.

Citation details

Peter Burness, 'Whitham, John Lawrence (1881–1952)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 26 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (Melbourne University Press), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

John Lawrence Whitham (1881-1952), by unknown photographer

John Lawrence Whitham (1881-1952), by unknown photographer

Australian War Memorial, H15840