Remebering Private Thomas Whitham: VC Hero who died in Poverty

Private Thomas Whitham was born in Burnley on the 11th of May 1888. He was one of seven Children brought up by Catherine Witham, who lost her husband when Thomas was only young. The family lived in Worsthorne, a small village in the borough of Burnley. Thomas trained as a mason and bricklayer in Burnley initially working for a local form before joining his brothers building firm, also based in Burnley.

Pte Thomas Whitham VC

A man of quiet disposition and imposing stature, Thomas immediately answered the call to arms and was enlisted in the Coldstream Guards in February 1915. He was posted to the first battalion and sent to France, becoming a respected and popular member of his battalion, being described by one of his colleagues as “one of the finest and bravest men in the army of heroes.” He also had several lucky escapes. On one occasion he was lost for three days, and officially reported missing, but was found by the Irish Guards. Even more miraculously, on another occasion he went out to look for a missing sergeant and left his kit bag behind in the trench. He had only got a short distance away when a German shell landed in the trench and exploded; no trace of his kit bag was ever found.  

On the 31st of July 1917 he was serving with his platoon in Pilkem, Belgium when a German machine gun got into a position where it was able to fire on the Battalion to the right of Thomas’. Without hesitation Thomas fought hi was from shell hole to shell hole until he was in a position to rush the machine gun. Under heavy fire Private Whitham and three other men were able to silence the machine gun. He was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions on the 6th of September 1917.

Thomas was one of four brothers serving in the army. His Brother Willie, with whom he worked as a builder was in training with the Royal Engineers at the time; John was in the Coldstream Guards serving as a military policeman, and Harry was serving with the Royal Field Artillery in France. He was married and had three children. Tragically during his one period of leave in October 1916 the family lost their eldest son aged just eight years old.

Thomas Whitham Sixt Form Burnley

Thomas died of Peritonitis in 1924 aged just 36. He passed away in Hospital in Oldham, leaving behind his wife and six children. He had fallen on hard times, and was out of work, having to sell his Victoria Cross just to earn a little money. While in hospital he also received gifts from the people of Oldham. A Sixth Form College in Burnley is named after him, and the Coldstream guards have funded plaques in his memory.

From Private to Major: The Rise of Hugh Colvin VC

Hugh Colvin

Hugh Colvin was born to Scottish parents on the 18th of March 1887 in Burnley Lancashire. His Father, also Hugh, was a Gardener, and Hugh himself was sent off to work as Gardeners apprentice in Lancaster as a teenager. Hugh was one of four Children; his older sister Margaret was born in Scotland in 1885; his younger sister Mary was also born in Scotland in 1890, and Brother Thomas, the youngest child was born in Stockport in 1894.

At the turn of the century the Colvin’s were living in Stockport in Cheshire, Hugh now aged 14 was working as a hat packer at the Battersby Hat Works in the town, along with older sister Margaret who was working as a felt trimmer. In 1908, Hugh, now living in Belfast joined the 8th (Royal Irish) Hussars reaching the rank of Lance Corporal before returning England at the outbreak of war in 1914.

The same year Hugh was sent to France with the 8th Hussars, and proved himself to be a brilliant soldier, eventually earning himself a commission for “good soldiering” in April 1916. He was attached to the Cheshire Regiment as a Second-Lieutenant and excelled as an officer just as he had as a soldier, becoming a trusted and respected leader, and on the 6th of November 1917 he was awarded the Victoria Cross. The Citation Read:

“His Majesty the KING has been graciously pleased to approve of the award of the Victoria Cross to the undermentioned:- Second Lieutenant Hugh Colvin, Cheshire Regiment.

For most conspicuous bravery in attack. On 20th September 1917 east of Ypres, Belgium, when all the officers of his company except himself – and all but one in the leading company – had become casualties and losses were heavy, he assumed command of both companies and led them forward under heavy machine-gun fire with great dash and success.

He saw the battalion on his right held up by machine-gun fire and led a platoon to their assistance. Second Lieutenant Colvin then went on with only two men to a dug-out. Leaving the men on top, he entered it alone and brought up fourteen prisoners. He then proceeded with his two men to another dug-out which had been holding up the attack by rifle and machine-gun fire and bombs.

This he reached and , killing or making prisoners of the crew, captured the machine-gun. Being then attacked from another dug-out by fifteen of the enemy under an officer, one of his men was killed and the other wounded. Seizing a rifle he shot five of the enemy, and, using another as a shield, he forced most of the survivors to surrender.

This officer cleared several other dug-outs alone or with one man, taking about fifty prisoners in all. Later he consolidated his position with great skill, and personally wired his front under heavy close range sniping in broad daylight, when all others had failed to do so.

The complete success of the attack in this part of the line was mainly due to Second Lieutenant Colvin’s leadership and courage.”

For his actions Colvin was also promoted to Lieutenant and remained with the Cheshire regiment for the remainder of the war, reaching the Rank of Captain. Colvin spent the remainder of his career as a recruiting officer and was promoted to the Rank of Major, working in Liverpool and Preston retiring in 1947 at the age of 60. He died in 1962 at the age of 75, and in 1963 his Nephew, also Hugh Colvin, Presented hi Victoria Cross to the Cheshire Regiment.