- Name: Thomas WHITHAM
- D.O.B: 11th May, 1888
- D.O.A: 31st Jul, 1917
- D.O.D: 22nd Oct, 1924
- Award: Victoria Cross
- Occupation at time of action: Private, 1st Battalion Coldstream Guards, 2nd Guards Brigade
- Book: The Complete History - Volume 2
The Ypres Salient, Belgium 31 July-1 August 1917
July-1 August 1917
The First World War 1917
On 31 July 1917, General Haig launched the Third Battle of Ypres, now better known as Passchendaele after its final stages. British troops attacked along the whole fifteen-mile length of the Ypres Salient from Steenstraat in the north to Frelinghien, across the French border, in the south. However, the main thrust was north-east towards Passchendaele. To the north of Ypres, at the northern end of the British line, units of the 2nd and 3rd Guards Brigades advanced east from the Yser towards the Steenbeek, a stream that ran north-west beyond the Pilkem Ridge, the northern end of the semi-circle of high ground that provided the Germans with a view over the entire Salient. The preliminary artillery barrage had left many German pillboxes unscathed. At Wood 15, north-east of Boezinge and north-west of Pilkem,Sergeant R J Bye, 1st Battalion The Welsh Guards, put one of these out of action, and then as the Guards advanced a whole succession of further pillboxes. 1st Battalion Coldstream Guards reached the third and rear line of German trenches, the ‘Green Line’ at Fourche and Captain’s Farms on Groenestraat, which ran north-west, roughly parallel with the Steenbeek. Private T Whitham assisted the advance by capturing an enemy machine-gun. Further to the south, 13th (S) Battalion The Royal Welsh Fusiliers was one of the five battalions from this regiment to take part in the attack on Pilkem Ridge. They met heavy opposition at Pilkem village, near the northern end of the ridge, and Corporal J L Davies captured one pillbox and led a successful attack on another built in the ruins of Corner House. The ridge was captured and British troops swept down to the Steenbeek, which they then began to cross. A few hundred yards from the eastern bank, the Germans had fortified an inn, Au Bon Gîte, on the Pilkem road south-west of Langemark. Sergeant I Rees, 11th Battalion The South Wales Borderers, was instrumental in the capture of this position. Unfortunately, a German counterattack eventually forced the British to withdraw to the west bank of the Steenbeek. About one and a half miles to the south-east was the village of St Julien, which lay astride the Steenbeeck. The northern part of the sector stretching south towards this was assigned to 51st Division. Sergeant A Edwards, 1/6th Battalion The Seaforth Highlanders, and Private G I McIntosh, 1/6th Battalion The Gordon Highlanders, distinguished themselves in charging and capturing enemy machine-gun posts. The Seaforths actually managed to cross the Steenbeek but were ordered to withdraw and consolidate on the west bank of the stream. South of 51st Division, 39th Division was detailed to capture St Julien itself and progress beyond it. Second Lieutenant D G W Hewitt commanded a company of 14th (Service) Battalion The Hampshire Regiment. When his unit reached the second German line, in front of St Julien, he was injured by a shell which ignited the signal lights he was carrying but urged his men on before being killed in the subsequent fighting. On the right flank of 39th Division, 55th Division, which included 2/5th Battalion The Lancashire Fusiliers, and 1/4th Battalion The King’s Own Royal (Lancaster) Regiment (see Lance Sergeant T F Mayson), advanced from Wieltje and crossed the Steenbeek, just south-east of St Julien. Led by Temporary Lieutenant Colonel B Best-Dunkley, the Lancashires captured a number of German positions including Spree Farm, where he set up his headquarters. The British had met murderous fire and become disorganized. Also taking command of remnants of 1/8th Battalion The Liverpool Regiment, Best-Dunkley urged his men forward, but their advance could not be sustained. Best-Dunkley was, for a time, driven out of Spree Farm by a German counter-attack but managed to recapture it. He died of wounds some days later. Further south still and almost due east of Ypres, 24th Brigade, which included 2nd Battalion The Northamptonshire Regiment, was detailed to attack Bellewaerde Ridge, beyond Hooge. During the assault Captain T R Colyer-Fergusson, with a small group including Sergeant W G Boulding and his orderly Private B Ellis, gained a foothold in a German trench and successfully fought off a counter-attack. Colyer-Fergusson, assisted only by Ellis, then captured an enemy machine-gun. Later, assisted only by Boulding, he attacked and captured another. While directing the construction of forward posts, he was killed by a sniper. Boulding and Ellis were awarded the DCM for their part in the action. 25th Brigade was ordered to carry the advance forward from Westhoek Ridge, just beyond Bellewaerde and cross the Hanebeek, a branch of the Steenbeek, west of Zonnebeke. The Brigade encountered very heavy German fire and though some troops managed to cross the stream, eventually they were forced to withdraw to Westhoek Ridge. The Germans then counter-attacked and it was for his gallant conduct in maintaining the British line at this point that Brigadier General C Coffin was awarded the VC. Meanwhile, 53rd Brigade (see Captain H Ackroyd) was detailed to capture Polygon Wood which lay east of the Hanebeek between Zonnebeke and Gheluvelt. To the west of Polygon Wood lay Glencourse Wood, which the British mistakenly believed they had already captured. 6th Battalion The Royal Berkshire Regiment had been supposed to form up in Glencourse Wood, but instead found itself fighting by the Menin road in front of the Wood. It suffered very heavy casualties and was withdrawn from the line the following day.
For most conspicuous bravery when, during an attack, an enemy machine gun was seen to be enfilading the battalion on the right. Pte. Witham, on his own initiative, immediately worked his way from shell-hole to shell-hole through our own barrage, rushed the machine gun, and, although under a very heavy fire, captured it, together with an officer and two other ranks. The bold action on the part of Pte. Witham was of great assistance to the battalion on the right, and undoubtedly saved many lives and enabled the whole line to advance.