Charles Rufus Whitehead was born on 21st May 1894, the second child of William Edward Whitehead, a hosier, and Florence nee Harper. His parents had married in 1892 in Lewisham District. The bans give their respective addresses as 195, Mile End Road for William and 74, Whitbread Road in Brockley (Lewisham) for Florence. The couple had another son before Charles, named Philip.
Both boys were born in Stepney. The first daughter, Maud(e) Winifred, was born in Mile End on 16th March 1896. Charles Rufus was baptised with her on 25th April 1897, not in the Mile End area where the family had settled (18, Gainsborough Road), but in St Mary, Lewisham, where the mother was from. They were still at the Mile End address in 1901 and Charles Rufus probably attended a nearby school. Ten years later, they had moved to 89, Salehurst Road in Crofton Park, Brockley. There were two more children in the family : Ena Mary Beatrice born in Greenwich in 1906 and Marjorie Florence Helen born at the end of 1909 or beginning of 1910 in Lewisham. So it seems the family moved often but to the same South-East London area, once they left Mile End.
William Edward was born in Chatham. He described himself as a hosier assistant in the 1901 census but had become a hosiery manager by 1911. His 2 sons were already working at that time, Philip as a solicitor’s clerk and Charles Rufus as a junior clerk when he was only 16.
Charles Whitehead enlisted at Westminster a few months after the outbreak of the war. He was a private in the 6th Battalion of the Northamptonshire Regiment with regimental number was 12737. His service records have not survived the Blitz but he was a prolific letter writer and his niece Cynthia Griffith has shared the following:
“His regiment were sent for a few months training from where he wrote home sending postcards and letters. Then they are sent to France where he tells of Billets in Cow sheds shared with sheep and cows, and going to buy Milk and eggs at the farm.
When they get to the front line they are set to digging trenches. He tells of the problem of rats. His letters are always cheerful he asks his mother to send him boiled sweets and writing paper. He has a girl friend Daisy”.
The Northamptonshire Regiment was one of the New Army Regiments and was formed in Northampton in September 1914. It was part of the 2nd hundred thousand of Kitchener’s army, otherwise known as “K2”. It was attached to the 18th (Eastern) Division. It moved to Colchester in November 1914 and transferred to the 54th Brigade in the same 18th Division. In May 1915, the Regiment moved to Salisbury Plain. Two months later, on 26th July 1915, the Regiment landed in France and was concentrated near Flesselles. At this time, although not being involved in any great battles, the Regiment was losing men daily through sniping and shellfire.
That is where Charles Rufus Whitehead met his death, killed in action on 15th September 1915, age 21. His niece tells us:
“After being in France only six weeks he is shot and killed. Only then when letters of condolence from his officer’s are received are we aware that “because of his prowess with a rifle he was trained to be a sniper”. Captain Podmore wrote a very long letter to my Grandma saying ‘how his comrades would miss him with his continual cheerfulness with which he met every discomfort’. The Captain had been a Housemaster at Rugby School. They buried him at a small cemetery by Fricourt and laid wreaths and took photos which they sent to my Grandma. Cameras were banned later on for the sake of security!”
On the medal roll, it shows that he received the 1915 Star, the Victory Medal and the British War Medal. He is buried on the Somme at Fricourt in Point 110 Old Military Cemetery.
One week before he died, Charles had written home to his mother:
12737 15 Platoon
D. Coy 6th Northants Regt
My Dear Ma
Thanks awfully for Paper & Novel received safely with letter. I was surprised to hear that you hadn’t received my letter which I sent to you last week. Fancy them letting Phil send Post Cards home, but I suppose it doesn’t matter so much now he has left those places, we can buy P.Cs here, so I think I shall start saving some up.
We are now in the reserve dug-outs waiting our turn to move up, but save for the noise of our own Artillery close by, we don’t hear much here.
We had an Aeroplane dual over-head the other day and you could distinctly hear them firing the machine Guns at each other, but after a short scuffle it finished by the German turning tail and flying back to its own lines as hard as it could, but dropping gradually all the while.
Of course it is not always healthy to stand watching them shell an Aeroplance directly overhead, as chunks of shell have a bad habit of dropping heavily.
We had a German sniper in Khaki, in between our lines and he had accounted for about a dozen chaps and it was practically impossible to get at him with rifle fire, so they marked his hole and one night they took an 18 “pounder” up, and blew him and his hole sky-wards, so you can guess that merchant didn’t worry us again.
Yes, Ma, I should be glad to have your photo also the youngsters as I have Winnie’s and Phil’s, but not yours.
The chaps here often speak about when this war’s over and wonder what it would be like if they woke up one morning and heard that peace had been declared, but there you are. I don’t think it will be long before you hear one day that things have moved a bit in the Western Front.
Well Ma, I must wind up now, hoping that You, Pa and the youngsters are all quite well.
I Remain Your very Affec Son
One week later, on the day he died, Charles wrote his very last letter home:
12737 15 Platoon
D. Coy 6th Northants Regt
My Dear Ma
I have to thank you very much for sending me, that very fine parcel, which I received quite safely, also for enclosing Phil’s letter and Win’s card and that muffler which will come in very handy now, as it gets rather cold of a night time.
I will have to play on your generosity again Ma, to ask you to send a few envelopes and paper again as I have run out completely. I daresay Daisy told you she sends me the Sun Pictorial now, so you will be able to let Phil have it each week. I am writing to him to-day, only I was waiting to get his letter, so I could answer it.
How are you feeling Ma, I hope and trust that you, Pa and everyone at home are quite well and not worrying about us as I am sure we shall both come home again quite safely.
Thanks for your Diary. I’ll start work at once, have you received that letter I sent you, thanking you for the Papers, it was in a green envelope.
We are in the support dug-out, but except for plenty of fatigues, such as road digging etc it is pretty well quiet. Our worst enemy at present are rats, they ate a hole in my valise last night while using it as a pillow and if we happen to leave our dug-out for a short time, you will find about forty (rats not dug-outs) when we get back and then comes the excitement, bricks, rifle butts and bayonets being well to the fore.
Fancy Pa meeting Uncle Phil outside the Arsenal, I suppose he’s volunteered for War Work, have they been round our place after the Census.
Well Ma, I suppose I must draw my already short letter to a close, thanking you again for your generous parcel, hoping that you are feeling quite well.
I Remain Your very Affec Son
P.S. I am feeling quite well and fit myself
Yours Ever Charlie
All Charles’ letters to his parents were addressed to 93 Salehurst Road, Crofton Park, Brockley, London.
Charles’ brother, Staff Sergeant Philip Whitehead, First Surrey Rifles and awarded the Military Medal, was killed the following year on 13th September 1916 at the age of 23. Shortly after Philip’s death the family moved to 3 Bournewood Viillas, Upper Wickham Lane, Welling and lived there for the next 5 years.
In 1920-1921, the East Wickham War Memorial Committee added Charles’ name on their first draft of names for their war memorial, only to cross it out later. It is now clear that this is because Charles himself didn’t live in Welling,
In 1917 Charles’ sister Winnifred married an Australian soldier who had been ‘wounded out’ and emigrated to Australia. His father, William, died of stomach cancer in 1919 and in 1921 Charles’ mother and two remaining sisters left Welling and emigrated to Australia.
This story has been researched by volunteers. We have taken every effort to ensure its accuracy. If you are related to this soldier, or if you have any further information, please do get in touch. We are very grateful to Cynthia Griffith, the niece of Charles and Philip, for providing the photos and letters, much of the personal family history and the proof that Charles never lived in Welling, but that his family moved to Welling the year following his death.
Commemorated at Home
The Trust included Charles Whitehead on the online war memorial as his family had links to the local area and he was included in the tablet in the Memorial Hall. As we found no direct link for him to East Wickham or Welling we will not be adding his name to the East Wickham and Welling War Memorial. He is commemorated on the war memorial at St Hilda Church, Lewisham.
Lewisham War Memorials
Commonwealth War Graves Commission cwgc.org/find-war-dead/casualty/75195814/WHITEHEAD,%20CHARLES%20RUFUS