b. 19/10/1894 Mitcham, Surrey. d. 13/09/1974 Wellington, Shropshire.
William Allison “Chalky” White (1894-1974) was born at 5 Lavender Walk, Mitcham on 19th October 1894, and was the middle child of Samuel and Eliza White. The couple had also had two daughters - Martha and Charlotte. William's mother was Irish. His father, Samuel was born in Lancashire but appears to have moved south to find work and was employed as a Market Gardener's labourer. He may have worked at the Mizen brother’s nursery in the Eastfields area of Mitcham, or for the Dutriez family who grew watercress at Willows Farm. By 1901 Samuel had changed his occupation and was working as a printer.
Prior to the war, William was living with his uncle in Ramsden Dock Rd, Barrow in Furness and was working as an Apprentice Ship Plater.
During the First World War, he initially served in the King’s Own Royal Lancaster Regiment (possibly in deference to his father’s ancestry.) He appears to have risen through the ranks, ultimately becoming a sergeant, before being transferred to the Machine Gun Corps in 1918.
The British army adopted the Vickers gun as its principle machine gun in 1912, replacing the older Maxim gun. Water-cooled, the Vickers had a 250 round fabric belt and was capable of firing 600 rounds per minute, over a distance of some 4,500 yards. Unlike the Lewis gun, which fired in short bursts, the Vickers could be fired continuously for long periods and was considered a highly reliable weapon.
A Vickers team consisted of six men, as the gun equipment was two weighty for one man to carry. The gun alone weighed 28.5 lbs, its water cooling jacket added a further 10lbs and the tripod, on which the gun was mounted, weighed 20 lbs. Team duties were split, with two men carrying the equipment, two carrying the hefty ammunition belts, while the remaining pair could act as substitutes in the event of machine malfunction or unit casualties.
Part of the infantry, by far the largest contingent of the Corps, William would initially have served in a Branch unit (either the 114th or 115th company.) These troops were trained to use the Vickers machine gun at the Grantham Training Centre, Lincolnshire, or Clipstone Camp, near Mansfield, Nottinghamshire. In March 1918, the 114 and 115th Machine Gun Companies were assigned to the 38th (Welsh) Division, (part of the fourth army, or K4.)
Machine Gun Battalions were formed in June 1918 and numbered according to their Division. William White was henceforth a member of the 38th Battalion, Machine Gun Corps, under the command of Major General C G Blackader. He served as Acting Sergeant, before receiving a commission as Temporary Second Lieutenant. The majority of commissioned officers came from wealthy, high status backgrounds. It was possible for working-class men to rise through the ranks on merit, however they were often granted a “temporary,” rather than a full commission. By the end of the war, William's skill and bravery under fire had resulted in promotion to the rank of Captain.
By the autumn of 1918, William's unit was already battle-hardened. It had fought in a number of key battles on the Western Front, including the Battle of Ancre (5 April 1918), the Battle of Albert (21-23 August 1918), the Second Battle of Bapaume (31 August - 3 September 1918), the Battle of Havrincourt (12 September 1918) and the Battle of Epehy (18 September 1918.)
In mid September, William was to perform an act of valour for which he was awarded the Victoria Cross. On 18th September 1918 at Gouzeaucourt, France, when the advance was held up by enemy machine-guns, Second Lieutenant White rushed a gun position single-handed, shot the three gunners and captured the gun. Later he attacked a gun position accompanied by two men, both of whom were immediately shot down. He went on alone to the gun, killing the team and capturing the gun. On a third occasion when the advance was again held up this officer collected a small party and rushed the position, inflicting heavy losses on the garrison. Subsequently he consolidated the position by the skilful use of captured enemy and his own machine-guns.
William received his medal from King George V on 27th March, 1919. In 1921 he married Violet Price and the couple were together for 35 years until her death. During the Second World War, he was commissioned as a Captain in the Royal Artillery, Territorial Army.
William died on 13th September, 1974 at his family home in Wellington, Shropshire. He was cremated at Emstrey Crematorium, Shrewsbury, his ashes were later interred in his wife's grave at St.John’s Churchyard, Hildenborough, Kent. William’s medal group including the VC, British War Medal 1914-20, Victory Medal 1914-19 + MiD Oakleaf, Territorial Force War Medal 1914-19, Defence Medal 1939-45, War Medal 1939-45, King George VI Coronation Medal 1937, Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Medal 1953, Territorial Efficiency Medal 1921, and Efficiency Decoration were sold at auction in London at Buckland, Dix and Wood in 1993 to Michael Ashcroft and are now displayed in the Ashcroft Gallery, Imperial War Museum, London.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: LORD ASHCROFT GALLERY, IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUM, LONDON.
BURIAL PLACE: ST JOHN THE EVANGELIST CHURCH, HILDENBOROUGH, KENT. GRAVE 506.
(HE WAS CREMATED AT EMSTEY CREMATORIUM, SHREWSBURY. HIS ASHES WERE INTERRED IN HIS WIFE'S GRAVE).
William White's medals including VC on display at the Lord Ashcroft Gallery, Imperial War Museum, London
Freemasons Memorial, London (Brian Drummond)
Mitcham War Memorial
White's renovated gravestone courtesy of Steve Davies