I had never met this man but I knew a great deal about him. He was an ordinary bloke, much like any other, yet I had travelled far to visit him. He had been born and raised in Norwich, the son of a lawyer, had gone on to work for a bank in London and had attended services at the same church as me, which is how I had come to know him. He, though, knew nothing of me. He was Second Lieutenant Thomas Whitty of the Norfolk Regiment, killed in action on 5 October 1916, and I was standing at his grave in Connaught Cemetery, Thiepval in Northern France
Connaught Cemetery stands beside the small road leading from the Thiepval Memorial to the Ulster Tower. With over a thousand graves, it is just one of several hundred war cemeteries which stand in the pleasant, bucolic landscape of the Somme. It had taken me a while to find Thomas Whitty’s grave, which was in the middle of a row towards the far side of the cemetery. He did not stand out in the crowd. Now that I had found him, it was as if I had passed someone I knew on the streets: I wanted to stop and have a chat. I sat down for a while, and read over – yet again – the letters, obituaries and records which had revealed to me the details of his life.
Whitty’s headstone showed that he was 27 when he was killed – the same age I was when I made my visit. At home, he had walked the same streets as me and had sat in the same pews. His time in France, however, could not have been more different.
I had been driving around the area in fair comfort, along well built and relatively empty roads. Thomas Whitty and his platoon, by contrast, had once found a trench to be so full of mud that, rather than use it, they decided to sprint across a turnip field instead. They were spotted by the Germans and, Whitty wrote, he never covered 150 yards quicker in his life than he did then.
I was travelling on a bright blue sunny day, happy to be spending some time away from work. Whitty was in France to wage war. On 5 October 1916, he was in command of a party of troops in an attack made in heavy rain and mist against a well-fortified German position. He was leading and encouraging his men when he was shot by an enemy sniper and lost on the field of battle.
My ticket home was booked. I had my phone with me, and I was easily within reach of my friends and family. I also had with me a typed copy of a letter to the war office written by Charlotte Whitty following the news that her son Thomas had been reported killed. It tells of the anguish of a mother not knowing what had become of her son. She questions the accuracy of the reports of Thomas’ death, wondering if the man reported to have witnessed it “might be mistaken?” She asks if the attack had been successful and, accepting that she knows nothing about the necessities of war, she laments the “cruel waste” of sending men out in such conditions.
Our lives had been a century – and a world – apart, but here we were together for just a short moment. Suddenly I realised my good fortune that the situation had not been the other way about; that it had not fallen to me to lead the troops into that attack and to Whitty to make the visit a hundred years later. I stood up and started to wander around the cemetery. Walking up and down the ranks of headstones, I read the names of other servicemen who had fallen in these fields and marvelled that they had given so much, so young. Eventually I came back to my car, and taking one more look at Whitty and his comrades who stand forever like soldiers on parade, ready for inspection, I made the journey that Thomas Whitty never could. I returned home.