Richard James Whiteley was born at Orange in April 1895, the fifth son of Henry and Mary Ann Whiteley (nee Jobson).
The family later moved to Narromine, and on 23 May 1916 Richard and two of his brothers – Alexander Tinnock Whiteley and Charles Henry Whiteley – travelled to Dubbo and enlisted in the First World War. The brothers were issued sequential service numbers: 5926 (Charles), 5927 (Alexander) and 5928 (Richard).
The three brothers spent the next nine months together; they joined the 17th Battalion, 16th Reinforcements and attended Dubbo and Liverpool camps. The trio embarked HMAT A40 Ceramic in Sydney on 7 October 1916 and arrived in Plymouth on 21 November. Richard and Alexander were assigned to the 5th Training Battalion at Folkestone, and Charles to the 6th at Rollestone. In February 1917 Richard and Charles proceeded to the Western Front in France, however Alexander remained at Folkestone for a further three months, arriving on the Western Front in May 1917.
On 18 February 1917 Richard and Charles were marched in to the 2nd Australian Divisional Base Depot at Etaples. At 3.45am on 3 May 1917 the Australian 2nd Division and the British 62nd Division launched an attack on the Hindenburg Line with the intention of securing the fortified village of Bullecourt. Soldiers of the 17th Battalion, Richard and Charles included, were engaged in the battle. They managed to penetrate the German line but met determined resistance. The brothers were both wounded in action, however their official status was later upgraded to “wounded and missing in action”. Some time later Charles managed to rejoin his unit, however Richard was not seen again.
On 9 July 1917 Army Base Records sent Richard’s mother, Mary Ann, the following telegram:
Reported Private Richard Whiteley wounded. Will advise anything further received.
On 22 September Mary Ann enquired:
Would you be so kind to let me know if my son Richard James Whiteley is alive or not, as I have not been notified to that effect, only that his pay has been stopped, the last news I got was that he was wounded and missing and that was in July 1917. I had a letter from his brother saying that he was wounded, and that the soldiers had carried him to the hospital, said that it was only a flesh wound, and that is the last word I have heard about him. I would be very thankful for any information you could give me as it worries me very much.
It was not until November 1917 that AIF Headquarters declared Richard to have been killed in the Second Battle of Bullecourt on 3 May 1917. He was one of 11 men from the Orange district who was killed that fateful day. He has no known grave.
The Australian Red Cross Wounded and Missing Bureau investigated Richard’s disappearance; there are mixed reports concerning his fate. His brother Charles reported seeing him wounded during battle and carried to the dressing station by stretcher bearers. A comrade lit him a cigarette and Charles said “he was alright then”.
A fellow soldier wounded on the same day reported being with him in a shell hole behind enemy lines early in the morning of 8 May, but said that he died later that day.
Several soldiers reported that he had been wounded and was sent to hospital in England.
In September 1918 Mary Ann received a package containing her son’s personal effects – letters, cards and photographs.
In April 1920 she again wrote to Base Records:
I have been told that Richard James Whiteley is supposed to be alive and had lost his memory, and also his disc, but I may tell you that he has a mark on one of his legs caused by a barbed wire fence before he left Australia.
I…regret to state that there appears no reason to doubt the authenticity of the report that [he] was killed in action.
Richard’s brothers Alexander and Charles both survived the war; they returned to Australia in December 1917 and May 1918 respectively.
The three brothers are commemorated on the World War I honor roll of St Andrew’s Uniting Church (formerly Presbyterian Church) in Narromine.