From the archives: Fallen soldier
Remembering Charles Whitelock, Class of 1918, the first Elon student to die in military service 100 years ago.
By Alexa Boschini ’10
A calling to serve his country ran in Charles Nottingham Whitelock’s blood. His great-great-grandfather died in the War of 1812, his grandfather and two great-uncles in the Civil War and his uncle in the Spanish American War. Like his relatives before him, Whitelock lost his life during his service, becoming Elon’s first fallen serviceman.
Born and raised in Huntington, Indiana, Whitelock began attending Elon in fall 1914 and immediately took an active role in campus leadership. His peers chose him as vice president of their class, and as a class representative in the freshman-sophomore debate. He served as secretary and treasurer of his dorm as a sophomore. He became an active member of the Clio Literary Society. He was part of the Yankee Club, a group for students from the North. And he was elected president of the Elon YMCA in spring 1917, the day before President Woodrow Wilson’s address asking Congress to declare war on Germany. Though World War I began in Europe on July 28, 1914, the United States did not intervene until April 6, 1917. Congress declared war following an increase in German submarine attacks and Britain’s interception of the Zimmermann Telegram, in which Germany proposed an alliance with Mexico against the United States.
In his first act as president of the YMCA, Whitelock held a rally at Elon to address the question, “Shall a Christian fight?”—an event that filled the YMCA hall and overflowed into the campus auditorium. According to a note in the Elon Bulletin announcing Whitelock’s death, “when the service concluded, he remarked that his purpose had been accomplished with his own decision without further hesitation to offer his services to the government.” Though he was a junior, Whitelock was selected to speak at Commencement in 1917 as a Clio Society representative orator. He was slated to give an address fittingly titled “Our Responsibility to Our Democracy.” He never delivered the speech because of his decision to pursue military service, but the text is available in Elon’s archives.
On April 23, 1917, Whitelock wrote to his father asking permission to leave school and enter an officer training camp. He applied to train at Fort Oglethorpe in Georgia, but he was rejected despite passing the physical test. His mother speculated in writings after his death that this was because of his youth, or perhaps “a defective arch in his feet.”
He next missed the conscription draft call by five days. The call was for men who would be 21 years old by June 5, 1917; Whitelock did not turn 21 until June 10, but he would not abandon his desire to serve. He decided to pursue the ambulance service instead, telling his mother he wanted “to save life, and not destroy it.” He ventured to Indianapolis and enlisted in the Red Cross Ambulance Co., No. 18 on Aug. 4, 1917. He was called to report for duty on Sept. 16 at Camp Grant in Illinois, but his service was brief. Whitelock developed appendicitis and later peritonitis, an inflammation of the abdomen’s inner wall. The condition proved fatal, and he died at the base hospital on Oct. 4, 1917. According to a memorandum certificate from Capt. Mason B. Light, Whitelock “showed excellent character and obedience in every line of duty” during his service.
According to an article from the News & Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina, published after his death, Whitelock expected to be sent to France “and was anxious for that time to come.” The piece also noted he was “a universal favorite of students and faculty” at Elon. He received his degree posthumously, along with three other Elon students who died during the war—Pvt. Herbert H. Barber, Sgt. William Frank Odom and Capt. John Carl Miller.
Whitelock was survived by his parents, two brothers and two sisters. His funeral was held Oct. 8, 1917, at First Christian Church in his hometown of Huntington. Elon’s N.G. Newman, the college pastor, represented the school at the service. His family received telegrams and letters from many in the Elon community in the days following his death, including President William Harper, the YMCA, the Clio Society and the Class of 1918. At the 1920 Commencement ceremony, the Class of 1918 donated a memorial tablet to Elon honoring those who sacrificed their lives during the war. At the dedication, classmate Gertrude Minniear said of Whitelock, “the greatest tribute we can pay to him by word of mouth, is to say that his integrity was never questioned. In the memory of Charles, our prayer is that Elon College may be the Alma Mater of many sons typified by the life of Charles N. Whitelock.”