33220 Private Charles Robshaw,
16th (Service) Battalion (1st Bradford), The West Yorkshire Regiment
Because Charles Robshaw attested in December 1915, but was not mobilised until 6th June 1916, we know that he deferred his service. He had married Elizabeth Ann Parker on 10th October 1910, in Barwick, and married men born in 1884 were put into group 37, which received orders to mobilise on 29th May 1916. Immediately before his call up, Charles Robshaw had been working at the Barnbow shell filling factory. When he left to join the army, four children completed the family.
After his training, Charles Robshaw was posted to the 16th (Service) Battalion (1st Bradford), West Yorkshire Regiment, better known, then as now, as the 1st Bradford Pals. The concept of the ‘Pals Battalions’ began in Liverpool, but soon spread nationwide, promoting the idea that men who knew each other in civil life, perhaps by working together, of having attended the same school, or belonging to the same sports clubs, could join the army together, with the promise that they would not be split up. They would join, and train together, and fight together. The battalions were recruited in towns and cities across the country, and sometimes were recruited from a wider area for specific reasons, and though it was a nationwide effort, the ‘Pals Battalions’ have a particular association with the industrial northern cities of England. The original recruits were all volunteers, and in many cases, those battalions went into action for the first time on the morning of 1st July 1916, when the infantry attack signalled the beginning of the Battle of the Somme.
As the Yorkshiremen and Durham men advanced, the Germans checked their range and observed their arcs. They could see the sun glancing off the British bayonets as they bobbed across the ground in front of them. They could see the men walking towards them in open order, checking their dressing as they went. And then, somewhere in amongst the Germans peering over their parapet, the order went out to open fire. Machine gunners, riflemen, mortar crews, and the German artillery gave vent to a week’s worth of petrified tension and poured fire into the lines of British soldiers walking towards them. Each battalion in the Brigade suffered hundreds of casualties. Communications instantly broke down, and this meant that Battalions could not properly get message through to Brigade, and Brigade couldn’t talk to Divisional headquarters, and so the battalion commanders had no other choice but to commit further men to an already obviously lost cause. That attack had begun at 7:30 am, but the fighting in front of Serre was all but over by 9:30. Individual pockets of men advanced to the German lines but were either beaten back or killed on the wire, but most of the attackers that morning lay out on the battlefield either dead or wounded, and those who were not wounded, wisely sought the shelter of a shell hole and waited for the darkness to fall before attempting to make their way back to their own lines. Intermittent German machine gun and sniper fire broke out as they spotted movement, but the attack had comprehensively failed.
Such was the damage that was inflicted on the Pals Battalions of 93rd Brigade and the rest in the Division that, as soon as possible after 1st July, the division was pulled out of the line and sent north to the area around Le Touret to rest, refit, and take in reinforcements to rebuild its strength. As well as the Pals battalion system recruiting, training and having its men fight together, they also died together, in large numbers, and plunged communities at home into mourning.
With the introduction of conscription in January 1916, men were no longer guaranteed to serve in a unit that had previously recruited from their local area, and it became common for men to be dispersed to units from other areas of the country, and as a result, the local ‘feel’ of a battalion began to diminish, until eventually, it was almost entirely lost.
Although when Charles Robshaw was drafted to the 1st Bradford Pals, he was still a relatively local man, many others who joined him were not. There was often some resentment among the original volunteers about the influx of ‘outsiders’, but this often didn’t last longer than it took the new men to prove themselves able members of the unit.
The Battle of the Somme was closed down for the winter of 1916 in mid-November, but by the end of January 1917, the 1st Bradford Pals were back in the sector, and occupying trenches near Hebuterne. On the evening of 26th February 1917, orders were received for the battalion to attack into Rossignol Wood and drive the Germans out of it. The attack commenced in darkness at 6 am and almost immediately the attacking two companies came under heavy machine gun fire from the wood and in enfilade from the flanks inflicting many casualties and forcing the Bradford men to take cover. The ground was open and there were few shell holes in which cover could be had and many of the men who were wounded were forced to lay out in the open. The men who had been able to find cover did their best to dig their holes deeper and connect them to form a makeshift trench. The Germans had a number of snipers in their lines and they were able to pick off any men who showed themselves, and they also continued to fire on those laying out in the open who were wounded and attempting to move to cover.
On the extreme right of the right-hand company, some men and a non-commissioned officer were seen to walk towards the German lines with hands up and calling for the Germans not to shoot. They did not have their weapons with them, and they appeared to be unwounded. The officers and non-commissioned officers who were still at duty did their best to rally their men and form a composite company to continue the attack. The support company was also ordered forward to assist, and eventually, the Bradford men did get into the wood and penetrate to a depth of 850 yards on a reasonably wide front, but a German counterattack drove them back until an officer organised the bombing party to attack the advancing Germans and drive them back 150 yards. Despite valiant efforts by the Bradford Pals, not all their gains could be held, but when the main thrust of the fighting ground to a halt, the remnants of the three Bradford battalion companies were able to doggedly cling to their new positions until they were relieved by D Company at 11 pm.
Charles Robshaw was a rifleman in A Company, the company that bore the brunt of the German fire from the wood, and from high explosive, and shrapnel shelling. He along with 66 other men of the battalion died as a result of the fighting for Rossignol Wood. Some men died of wounds and they were able to be evacuated a short distance to their supporting field ambulances, but most of the men died on the battlefield. Some of the men could not be recovered, and they are now commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial. Those that could be recovered were buried together in a single trench, called Owl Trench. After the war, many of the smaller cemeteries, such as this one, were removed to larger ones which were more manageable, but Owl Trench Cemetery was selected to remain. It stands today as a marker of a single, bitter, and costly episode of action. The cemetery is lined on one side by a single row of headstones for the Bradford men who lie there, and on the other side are a small group of unnamed King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry men. Forty-three of the graves are named for men of the Bradford Pals, and it is highly likely that the remaining unidentified burials are Bradford Pals as well. Many of the headstones have more than one name engraved on them. Charles Robshaw is known to be buried in this cemetery.