Charles Robshaw

Charles Robshaw

33220 Private Charles Robshaw,
16th (Service) Battalion (1st Bradford), The West Yorkshire Regiment

Charles Robshaw, the son of carpenter and wheelwright William Dickenson Robshaw, and his wife, Jane was born in Barwick on 28th June 1884. There were eight children in the Robshaw family: three daughters and five sons. Of the boys, it is known that, as well as Charles, brothers Benjamin, John and Victor also served during the Great War.

Victor served with the 12th Battalion West Yorkshire Regiment from 2nd March 1916 and was wounded in the leg during the Battle of the Somme in 1916. He was treated in England, but it seems he was no longer fit for infantry service and was transferred to the Army Service Corps on 30th July 1918 as a horse transport driver. It has not been possible to trace the service of Benjamin and John as neither of their services records has survived, however, as they were older than the average soldier, it is entirely possible that neither man served overseas; certainly there is no record of either of them being awarded campaign medals for service during the Great War, and neither man claimed a pension.

Charles Robshaw attested for the army under the terms of the Group System devised by the Director General of recruiting, the Earl Derby. The aim of the system was to better regulate and maintain the flow of recruits into the army. Until it had been introduced, the British Army had always relied on voluntary enlistment to keep its numbers up to what was required, but after the first few months of war, the numbers of recruits coming into the army by choice was beginning to dwindle. Concerns had also been raised in Parliament about the number of underage recruits that were being accepted for service, and accusing fingers were being pointed at the staff of recruiting offices, due to them being paid a bounty for each recruit that was accepted for service. The Group System, or Derby Scheme was intended, in conjunction with the National Registration Act, that all men who were compulsorily registered and gave details of their employment, could choose to either enlist and go on to serve in the army immediately, or they could enlist and defer their service until they were called up by the army, according to the group they belonged to, which was decided by their date of birth and their marital status.
Part of No. 1 Shell Filling Factory, Barnbow (Leeds Library & Information Services)

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.

The area where 31st Division attacked on 1st July 1916 at the start of the Battle of the Somme (National Library of Scotland)

The 1st Bradford Pals were in 93rd Infantry Brigade, in 31st Division that morning, and were tasked with attacking and capturing the tiny French village of Serre, at the northern end of the Somme battle area. Together with the 2nd Bradford Pals, the Leeds Pals, and the Durham Pals, they were to leave their front line trenches and march up a slope towards the German lines in front of Serre, clear the trenches and advance on the village. There had been a week-long artillery barrage concentrated on the German trench lines, and the high command was confident that all fortifications, and their occupants had been smashed. And so, it was, that at 7:30 am on that Saturday morning, as the guns fell silent to lift to their next objective, the assembled troops responded to whistle blasts and clambered up trench ladders and out into the open country of No Man’s Land. The sun shone, and it was already warm. Briefly, as the guns changed their elevation, they heard birdsong. As the men advanced at walking pace, many with their rifles at the slope, they were unaware that the German defenders had not been pulverised under the weight of artillery shells that had been fired on them, but were taking advantage of the guns lifting from their positions to clamber up from deep dug outs with their machine guns, and were readying themselves to mount a defence of their part of the line. The ground at Serre is deceptively open, and the slope deceptively steep. The Germans held the high ground, and their cleverly sited machine guns, with interlocking arcs of fire could sweep intense fire across every inch of ground that lay in front of them.
Devastation at Serre in March 1917 (© IWM Q 1812)

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.

Rossignol Wood, where Charles Robshaw was killed (National Library of Scotland)

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.

Owl Trench Cemetery, opposite Rossignol Wood

A detailed report was sent to the Divisional Commander, Major General Robert Wanless-O’Gowan CB, and a court of enquiry was convened to examine the circumstances of the men who appeared to surrender without reasonable cause. The report makes clear how confused the fighting became; men heard orders to retire being issued from behind them, but they were unable to see who was calling them out. Other men reported seeing unarmed men walking through their own positions towards the German lines with hands up intent on surrendering. The temporary commanding officer stated that he saw some men moving towards the German lines, but as he couldn’t see that they were surrendering, or that they were definitely British soldiers, he did not fire on them. The court of enquiry concluded that the men who surrendered did so without reasonable cause. Major General H N Sargent, the Deputy Adjutant and Quartermaster-General, Fifth Army, agreed and stated that every effort should be taken to identify exactly who the men were, and once the war was over and they were repatriated, they should be tried and shot.
Charles Robshaw's grave in Owl Trench Cemetery

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.