The Robinson Brothers

The Robinson Brothers

Captain Charles Robinson, 12th Battalion, attached to 1st Battalion, The West Yorkshire Regiment.

98809 Corporal Robert Henry Robinson, 31st Division Signal Company, Royal Engineers.

Life Before the Great War:

The Robinson brothers were born in Walsall in Staffordshire. They were the sons of Robert John Robinson, a wool buyer, and Mary Louisa Robinson. Charles was born in early 1892, with his brother, known to all as Harry, being born a little over two years later. Robert John Robinson was born in Montreal in Canada, while Mary was born in Huddersfield, but moved to Leeds with her family, who were also Robinsons, and involved in the wool trade, as a young child.

Robert Robinson had returned from Canada during the 1860s and lived with his grandparents in Huddersfield. After their deaths, he stayed on in Huddersfield, as a lodger with the Bradley family, and by 1881 he had entered the wool trade. When Robert and Louisa married, at St Matthias’ Church in Burley, Leeds, on 23rd October 1890, he had become a manager within the wool trade, and was living in Walsall.

At the time of the 1901 census the Robinson family was still living in Walsall, having a house on the Lichfield Road. The family moved to The Avenue in Scholes in 1908. It is known that Charles Robinson was educated at Leeds Modern School, and it is likely that Harry followed him there too. In a report from the Board of Education Inspectors, it was stated that the school was the most important secondary school in Leeds, with literary subjects being particularly well taught. The school had developed a strong reputation, and it is, therefore, not surprising that as well as Charles Robinson, the other commissioned officers from the village who were killed in the Great War were also educated there.

After leaving school, Charles joined the Great Northern Railway Company as a clerk. When he left to enlist into the army, he was working as the assistant clerk to Mr PC Walker, the Divisional Superintendent in Leeds, where the company had offices in the main Central Station, and on nearby Wellington Street.

Harry Robinson also became a clerk after finishing at school, and at the age of 16, he was working as an estate clerk, possibly for Mr Prater, the land agent for Colonel Gascoigne of Parlington and Lotherton.

When war broke out in August 1914, neither brother appears to have been caught up in the initial rush to join the army, although there was possibly much pressure exerted upon them to enlist, and this is especially likely in Harry Robinson’s case, working as he did for a subordinate of Colonel Gascoigne, a hero of the Boer War who had been decorated with the Distinguished Service Order for his gallantry and leadership in action.

Harry Robinson Enlists:

Harry Robinson enlisted into the army in Leeds on 21st May 1915. He joined the Royal Engineers Signal Company that would provide communications support to the New Army (Kitchener’s Army) division that the local ‘Pals’ battalion belonged to. His skills as a clerk would make him a valuable asset to his unit. Because the signal company was almost entirely recruited from Leeds, it was granted the subtitle of ‘Leeds’, and became the 31st Division Signal Company (Leeds) Royal Engineers.

The bulk of the units in 31st Division had completed their recruiting before Christmas 1914, and had gone off to their various training camps to learn what was, for most of the men, the completely new art of soldiering. The men joining specialist units like Harry Robinson had, also needed to learn their military trades, and pass the subsequent trade tests to show they were competent in their roles. For men of the Signal Service, they would be given some very basic military training to enable them to function as soldiers, but they would not be given the intense infantry training that, say, the Leeds Pals would be given. Their signals training would be done at Biggleswade in Bedfordshire. Because Harry Robinson did not enlist until May 1915, he was not fully trained when the 31st Division received orders on 29th November 1915 that it would proceed to France within the next two weeks. As it turned out, the orders were changed, and the division was informed that instead of going to France, it would instead sail to Egypt, where it would assist in the defence of the Suez Canal.

Harry Robinson would join his unit in France, after it had been relieved from its duties in the Canal Zone and been transferred to the Western Front. For the remainder of the war, the 31st Division Signal Company would shadow Divisional Headquarters, providing communications capabilities to every unit in the division.

Charles Robinson Enlists:

Charles Robinson enlisted as a Private into the 17th Battalion, the West Yorkshire Regiment, unofficially known as the 2nd Leeds Pals, or the Leeds Bantams, on 21st June 1915. He was given the service number 17/1602. Bantam battalions were recruited from men who were fit for military service in every aspect, expect for their height. The standard minimum height for an adult recruit soldier was 5’3” tall, and at the beginning of the war, this standard was rigidly applied, and men who were shorter, were rejected.

Before Christmas in 1914, the Regular Army units of the British Expeditionary Force had suffered enormous casualties in some of the most desperate fighting that was seen in the entire war. Such was the scale of the loss that it became necessary to reinforce the Regular Army with Territorial Force units, and in September 1914, the London Scottish Battalion (1/14th (County of London) Battalion (London Scottish)) was the first Territorial Force Battalion to see action on the Western Front, when on the last day of October, it went into action at Messines in Belgium. In the battalion’s first encounter with the enemy, it lost almost half of its men. It soon became clear to the army, that if it was to continue recruiting in the volumes that it needed to, to both replace casualties, and expand the army, some of the standards that the army held dear would have to be changed. One of the changes was that men who were previously rejected for being too short, could now be recruited, and they would be organised into ‘Bantam’ battalions of the New Army.

As was the case for many newly raised units in ‘Kitchener’s Army’, experienced officers, warrant officers, and non-commissioned officers were in short supply, and often, those who could be found, were long past retirement age. To remedy this shortage of leaders, suitable candidates within the units were promoted to fill vacant positions. With Charles Robinson being well educated, but not having continued into further education, he would not have been immediately identified as ‘officer material’, but his role as clerk to the man who ran the Leeds Division of the Great Northern Railway would have singled him out as a young man who was used to dealing with responsibility, was highly literate, and well-practised at communicating with colleagues at all levels of an organisation. This made him an attractive candidate to be promoted to non-commissioned rank, and within three days of his joining the army, he had been promoted directly to corporal and appointed as an unpaid lance sergeant. After what might be seen as a period of probation lasting a month, it seems he had impressed his chain of command, and he was promoted to acting sergeant (unpaid). Clearly, Acting Sergeant Robinson continued to be a valued assistant to his platoon commander, and on 27th January 1916, he was confirmed in the rank of sergeant, and paid for it.

Charles Robinson departs for the Western Front:

The battalion was now ready take its place on the Western Front, and on 31st January 1916, his battalion, with the rest of 35th Division, sailed for France and headed to Blendecques, near St Omer to concentrate and organise the division ready for war. The first few days in France saw a significant reorganisation among the officers in the battalion to enable the battalion to function more smoothly, and a new, probably very young, officer appointed to the command of a platoon would have been thankful to have a sergeant as capable as Charles Robinson to help him find his feet in his new command.

A little under three weeks in France had passed before the 35th Division was moved up to the front line, prior to which, the Secretary of State for War, Field Marshal the Lord Kitchener inspected the division. Being new troops without any experience of trench warfare, the battalion sent two companies into the trenches at a time for a period of 24 hours, during which time, they would be attached to an experienced battalion, the men of which would guide and instruct the newcomers in the art of trench routine. The dangers of trench warfare were brought starkly into focus when Private William Catton of W Company was killed on 20th February 1916, becoming the first man of the battalion to be killed in action.

Charles Robinson was evacuated sick on 7th April 1916 after catching measles. Infectious diseases were particularly dangerous to the efficiency of a fighting unit, and without proper measures to isolate infected soldiers, even relatively minor illnesses could force battalions and formations to become non-effective. To ensure this not happen, Sergeant Robinson was sent back through the medical chain to 7 General Hospital at St Omer to recover. He was away from his battalion for twelve days.

On 25th October 1916, after a process of applications and interviews, Charles Robinson was sent back to Blendecques to attend an officers training course at the Officer Cadet Battalion there. Following his successful completion of the six-week course, the newly commissioned Second Lieutenant Robinson was posted to the 12th Battalion, West Yorkshire Regiment, and he reported for duty on 9th January 1917. The battalion was in Brigade reserve at Fieffes-Montrelet, thirteen miles north of Amiens in the rear area of the Somme Battlefields. Charles Robinson was sent home on leave two weeks during August 1917, and it is likely that it was during this period of leave that Charles Robinson proposed marriage to Amy Jessop, who lived with her family at Morwick Terrace on the York Road at Scholes Lane End. She accepted the proposal.

Returning from leave on 25th August, 2Lt Robinson found that he had been promoted, temporarily, to Captain and had become the battalion’s Adjutant on 21st August 1917 and held the position until the battalion was disbanded in February 1918. His appointment to the role of the adjutant reflected the confidence his commanding officer had in his abilities. The position was mainly administrative concerning the day-to-day running of the battalion, including the publishing of battalion orders and the maintenance of discipline among the officers. He would also often be the first point of contact between his Divisional and Brigade Staffs. It is likely that the Mention in Despatches he received that was announced in May 1918 was awarded in recognition of his performance of his duties while he was the Adjutant of the 12th Battalion.

Throughout 1917, the 12th Battalion was heavily involved in the fighting of the Battles of Arras and Third Battle of Ypres. Although it was regularly in receipt of drafts of new officers and soldiers to offset the bulk of the losses it suffered, it ended the year under strength, a situation shared by many battalions across the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). Something of a rift had developed between the Lloyd George government in London, and the leaders of the Army, both at home and on operations, with Lloyd George’s main targets were Field Marshal Sir William Robertson, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, and Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, the Commander in Chief of the BEF. The Prime Minister had succeeded in getting rid of Robertson, but he was frustrated in his efforts to sack Haig during and after the Third Battle of Ypres. Instead, Lloyd George restricted the flow of reinforcements to the Western Front, leaving the depleted forces under his command woefully, and dangerously understrength. To counter this, Haig ordered that the BEF should be comprehensively reorganised, and to achieve this, infantry brigades were reduced from four battalions to three, with the men of the fourth, now redundant battalion being transferred to understrength battalions to bring them up to their established strengths. The supporting arms were similarly reorganised to reflect the smaller number of units that they supported. In the case of the 12th Battalion, West Yorkshire Regiment, it was decided that the battalion would disband, and the officers and men be posted to other battalions. Charles Robinson was posted with the officers and men who were surplus, with the surplus from 8th Bn East Yorkshire Regiment, to form the 10th Entrenching Battalion. The Entrenching Battalions were holding units under the control of Army, or Corps commands which were to release men to fighting battalions that required them. They were generally used to build and maintain defensive works and trench lines. To preserve this reserve of men, the Entrenching Battalions were expressly forbidden from being employed in forward areas and were not to be attached to fighting units.

The Situation at Passchendaele 1st October 1917 National Library of Scotland
German Spring Offensive in the Somme Area (Wikipedia)

Charles Robinson is posted to the 1st Bn W. York. R.

On 21st March 1918, the German Army launched a huge attack across the old 1916 Somme Battlefield. Despite the British having prior intelligence to warn of an impending attack, the precise details of when and where the attack would fall were still unknown, and so when the attack came, aided by a dense early morning fog, it took the British defenders by surprise and they were unable to respond until the Germans were almost on top of them.

The ferocity of the German attack and its rapid advance across The Somme sent the British Army into full retreat which took some days to arrest, but errors made in the German command also contributed to the stalling of the advance. By that time, many British units had become overwhelmed, and while the casualty figures regarding killed and wounded were high, the numbers of men who had been captured were enormous. The 1st Battalion, the West Yorkshire Regiment suffered relatively light casualties in terms of those killed in the attack, but they had also recorded that 548 officers and soldiers were missing. As the situation settled, and the battalion had been withdrawn from the line, drafts of reinforcements were brought in, and by the end of March 1918, the battalion had been moved north towards Ypres, and was made up of 28 officers and 890 Other Ranks.

April 1918 saw the battalion back in the line, but spread much more thinly, covering a brigade front, rather than a battalion front. The normal trench holding routine, coupled with an instance of fighting off a German incursion into the battalion’s area saw it suffer a moderate number of casualties, and when the army was drafting in officers and men to make good those losses, Charles Robinson was among them. He was posted to 1st Bn West Yorkshire Regiment on 5th May 1918.

Following his posting, Charles Robinson’s new battalion was in 18th Infantry Brigade, a part of 6th Division. He had relinquished the role of Adjutant on his transfer to the Entrenching Battalion, and the temporary promotion to Lieutenant, with accompanying pay and allowances that he held while performing that role. In the absence of any evidence to the contrary, it must be assumed that Charles Robinson had reverted to the role of a platoon commander while he was with 1st Battalion, and that it was in this role that he went into action on 14th July 1918.

Charles Robinson's Grave Nine Elms British Cemetery

Ridge Wood 14th July 1918:

The battalion was tasked with attacking German positions near the hamlet of Elzenwalle, south of Ypres. Approximately half of the German line that formed the battalion’s objective was within Ridge Wood. Zero hour for the attack was set at 6:00 am, but the British barrage that was to support the West Yorkshiremen’s advance began five minutes earlier than the orders said it should. This does not appear to have been detrimental to the advance, but it would have given the Germans confirmation that an attack would happen in this area. The two attacking companies of the battalion reported that they had captured all their objectives within 45 minutes, and that for the most part, casualties had been light. Within Ridge Wood itself the casualties were slightly heavier but fighting in woods was known to be extremely hazardous, and often costly. Despite this, the battalion commander was pleased with the performance of his officers and soldiers and considered the action a resounding success. The men had reached their objectives while the German defenders were still unprepared. One machine gunner was captured while trying to bring his gun into action, but such was his hurry, that he had not had time to put his trousers and boots on. In addition to capturing the German positions, the men from the battalion also took three officers and more than 250 soldiers prisoner. They also captured nine machine guns and many important documents and maps.

Despite the morning being a successful one, it appears that there was some breakdown in communications and the reporting processes within the battalion. Charles Robinson has always been commemorated as killed in action on 15th July 1918, but it appears that this is an error. The war diary for the battalion records a quiet day on 15th July, with the men occupying the captured trenches but, crucially, it specifically states that the battalion suffered no casualties of any kind on that date. The more plausible explanation of what happened to him is that he was seriously wounded on 14th July and was evacuated rearward along the chain of medical units. The receiving medical unit for the wounded from this action was 17th Field Ambulance, which had an Advanced Dressing Station set up in the village of Brandhoek, and facilities to receive stretcher cases, four miles away at Nine Elms, east of Poperinghe.

Due to the nature of the fighting in the area at this time, only one man from the battalion who was killed on the day has a known grave, and he is buried at Ridge Wood Military Cemetery. The remainder are either buried as unknown casualties or were not recovered for burial and are now commemorated on the Tyne Cot Memorial. Those who were evacuated alive, but wounded, and died later, are mainly buried in Nine Elms British Cemetery, or Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery, also near Poperinghe. Had Lt Robinson died on the battlefield, he would not have been evacuated back to the Field Ambulance. We can say, with some certainty, then, that he was alive when he was taken off the battlefield but succumbed to his wounds after arriving 17th Field Ambulance. He is now buried in the cemetery at Nine Elms used by the medical units based there.

The Telegram informing the Robinsons of Charles Robinson's Death (WO 339/85332)

"Deeply Regret..."

Back in Scholes, the telegram from the Army informing Robert and Mary Robinson of the death of their eldest son was delivered to their home on 19th July 1918. It was almost two years to the day since their neighbours, the Simpsons, had received the news that their son, James had been killed in the Battle of the Somme.

At the time when his brother died, Corporal Harry Robinson was just over the border in France, at Wallon-Cappel, near Hazebrouck. The remaining time left in his war would become focused on movement as it became clear that the German Army was losing the war and it began an uninterrupted retreat, punctuated by brief, but vicious stopping actions, as it tried to disrupt the momentum of the Allied armies who were in pursuit of them. On the day the fighting ended with the Armistice, 31st Div Signal Company was operating in Ruyen, just inside Belgian Flanders, and in the coming days it would move to Courtrai, and then St Omer.

Linemen of 31st Division Signal Company WO 95/2352/4

Post War Years:

Following his demobilisation from the Army, Harry Robinson returned home to Scholes to live with his parents. He married Olive Sparling at St Mary’s Church in Whitkirk in August 1924. Olive had lived with her family at Saw Wood House in Scholes, but they had moved to a smaller property on Hollyshaw Lane in Whitkirk when her father retired. Olive’s brother, Herbert Sparling, had served as a Captain in the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment. He was decorated with the Military Cross for conspicuous gallantry, but at the end of the period for which he received his award, he was seriously wounded near Gheluvelt, east of Ypres, which resulted in the loss of a leg. After the war, Herbert Sparling had returned to his theology studies and had been ordained as an Anglican priest. He was the officiating clergyman at his sister’s wedding to Harry Robinson.

Harry Robinson initially returned to working as a commercial clerk, but later opened his own business selling seeds and plants in the Leeds Market buildings. Harry and Olive Robinson set up home on Farm road in Cross Gates after their marriage, where their near neighbours were William and Amy Bean. Amy had been the fiancée of Harry’s brother, Charles before he died. Harry and Olive later moved to Blenheim Square in Woodhouse, where Olive died in December 1932. She was buried at Harehills Cemetery.

The Rescue Attempts Underway Manchester Evening News 8th April 1954

The Final Tragedy:

Harry’s father lived in Scholes until he died in 1934, following which his mother and her disabled sister moved to live with Harry, when he moved to Spencer Place in Chapeltown.

During the Second World War, Harry volunteered for service with Air Raid Precautions. He was able to use his shop van to assist the Transport Section.

Harry Robinson married for a second time in 1950, when he married Lucy Sarah Croudson, but only four years later, both Harry and Lucy were tragically killed in a shop fire, on 8th April 1954, at their premises in Leeds Markets. Chemicals stored under the shop counter ignited after reacting with spilled water, starting a furious fire. The shop assistant was able to escape, but the shop manager, along with Harry and Lucy Robinson were trapped and ran upstairs to the stockroom to escape the flames. Once in the stockroom, they were unable to reach the window to jump to the pavement below. Firefighters arrived within minutes and succeeded in reaching the stricken trio in the first-floor stockroom. A path to the window was cleared and it was opened.  A rescue ladder was already in place, but by now the Robinsons and their manager had been overcome and were unconscious. Each one was secured in ropes and lowered from the window to the pavement, and although they were unconscious during the rescue, they were all still breathing, but as they were rushed to Leeds General Infirmary, they all died.

Harry and Lucy Robinson were buried with Olive Robinson at Harehills Cemetery.