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Ealing War Memorial
Finding Private Robinson
Ron Lightning has spent much of his retirement researching his family heritage. Here, he describes to Kurt Barling the journey to document his Uncle Alfred’s war and to find his resting place on the battlefields of France.
“In my generation parents did not always tell us very much about their family and their siblings’ lives, and indeed their own childhood. When we start to research our origins we realise that we should have asked more questions.
As a child I lived with my parents and brother in Wembley. My mother used to say that her brothers had served in the First World War and two had died. Another was injured and had survived, and later lived in High Wycombe, where he opened a sweet shop. It wasn’t something we talked about all that much.
So when I turned my attention to finding out about my mother’s family, I had very little to start with. The problem I had at the start was that I knew neither my Uncles’ Christian names nor the regiments they served in.
All I had to start with was my mother’s birth certificate, which was the short abbreviated type, which only gave her name, date of birth and the district. Once I obtained the full certificate, things started to become a lot clearer. She was Alice Maud Robinson, born on 28th March 1899 in Yiewsley and her parents were Solomon Robinson and Emma Elizabeth Robinson.
When the 1901 census was finally published online in 2001 I was able to get a full family listing. At the turn of the century I located the family in Hanwell. I had known that my grandparents were living in the Ealing area when I was a child, so that tied in. Head of family was Solomon, a labourer, followed by his wife Emma, four boys and my mother.
Having obtained this information I approached the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. On their database they eventually came up with two names: Alfred James Robinson and Arthur Henry Robinson. This database is now much easier to search because it is online.
Alfred Robinson's grave at Thiepval
Alfred was definitely my uncle as the next of kin cited were my grandparents. He had enlisted at Halton Camp as a private in the 12th Battalion of the West Yorkshire Regiment. He died on 27th September 1915, aged 17. He was buried in the Anglo-French Cemetery at Thiepval on the Somme.
It was not absolutely certain that Arthur was my uncle. Although the place of birth was correct, the names of the next of kin were not recorded. This needed further research.
Concentrating on Alfred, I contacted the Regimental Museum in York. I was told that at the time of my uncle’s death the 12th Battalion was involved in the Battle of Loos in Northern France. I was sent a photocopy of a chapter from Everard Wyrall’s book “The West Yorkshire Regiment in the War 1914-1919.” This gave an account of the Battalion’s involvement in the battle.
As I got deeper into my research I visited the National Archives at Kew and consulted the Medal Rolls. This told me that Uncle Alfred had arrived at the theatre of war in France on 10th September 1915, and in the remarks column was written “presumed dead.” This implied that during the conflict he had lost contact with the Battalion and was not accounted for.
It took some time to piece together why Alfred was buried in Thiepval, 25 or so miles from Loos. He was originally buried near a wooded area called Bois Hugo. Later, reading through the Commission’s Cemetery details for the Anglo-French Cemetery, I realised exactly what had happened.
Remembrance service at Ealing 2008
In 1931-32 it was decided to create a cemetery at the foot of the Thiepval Memorial, which commemorates 73,000 soldiers who died on the Somme and had no known grave. The small cemetery was to commemorate 300 Commonwealth soldiers as well as 300 French. The dead to be moved there were found or selected during the winter of 1931-32, some from as far north as Loos, but the majority were from the Somme. Alfred was one of only 59 who could be identified and at 17 he was the youngest soldier to be buried there.
Many of the personal service records of soldiers who fought in the war were destroyed by enemy action during the Second World War. Unfortunately Alfred’s record has not survived. But the war diary of the 12th Battalion’s involvement in the Battle of Loos was available at Kew, and thus it was possible to trace his journey to the battlefield.
The Battalion had been training at Witley Camp in Surrey. On 10th September they left by train to Folkestone, where they embarked on a ship and set sail for Boulogne. In France they spent some days at a place called Watten and then by a series of night marches set off to the battlefield at Loos.
This must have been exhausting for the distances were between 10 and 15 miles each night and the men were carrying their heavy packs. In the early hours of each morning they bivouacked and when they arrived at Loos they were wet through from lying in the rain, and were also famished, having had no food since the bivouac breakfast on Saturday 25th September.
The 12th Battalion was part of the 21st Division, and it seems it was held in reserve and was to take part in the battle only after the main onslaught. Being an infantry battalion they fought in the open and dug in for the night near Bois Hugo, the place where Alfred’s remains were found.
On the following day, Sunday 27th September, they suffered many casualties. 16 officers and 300 men were wounded or killed, and then later in the day they retired from the battle. In retreat many of the men lost their packs and rifles. The involvement of the reserves was much criticised; they were kept too far back and orders from the front were not transmitted quickly enough.
According to a report by Major-General Forester-Walker the Battalion did not behave with credit and retired without due cause. This seems to be harsh judgment when one considers the heavy casualties they entailed. But Everard Wyrall is critical of the employment in the battle of inexperienced troops who lacked adequate training.
In my mind I reflected on Alfred’s short life. I don’t know what sort of work he did after leaving school and immediately prior to joining up. The family was poor and work prospects must have been limited. He, after all, was one of the boy soldiers and must have been only 16 when he enlisted. Did he enlist against the wishes of my grandmother and grandfather?
In the early days of the war there was the euphoric patriotism which pervaded the country, and when men enlisted between 1914 and 1916 their birth certificates were not checked in any great detail.
Inscription at Ealing War Memorial
It must have been devastating for the family to hear of his death. Finally finding his resting place and delving into one’s family history I can say it’s not just a factual search; it is also an emotional journey.”
After 90 years Alfred Robinson and Arthur Robinson have both had their names added to the Ealing War Memorial at the entrance to Pitshanger Manor in Ealing. Arthur died in Russia as a regular soldier when the British Army was sent to support the White Russians against the Bolsheviks. He was killed at Archangel in 1919.
last updated: 10/11/2008 at 16:37