Sunday, June 1, 2014

Uncle Robert

St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh, Scotland
In the heart of Edinburgh stands St Giles' Cathedral, more properly termed the High Kirk of Edinburgh, which is the principal place of worship of the Church of Scotland (think  Presbyterian) in Edinburgh. Now within that cathedral is a memorial to the 5,963 men of the Royal Scots Fusiliers who lost their lives in World War I. My Great-Great Uncle Robert was one of those men.

The Memorial

We all knew about this relative while we were growing up. He was my paternal Grandmother's favorite uncle, my Dad was named for him and I suppose my son was also named for him as his middle name is my Dad's first name. Which of course was also my Great-Great Uncle's first name.

Of course, my brothers and I always wanted to know more about this favorite uncle of our beloved "Gram" (who had been born in Scotland and came to this country as a wee lass). All we ever heard was that he had been "in a Scottish regiment and had died in World War I." So it was left at that, we always had assumed that he had been killed somewhere on the Western Front.

Me, nosey parker that I am, always wanted to know more. Which regiment had he served in, which battles had he fought in, what sort of man was he? For many years I wondered.

Then in Belgium one fine day, I had the opportunity to tip a glass (or three) with some of the pipers of the Black Watch (a fine Scots regiment they are) and mentioned in passing my connections to Scotland. My Great-Great Uncle Robert was mentioned. One of the pipers, on learning that my Grandmother's family was from Aberdeenshire, supposed that my Great-Great Uncle was probably in the Gordon Highlanders, for that was one area in which that regiment recruited.

I found that interesting as my Mom's side of the family was (in part) a sept of Clan Gordon. So for many years I told people that Uncle Robert had been in a Highland regiment and had been killed in action on the Western Front in World War I. Seems that the only part I got right was that Uncle Robert had died in the First World War. The rest of the story was a long time coming.

I know a blogger in the United Kingdom, a former military chap like myself...

Well, not like myself really. The only real similarity is that we both were career types and both wore a uniform for over twenty years. Difference is, I was in the US Air Force, he was a Royal Marine. So I'm guessing his time in service was a lot more intense than my own. Well, in reality, I know his was a lot more intense. After all, I do read his blog. (Here, if'n ye be curious. Hhmm. not sure how NavyOne feels about me calling it "Ex-Bootneck's blog.")

At any rate, the Ex-Bootneck has contacts in that area of Scotland, so he looked into it for me. The real story is even more interesting than the one I had imagined!

Uncle Robert lived in Aberdeen, with his wife Jane who hailed from Glasgow. From the information I have, he was a member of the Territorial Force, specifically the 1/5th Battalion, Royal Scots Fusiliers.

Cap badge of the Royal Scots Fusiliers

Note on the Territorial Force (source):
Up to 1908, Britain had a tradition of organising local part-time military units known as the Militia and the Volunteers. These had often been created during times of national crisis but with the exception of service during the Boer War in South Africa (1899-1902) had generally remained at home as part-time, local defence, units. The 1908 army reforms carried out by Minister of War Richard Burdon Haldane, hotly debated and not universally agreed, essentially did away with these old units and replaced them with the Territorial Force. It remained a part-time form of soldiering (hence the nickname "Saturday Night Soldiers"), whose stated role was home defence. Men were not obliged to serve overseas, although they could agree to do so.
Note on the 1/5th Battalion terminology:
As Territorial Force battalions mobilised and went to war they then recruited their own replacement battalions thus the 5th Battalion marched off to war as the 1/5th while its replacement became the 2/5th Battalion. (Source)
Apparently when the war broke out in August of 1914, Uncle Robert's battalion had just departed for the annual summer camp. They were at once recalled to base. (Source) The following notes from Ex-Bootneck trace the movements of Uncle Robert's battalion up until the end of the war on 11 November 1918.
4th May 1914:  The 1/4th stationed at Kilmarnock, and the 1/5th stationed at Ayr.  Both Regiments were part of the South Scottish Brigade of the Lowland Division who then formed up and moved onto Stirling.
11th May 1915: Formation became the 155th Brigade of the 52nd Division. Embarked on troopships for the Mediterranean from Liverpool docks, arriving at Mudros Port on the Greek island of Lemnos on the 29th May 1915.
7th June 1915: Landed at Gallipoli and engaged in various actions with the enemy (Turkish Army). The heaviest actions being; The Battles of 'Gully Ravine'; 'Achi Baba Nullah'; 'Krithia Nullahs'; 'The evacuation of Helles'.
January 1916: Evacuated from Gallipoli to Egypt due to severe casualties from combat, disease, and severe weather conditions. Took over the defence of the Suez Canal, after which they became engaged in the Palestine Campaign. 'Battle of Dueidar'; 'Battle of Romani'.
1917: The First Battle of Gaza, The Second Battle of Gaza, The Third Battle of Gaza, Battle Wadi el Hesi, Battle of Burqa, Battle of El Maghar, The capture of Junction Station, The Battle of Nabi Samweil, The Battle of Jaffa.
April 1918: Embarked for France landing at Marseilles and engaged in various actions on the Western Front including; The Battle of Albert; The Battle of the Scarpe' The Battle of the Drocourt-Queant Line; The Battle of the Canal du Nord; The Final Advance in Artois.
11th November 1918: Ended the Great War at Jurbise north of Mons, France.
As noted above Uncle Robert's battalion fought in the Gallipoli Campaign, about which Wikipedia has this to say -
The Gallipoli Campaign, also known as the Dardanelles Campaign, the Battle of Gallipoli or the Battle of Çanakkale (Turkish: Çanakkale Savaşı), was a campaign of World War I that took place on the Gallipoli peninsula in the Ottoman Empire between 25 April 1915 and 9 January 1916. The peninsula forms the northern bank of the Dardanelles, a strait that provides a sea route to what was then the Russian Empire, one of the Allied powers during the war. Intending to secure it, Russia's allies Britain and France launched a naval attack followed by an amphibious landing on the peninsula with the eventual aim of capturing the Ottoman capital of Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul). The naval attack was repelled and, after eight months' fighting, with many casualties on both sides, the land campaign also failed and the invasion force was withdrawn to Egypt.

The campaign was one of the greatest Ottoman victories during the war and a major Allied failure. In Turkey, it is regarded as a defining moment in the nation's history: a final surge in the defence of the motherland as the Ottoman Empire crumbled. The struggle formed the basis for the Turkish War of Independence and the founding of the Republic of Turkey eight years later under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who first rose to prominence as a commander at Gallipoli. The campaign is often considered as marking the birth of national consciousness in Australia and New Zealand and the date of the landing, 25 April, is known as "Anzac Day". It remains the most significant commemoration of military casualties and veterans in those two countries, surpassing Remembrance Day (Armistice Day).
This film clip (apparently restored by Peter Jackson) gives us a brief look at Gallipoli.

After watching it, I wonder if any of those men were my uncle, or some of my uncle's buddies. You have to remember, history is made up of the deeds of men and women. Great and small. Though it's the small folk who usually pay the price.

Sir Winston Churchill's reputation was badly damaged by the Gallipoli Campaign (he was the major driver of that campaign). Disgraced politically, he left for the front. Where he took command of the 6th Battalion (New Army) of the Royal Scots Fusiliers from 25 December 1915 until 7 May 1916, near Ypres on the Western Front. My uncle's regiment, though a different battalion.

Sir Winston in the uniform of the Royal Scots Fusiliers

The Royal Scots Fusiliers regiment was expanded a great deal in the First World War. The Regiment eventually raised 19 Battalions; and was awarded 58 Battle Honours and 4 Victoria Crosses losing over 5,963 men during the course of the war.

Sadly my Uncle Robert did not go with his battalion to France and then on home to his wife in Aberdeen. He was killed in action (or perhaps died of wounds received) on the 24th of October 1917, at the age of 41. His death came shortly before the Third Battle of Gaza, which began on the 31st of October. (A very good source of information on the RSF and other WWI British Army units is here.)

Also, somewhat sadly, the Royal Scots Fusiliers no longer exist as a separate regiment in the British Army.
The Royal Highland Fusiliers were formed in 1959 by the amalgamation of two of the British Army’s  most distinguished Regiments. The Royal Scots Fusiliers, 21st of Foot and The Highland Light Infantry 71st/74th of Foot. (Source)
As of 2004, they are the The Royal Highland Fusiliers, 2nd Battalion, the Royal Regiment of Scotland. It's interesting to note, that one of my favorite Highland regiments, the Black Watch, is still known by that name but officially they are The Black Watch, 3rd Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland.

Wikipedia has an interesting article about the Royal Regiment of Scotland. Seems many soldiers were very unhappy with the politicians over this amalgamation. (What else is new?) Very controversial it was, especially given the loss of so many regimental traditions.

I learned, with no little amount of sadness, that Uncle Robert's final resting place is a long ways away from his native Scotland. He was laid to rest at the Deir El Belah War Cemetery, in Palestine.

The cemetery where Uncle Robert lies.
So the story of my Uncle Robert has been clarified. When I first came into possession of this knowledge, I thought how nice it would have been to share it with my Gram and my Dad.

Then it struck me...

They already know.

Slow march of the Royal Highland Fusiliers. This one's for you Uncle Robert, may you rest in peace.


  1. Great story, Sarge! Studied a bit of T.E. Lawrence in Command and Staff, but you never really get the realization that REAL people died in those battles. Stories like this are important in bringing about that realization and, hopefully, minimize the likelihood of recurrence.

    1. Amen Juvat. Not many people know just how tough the fighting out there was.

  2. A most excellent story with your typically fine illustration and source material. Good on the Ex-Bootneck for the help he gave ya, too.

    1. Thanks Buck. The Ex-Bootneck is a real gentleman!

  3. Until now my knowledge of Gallipoli has been limited to what I gleaned from reading Trinity and a biography of Winston Churchill.


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