|To W.P. Robley, Esq., Yew Bank, Helensburgh. From: Petty-Officer McCaw, Nelson R.N.D. 173, Stobeross Street, Anderston, Glasgow.|
Dear Mr. Robley,
Here is a history of the part which your son, Sub-Lieutenant John P. Robley, took, while with the Nelson Battalion R.N.D. and in command of the 13th Platoon.
A Battalion consists of Four Companies, "A", "B", "C" and "D", with four platoons to each Company, numbered throughout from "1" to "16". "D" Company, to which Mr. Robley belonged, thus comprised the 13th, 14th, 15th and 16th platoons. A platoon consists roughly of fifty men, divided into four sections, and controlled by 1 officer, 1 petty-officer, and 4 leading seamen.
The training camp of the Royal Naval Division was situated on the Downs near Blandford, Dorsetshire. Huts were assigned to the different platoons, and in one of these, the 13th platoon of "D" Company, "Nelson" was disposed. Our officer, Sub-Lieutenant Robley, was accomodated with a small room in the Officer's huts, situated on the opposite side of the parade-ground from these of the men.
"D" Company, of which Lieutenant-Commander Evans was in charge, was composed almost entirely of Fleet Reserve men; stokers for the most part, who had served their term in various units of the Fleet before passing into the Reserve. They were a "rough and ready" lot, with that disregard for what they considered "unnecessary discipline" which is peculiar to stokers, "Habitual Grousers", who yet did their work efficiently and well, as if grumbling was merely the usual accompaniment to work.
Some of them were noted in the Battalion as "Hard Cases", and many had been punished with Cells, Extra fatiques, and even imprisonment, for such crimes as being drunk, late for parade, absent at "Lights-out", etc. crimes which, while not serious in themselves, were not conformable to discipline as understood and insisted on by some Officers, and once in a full parade of the Battalion while at Portsmouth, I heard a senior Officer, in reading out sentences of punishment before the men, say that stokers were a disgrace to the Regiment, and a danger to the morals and discipline of the Volunteers, and others comprising the rest of the Battalion.
Shortly after taking up our quarters, at Blandford, many of the officers were recalled to go to sea, or to service elsewhere, and the Battalion was taken over by Colonel Eveleigh (Royal Marines).
Early in January, Lieutenant Evans took command of "D" Company, with Sub-Lieutenants Robley, Gilbert, Edwards and Teppe, as platoon Commanders.
Lieutenant Evans seemed to grasp the idea very quickly that the men of his Company had not been tactfully handled. Instead of being gradually disciplined in the course of training, they had had discipline thrust down their throats before they quite realised what it meant. The majority were staid men, with from five to twelve years service in the Navy, who had never been disciplined in a military sense. "Soldiering" was a new mode of life which they resented, and only careful handling was likely to make and keep them interested.
Instead of punishing with Cells or imprisonment, thus bringing their defections before the Colonel, Lieutenant Evans spoke to them as Men, and appealed to the better side of their nature. He encoursged a healthy rivalry between the different platoons, thus bringing the best out of them, and while gaining their respect, teaching them also to respect themselves.
In this course he was ably seconded by his platoon officers. I, myself, was petty-officer of the 13th platoon, under Sub-Lieutenant Robley. I have been for twenty years a volunteer, including eighteen months with the Royal Scots Fusiliers, in the South African War, and have been with the Nelson Battalion since the outbreak of the war.
The Crystal Palace training course was ideal for young Officers who were to handle such men as composed "D" Company. While working with the raw material there, they acquired patience, tact, and a keen eye for observing and correcting mistakes, which they never would have obtained, had the pawns in the game been trained men.
During the many wet days in our course of training at Blandford, lectures to the men in their huts, by their Officers, filled a good deal of their time. Here the lectures attended at the Crystal Palace stood Mr. Robley in good stead. It showed the interest and enthusiasm he had in his work, when he was able to lecture for over an hour, and hold the men's attention all the time. Such subjects as Sanitation in the Field; The construction of Trenches; Night and Day Outposts; the parts of the Rifle; Physical Exercise, etc. were ably and clearly handled by him, and showed the attention he had given to his own training.
He quickly gained the respect and confidence of the platoon. Sneering reference to "The Boy", in which some of the older hands had at first indulged, were quite forgotten. The men lost their sullenness and grumbling disposition. Petty crimes and faults were dealt with tactfully by himself, or, if too serious, were taken before the Company Commander, and soon Colonel Eveleigh looked on "D" Company as very efficient indeed.
During this time events were moving towards their climax. The equipment of the men was now complete. In favourable weather training was carried out on the drill-field or over the far-spreading Downs, while at night we practiced trench attack and defence, or marching by compass and the stars to a given rendezvous.
At the periodical kit and hut inspection Mr. Robley showed an unusual facility for remembering the names and faces of the men, which I, who moved among and associated with them continually, could only envy. The improvement in their drill, bearing and discipline became most marked.
On Wednesday 17th February, Mr. Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty reviewed the Brigade, in a blizzard of rain and wind. On Sturday, 20th, the Colonel intimated on parade that we were under orders to leave on the following Saturday, for an unknown destination in the East. The jubilation among the men was intense. Antwerp was forgotten, and the knowledge that we were at last going to "Do Something" was an additional stimulus to all.
That closing week was a busy one for Lieutenant Robley, seeing that all men's kits were complete, and everything in readiness.
On Thursday, 25th. February, His Majesty, the King, accompanied by the First Lord, reviewed the Division on the Downs, in a day of perfect weather; and among the platoons which marched past the Saluting Base, none were more steady, or smart-looking, than the 13th Platoon, "Nelson", led by Sub-Lieutenant Robley.
On the night of Sunday, 28th February, after a day of suspense, we marched off the Camp at midnight, in driving rain, for Blandford, where we passed the night in the Town Hall.
On the following morning, Monday, March 1st, we entrained for Avonmouth, near Bristol, and embarked on the Cunard Liner "Franconia", sailing about mid-night.
We were now brought more in contact with our Officers. Mr. Robley took his platoon, forenoon and afternoon on the shelter-deck for physical exercise or drill. The whole company was vaccinated, and a few days later we were also inoculated against Typhoid. Mr. Robley underwent the same as his men on both occasions.
At midnight on Thursday 4th March we passed Gibralter. The weather was now perfect, with the sea an intense deep blue. Some of the men now complained of painful arms from the vaccination, and Mr. Robley permitted them, after roll-call, to stand aside from drill.
On 7th March we reached Malta. On the 9th we were again under way steaming East by North. The Officers got up sports which lasted for three days; "D" Company "Nelson" won the Tug-of-War. Miller of the 13th Platoon, was second in the heavy-weight boxing championship. The troops aboard were Nelson Battalion Drake Battalion, with some details of Royal Marine and Artillery. "Nelson" won about four-fifth of the prize money, of which "D" Company had the largest share.
On Thursday, 11th March, we were heading north through the Grecian Archipelago, and on Friday we dropped anchor in Mudros Bay, Lemnos. For twelve days we remained here, and the ever-changing visitors to the Bay - French and British Warships, and crowded Transports - were a source of interest all the time. While here, we landed frequently to drill, or practice attack or outposts among the hills.
We landed from the ships boats, Mr. Robley acting as coxwain for our platoon. He also had a racing-boats crew of stalkers told off, and practiced with them in the evenings. On 24th March, we got up anchor again, and were outside the boom defence beore sunset, on a southerly course for Egypt. Two days later we arrived at Port Said. We landed and pitched our camp on a sandy beach, and for a week we drilled or route-marched in the surrounding country. Bathing parades were a daily occurence and Mr. Robley bathed along with us.
On Thursday, 1st April, half the Brigade, with which were "C" and "D" Companies, "Nelson", left Port Said by train, and arrived at El Kantara on the Suez Canal. We bivouaced on the east bank, beside the old Pilgrim track to Mecca, and dug pits in the hard sand, over which we stretched a blanket; Mr. Robley, as usual, digging his own. There we rested in the heat of the day, or slept at night watched by a silver moon, or the bright eyes of the stars.
When our days work was over we enjoyed a swim in the Canal, and at night we watched the dark ships creeping from sea to sea, in the track of the search-light on their bows. On Saturday we were reviewed in the desert by Sir Ian Hamilton.
That night, and next morning which was Easter Sunday, the 13th Platoon was on guard in the trenches which overlooked the desert, where the eye ranged onward over the unbroken vista till sand and sky met in the distant haze. At four a.m. one of the sentries called me, to give my opinion on a "fire" that was burning far off in the desert to the East. I found the men all awake and eagerly discussing the "fire". One said it was a light on an aeroplane, another that it was a ship's masthead light; another that it was a Turkish outpost. It seemed to be growing smaller and clearer, and becoming closer. I called Mr. Robley, who brought his glasses to bear on it. "You are all wrong", he said; "it is the morning star just rising, and the red and enlarged appearance is caused by a low belt of mist or fog on the horizon."
By this time the star had risen above the fog-belt and we saw our mistake, but I thought it very strange that nineteen hundred and fifteen years after the greatest Event of all Time, the star of the East should again appear to the eyes of lonely watchers in the desert, and I wondered if for us,in spite of the red fog of War, it still meant "Peace on Earth; Goodwill towards Men."
In the forenoon we returned again to Port Said, and a week later we embarked on the S.S. Minnetonka. On 16th April we woke to find ourselves within a beautiful Bay in the island of Skyros. During our sea trips, the men though still kept in training, were always at liberty in the evenings, to amuse themselves as they wished, and many enjoyable concerts were held, in which the Officers took part. Mr Robley never neglected to visit the men in their quarters occasionally, to enquire as to their comfort and their food.
We remained at Skiros for a week practicing attack and defence in the valleys, and over the steep hills.
On Saturday, 24th April, all the ships moved out of the Bay in three lines, with Canopus (Battle-ship), Dartmouth (Cruiser) and Jed (T.B.D.) leading. Next morning we woke to find ourselves in the Gulf of Saros, with the guns of our escorting ships shelling the Gallipoli Peninsula opposite Bulair Lines.
Our Parson, Reverend Mr. Primrose held Divine Service, after which Colonel Eveleigh gave a lecture on our position and probable operations.
At night "D" Company went away in boats to threaten a landing and attempt to draw Enemies fire. A Trawler towed us close inshore while we made a great deal of noise, singing, playing mouth organs, and clicking the oars in the rowlocks, but with no result. Then an Officer swam ashore and kindled fires, afterwards swimming off to our Torpedo Boat Destroyer. Next morning we steamed down and lay off Gaba Tepe.
During the next two days trawlers and lighters were continually going to and coming from the shore under heavy shell-fire, landing guns and stores.
The Australians had effected a landing on Sunday 25th while we were trying to distract the attention of the Enemy at Bulair, and now at dusk on the 29th, all being clear, we got into the ships boats and were towed ashore by trawlers, having several men killed and wounded during the operation. An hour later we crossed "Shapnel valley" under heavy fire and dug ourselves in , further up. I was now acting as Chief Petty Officer to "D" Company and only saw Mr. Robley occasionally as I passed through the trenches.
For fourteen days we remained at Gaba Tepe - now better known as "Anzac", - and during that tme we never had a wash; never had our boots off; never lit a fire; were almost continually digging or deepening trenches, bringing stores or drinking water up the cliff from the beach, and taking our turn in firing-line, reserve-line or supports. The heat was intense, and the stench from the dead when the sea breeze failed, was almost unbearable. Once when the Anzacs had taken a trench, it contained so many dead Turks, and the stench was so horrible that it had to be evacuated. Nelson Battalion lost many men here , but at least a large re-inforcement of New Zealanders arrived and we received orders to re-embark.
On Thursday 13th May, we boarded the S.S. "Alnwick Castle" late at night, and next morning landed alongside the beached ship S.S. "River Clyde" at Sedd-ul-Bahr. We marched in open order by platoons to our place of Bivouac, three-quarters of a mile further up, where, hastened by occasional shells, we "dug ourselves in", for this was to be our rest-camp in future.
During all this time the guns on the ships in the bay boomed hoarsely, while the batteries on Achi Baba, Knithis, and the Asiatic side of the Dardanelles, barked defiance in return. The ground was carpeted with long grass, and beautiful wildflowers of blue and yellow, while far off on the slopes of Achi Baba, shone the scarlet glare of immense fields of poppies gleaming in the sunlight like lakes of blood.
I made my dug-out on the left of the platoon lines while Mr. Robley in shirt-sleeves and with pick and shovel, dug under the shade of a hedge on the right, where a dwarf fig-tree cast it's merciful shadow in the glare of the noon-day sun. We rested here for the next two days, working only to deepen our dug-outs, but day and night the ships guns crashed, while the French "75's" on our right coughed discreetly from the sheleter of the gullies in which they were concealed.
Sunday, 16th May was a beautifully clear day but very hot. We were still "standing by", awaiting orders. I went up to Mr. Robley's dug-out and spent an hour with him, going over the maps of Gallipoli, while he pointed out the position of our firing-line, and the disposition of the other attacking regiments. Our firing-line, at that time held by "Anson" and "Hood" Battalions - were about a mile in front, and bounded on the right by a ruined farmhouse.
To the right of the farm, and extending to the Dardanelles were the French lines with their Senegalese troops in support. The left of the Naval Division lines rested on Achi-Baba gulley but was afterwards extended further to the left by the Marine Battlaions. On their left and stretching to the cliffs overlooking the sea were Indian Troops, Territorials, and the regiments comprising the 29th Division French and British troops were thus stretched in an unbroken line across the Peninsula from shore to shore.
The ground between the firing line and Cape Hellas was sown with reserve troops, reinforcements, artillery, A.S.C. stores, hospitals, aerodroem, and all the paraphernalia that attends on Army. Spouting earth and brown smoke showed where shells were bursting and from far overhead where fleecy white clouds screened the blue glare of the sky, came the drone and hum of aeroplanes spotting for our gunners, or sending information of the movements of the enemy.
Three miles in front, between us and the sector of ground held by the Anzacs at Gaba Tepe, was the fortified hill of Achi Baba. To the right and extending to the Dardanelles was Kruves Dere Gulley. To the left of the hill was the village of Krithia, a perfect nest of machine-guns and quick-firing batteries. The low-lying ground between was thickly dotted with trees, and everywhere long grass stained with wild-flowers. Two shallow streams came down from the hill, one turning East, and the other West; while like sentinels guarding the valley stood at wide intervals the tall stone columns of a ruined acqueduct.
On Monday 17th May, Mr.Robley took his platoon down to Lancashire Beach to make a new road-way. A shell burst near us, killing seven of another party. Another and another burst, and Mr. Robley gave the word to seek cover. When the danger was over we re-assembled, and after the work was finished returned to Camp. We were served out with rum, each platoon officer superintending the issue to his own men, and that night we slept well, despite the crash of guns, and the distant drumming of rifle-fire.
Next morning we moved off at 6.30 to take over the support trenches. The firing-line had now been advanced, and the trench between the ruined farm and the gully at Backhouse Post was our objective. We kept to the left of the stream until we reached Backhouse Post, then we turned to our right to cross it before entering the trench there, before us were the fresh graves of Colonel Quilter of the "Hood" Battalion and Lieutenant Lewis Waller. Little did I think that within three short weeks I would stand here to look my last on the remains of our beloved Leader, Lieutenant John Robley.
We remained in the support trench for four days resting in the daytime but at night fully armed, and with picks and shovels, we went up the gulley to our front to dig communication trenches for the firing line. Shells and stray bullets were frequent. We had several men wounded and on Thursday 20th May just after breakfast, a bullet hit stoker McLaughland and he died in a few minutes. We buried him within the hour. Mr. Robley, myself and the Roman Catholics of the platoon were present. Petty Officer Kilgallon of the 15th Platoon, a co-religionist of McLaughland, read the burial service over him punctuated by the crash of guns.
On Saturday at 2.15 a.m. we moved up the gulley past the White House, through trenches knee deep in mud and water. We reached our position in the firing-line at day-break. Rain fell all day and in the afternoon the French on our right were heavily engaged. There was no rest for us that night as it was impossible to lie down. Mr. Robley was naturally anxious, and visited the sentries regularly, enjoining them to keep a sharp look-out.
Sunday dawned bright and clear, and we could see the earth being thrown up by the Turks as they deepened their trenches. Mr. Robley was in his element with a rifle in his hands sniping whenever a head showed, or a shovel was thrust above their parapet. Lieutenant Gilbert of the 14th platoon was severely wounded here. Aeroplanes flew overhead all day, our guns were shelling heavily and the Battalions on our left and right advanced and took new trenches. Next day was quiet but at night "C" Company of the "Nelson" advanced 60 yards for the purpose of straigtening the line, and dug a new trench, only losing four men.
Tuesday was again quiet in our sector. In the evening rain fell heavily accompanied by thunder and lightening. "D" Company stood to arms all night, and moved out of the trenches before dawn, returning to the "rest" camp. During the next eight days there was no "rest" for us. A new road was being formed along the beach at the foot of the cliffs and we supplied the "working parties". We were employed wheeling, shovelling and quarrying stone.
On Thursday 3rd June we were again in the trenches, Mr. Gilbert of "B" Company, Nelson, a brother of Sub-Lieutenant Gilbert of "D" Company was killed. In the afternoon there was a heavy bombardment of Krithia and Achi Baba and the left of the line advanced, taking several trenches. We acted as supports while this advance was taking place, but next morning at 2.30 a.m. we were withdrawn, reaching our rest camp at 4.00 a.m. At 11.00 a.m. a tremendous bombardment commenced; so intense it was impossible for us to see the hill, owing to the clouds of dust and smoke thrown up by bursting shells. Only here and there through the cloud could we see red winks of flame from the answering Turkish guns.
At 1.30 the bombardment ceased while the line advanced. The Turks who had withdrawn to trenches behind their firing-line while the shelling continued, now returned with a rush bringing machine-guns, grenades and bombs. Our men reached their front trenches, but so battered were those by shell-fire, and so little cover did they yield, that they were forced to withdraw. Again the line advanced, and after desperate fighting, in which whole Companies of the Naval Division were decimated, they succeeded in hanging on to the trenches to the left of the gulley. The right of the line was unable to advance, with the result that the newly captured trenches were "In the Air" having no protection for their right flank.
During this time "Nelsons" were in support trenches at Backhouse Post where an endless gruesome stream of wounded emerged from the sheltered path in the gully, on their way to the dressing stations. "Nelsons" now advanced to the trench which had lately been our firing-line. The necessity of guarding the flanks of the newly-acquired trenches was obvious, and the Staff decided that a communication trench must be dug along the gulley at right angles to the trenches to connect them up, and also to overlook the ground held by the enemy on the other side. "D" Company was told off for this duty. We took the left, or advanced end, and part of "A" Company took the right, or near, end connecting with the reserve trench. The 13th platoon was on the extreme left in touch with the new firing-line. It was late at night and very dark when we sprang over the parapet and crossed the open, Mr. Robley as always, leading.
We lined out until our flanks were in touch with the respective trenches. Mr. Robley and the other officers dressed the men into as true a line as possible to ensure that the trench when dug would be straight. We then lay down awaiting the word when the enemies fire would slacken, to commence digging for, all the time, bullets were spitting among us, out of the darkness. At last, a tiny gleam from a flash-lamp gave the signal.
Frantically we commenced to dig. Our entrenching tools were quite inadequate for a task requiring speed. Mr. Robley passed the word for more picks and shovels to be sent up. Some of the men were already wounded or killed and knowing the message could not be passed on, where there were gaps in the line, I got back to the reserve trench and found Colonel Eveleigh. In a short time the necessary tools were being passed from hand to hand and sent up the line of toiling men.
The word was passed up for ambulance men with stretchers, to bring out the wounded, but those were already occupied on other parts of the line, and it was day-break before they reached us.
Before returning, I again saw the Colonel. He said we were to hold on at all costs. Dawn had come when I crossed the parapet, running zig-zag across the open. I fell into the new trench beside Lieutenant Tepper of the 16th Platoon who was on the near end of "D" Company.
"How are things going", I asked, when I had got breath."Horrible" he said.
There was a pause while some reinforcements for the firing line stepped over us, as we lay at the bottom of the narrow trench.
I don't know", he resumed, "How many men are killed, but Lieutenant-Commander Evans is dead, Sub-Lieutenant Edwards is mortally wounded and word has just passed down that Mr. Robley is killed."
I rose to go up and take charge of the Platoon. "Don't go, McCaw," he said, "I am in command of the Company now; wait here and take any message that comes for me. My nerves are gone. I am going out for a smoke, and to get myself stretched."
I watched him go down the trench which now opened into the reserve, then I crouched down to wait. A Turkish machine-gun sent its bullets hissing over. Above me, on the bank lay the body of Lieutenant-Commander Evans, and when I looked right or left, I could see other bodies lying quiet and still, where they had been laid reverently up, out of the way of passing feet.
I thought of Mr. Robley, so young and so efficient; so boyishly enthusiastic in all that he did; so well liked and respected by us all. He was next in turn for promotion. Other officers had been killed or wounded but they were nothing to me. If only Mr. Robley had been left.
In the afternoon we were relieved by another Company, and went into the reserve trenches. At roll-call we found that of the 13th Platoon, comprising of about 40 men, we had Mr. Robley and six men killed , and fourteen wounded.
Two days later - on Monday, 7th June, I sent two Stokers with waterproof sheets to assist in bringing out Mr. Robley's body. There had been no opportunity to bring him out sooner.
When their work was finished, I passed the word along the line.
"Stand by, Lads; Mr. Robley is coming past."
They pressed against the sides of the narrow trench, raising their caps as the bearers passed along. In the afternoon we were withdrawn from the trenches. We passed down the gulley by the sunken pathway. It had been Colonel Eveleigh's intention when we reached the Backhouse Post, to form up "D" Company, so that all might be present at the burials, and this was actually done; but shapnel was bursting near us, and stray bullets were coming over; so for the safety of the men he gave the order for them to proceed to the rest camp under Lieutenant Tepper.
There only remained Colonel Eveleigh, Lieutenant (Adjutant) Carpenter, myself, and Lieutenant-Commander Evans'servant, with the Clergyman; and there in the sound of bursting shells, the "zipp" of an occasional bullet, and the murmur of running water from the gulley, Sub-Lieutenant Robley was laid to Rest./
Beside him were also laid Lieutenant-Commander Evans and Sub-Lieutenant McCormack.
As the clergyman read the beautiful and inspiring words of the Burial Service, "Blessed are the Dead which die in the Lord", I looked at the Colonel's face. He seemed to have aged in the last few days; the lines had deepened. He looked tired and worn, and I knew that these were Officers whom he had valued and trusted. Afterwards, I heard him ask the grave-digger who had placed the wooden crosses at the head of each, if he "was sure that this was Mr. Evans, and that Mr. Robley." The man assured him there was no mistake, and I knew myself there was no mistake, from the neat manner in which Mr. Robley's body had been sewn up in the waterproof sheets. To the Stokers who undertook that sorrowful duty, it had been a Work of Love.
When the men had recovered somewhat from the strain, I learned the manner of his death. With his usual infectious enthusiasm, he had been kneeling up in the half-dug trench sniping in return at the red flash of Turkish rifles. Reinforcements who were urgently needed in the firing-line, came stooping cautiously, up the narrow trench. In a moment of forgetfulness he stood up to let them pass. Then the sniper fired again, and he dropped with a bullet through his head.
His end was sudden and painless.
I do not think there are eight of the original platoon left. It is the same all over.
The Stokers, the "Hard Cases, have justified themselves.
I have found a difficulty in condensing all I had to say, but I think it necessary that I should have told you so much, to give you a proper understanding of all that your son came through. Of course, his history is largely the history of the Battalion. What I have written, is as much to honour your Son, as to fulfil the wish of his Father.May I venture to hope that you will look upon it in that light.
Contributed by Alan Sykes. June 2015.