Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Dark days for Chailey - Magnus Rainier Robertson

August would turn out to be the worst month of the year for the people of Chailey Parish. Eight local men lost their lives this month and a further four men nursed at Hickwells and Beechlands hospitals were also killed. On this day, 88 years ago, Captain Magnus Rainier Robertson MC lost his life in the service of his King and Country. This is his story.

Magnus Rainier Robertson was born at Chailey on 26th August 1887. He was the son of Magnus Laurence Robertson (1840 - 1890) and Mary Robertson (1846 - 1933), his father’s former housekeeper. Magnus had two sisters, Eliza (1883 – 1903) and Maud (1885 – 1896).

The Robertson family was well-to-do and lived at Brook House (now known as Chailey Place) on the village green at Chailey. By 1912, his father and both sisters already dead, Magnus Rainier Robertson inherited the house.

Magnus Robertson attested with the Royal Sussex Regiment on 4th September 1914. On his attestation papers (Army Form B. 111 - Short service – One year with the Colours), the “One year” has been crossed out and replaced with “three years”. Robertson attested that he had lived away from his father’s house for three years at “various places” and that his trade or calling was “Gentleman”. His attestation was witnessed by Captain Charles Hext Cotesworth of the 21st Lancers. Charles Hext and his father, W G Cotesworth, the JP who certified Robertson’s attestation, would have known him well. Like the Robertson family, the Cotesworths were also a wealthy local family, living nearby in Chailey at Roeheath. Later, Charles Hext’s sister, Margaret Cotesworth, the Commandant of Sussex 54 Voluntary Aid Detachment, would play a key role in running two hospitals in the village.

Magnus Rainier Robertson is described on Army Form B. 111 as being 27 years old, five feet, eight and a half inches tall and weighing twelve stone two pounds. His hair and eyes are described as brown.

Local Chailey doctor, W S Orton, examined Robertson on the 4th September at Charles Cotesworth’s Roeheath home, considering him fit for the Army. This was approved the following day in Brighton.

Robertson was given the number 2825 and posted to The Royal Sussex Regiment Depot. Four days later he was posted to the 8th Royal Sussex and found himself in number 7 platoon, B Company. The 8th Royal Sussex was a K2 pioneer battalion formed at Chichester in September 1914. It would spend the entire war with the 18th (Eastern) Division but Roberston’s tenure with it would be a brief one.

On 10th September 1914, Robertson was appointed lance-corporal but it wasn’t long before he was looking for a role more fitting of his status as a Gentleman. By November he had already applied for a temporary commission in the regular army for the period of the war. He stated on the application form that he could ride, (although noted that he wasn’t a good horseman), and that his preferred unit was the 12th Essex Regiment. The application was witnessed by JP Robert Campion Blencowe (another of Chailey’s landed gentry) on 27th November and Robertson’s good standard of education was attested to by his old headmaster at Seaford Boys’ School. Colonel H G Sutton of the 8th Royal Sussex (which was by now stationed at Colchester, Essex), approved the application on 2nd December 1914. Sixteen days later, 2825 Lance-Corporal Magnus Rainier Robertson was discharged to commission.

It is uncertain why Robertson’s stated preference was for the 12th Essex Regiment. The battalion had been formed at Harwich on 26th October 1914 and was originally a service battalion in the 106th Brigade in the original 35th Division. In April 1915 however, it became a 2nd reserve battalion and was ultimately absorbed, in September 1916, in the Training Reserve Battalions of the 6th Reserve Brigade at Harwich.

In October 1914, Chailey’s vicar, The Reverend Jellicoe, published his first list of men connected to Chailey who were serving their King and Country. Magnus Robertson appears in that first list and subsequent lists published at monthly intervals throughout the war. In March 1915 he appears for the first time under the category Officer, and in October 1915 as “Robertson, 2nd Lieut M.R. 12th Essex”. Compiled as it was from local hearsay, Reverend Jellicoe’s list should not be regarded as a reliable source of information and the battalions noted are not always correct. However, in the absence of other official papers from Robertson’s file at the National Archive in London, this does seem to point to clear evidence that Robertson was successful in getting posted to the 12th battalion.

Essex Regiment Museum records (ER4658) provide the next reference to Robertson. On 13th July 1916, by now a lieutenant, he embarked for France. On the 19th, he joined the 2nd battalion (4th Division) at Mailly Maillet. It seems reasonable to assume that having been turned into a reserve battalion, either Robertson or the higher authorities, decided that he should not spend more time than was necessary in England and that either he, or they, sought his transfer out of the 12th Essex.

Burrows reports that ten officers and 97 other ranks, joined the battalion on the 18th July but there is no mention of an officer joining on the following day, and no mention at all of Robertson in the volume that covers the 2nd Battalion.

Between August 13th and 29th inclusive, Robertson was appointed Acting Captain and put in charge of one of one of the 2nd Essex companies (Supplement to The London Gazette, 6th November 1916, page 10730). He reverted to the rank of lieutenant on 30th August but between 10th and 23rd October 1916 was back to Acting Captain (Essex Regiment Museum, ER4658).

On the 23rd October 1916, the 4th and 8th Divisions were involved in an assault on German lines east of Lesboeufs and Gueudecourt. According to Burrows, a heavy mist caused a postponement from 11.30am until 2.30pm and when the troops did go over they were met by heavy machine gun fire. By 9pm, with no gains made, the 2nd Essex were back in their trenches. The battalion suffered 255 casualties and Robertson was one of them. The same day, a telegram was sent to his mother in Chailey, advising her that he had been wounded.

At Roberston’s Medical Board hearing held on 4th November 1916, it was recorded that he had been “wounded by shell fragments near Les Boeufs. One fragment passed from back to front of the upper part of the right arm internal to the bone and was removed from under the skin of the front of the arm. Three other fragments caused wounds in the buttocks, and the officer thinks that these have also been removed.”

On 24th October, Robertson was admitted to the 20th General Hospital at Camiers with, according to a second telegram to his mother, “gunshot wounds right arm and buttocks slight” and on 1st November he was being put on board a hospital ship at Calais, en route for England. He arrived at Dover the same day. Three days later, as mentioned above, the Medical Board convened at The Research Hospital, Cambridge did not expect him to be fit for General Service for four months.

On 22nd December 1916, Robertson wrote to the War office from Brook House, asking for orders to be a re-examined by a Medical Board, “as my leave expires on 3rd Jan 1917”. The subsequent Medical Board held at the 2nd Eastern General Hospital in Brighton found that the wound to his arm was soundly healed, although the wound to his buttocks was still causing some discharge. On the 21st February 1917, and by now with the 3rd Essex Regiment at Felixstowe, another Medical Board found that this time, Robertson had recovered and was fit for General Service; his wounds classified as “slight, not permanent”.

Robertson travelled overseas again and at some point transferred to the 11th Essex Regiment. On 24th May 1917, he was promoted to Captain (Supplement to The London Gazette, 9th October 1917, page 10386) although the Sussex Express clearly did not know this when they published an article of local Chailey interest on 22nd June 1917:

A new convalescent hospital known as Brook House, Chailey, the residence of Lieut M R Robertson, was opened last week for the accommodation of wounded officers attached to the Flying Corps. The commandant is Miss Blencowe of Bineham, Chailey and the Matron, Miss Jackson, a lady of wide experience. The work in connection with the establishment is purely voluntary and many local ladies have offered their services. Brook House lies in ideal grounds, is embowered in trees and can accommodate between 25 and 30 officers.”

Robertson was still nominally with the 2nd Battalion but attached to the 11th and it was while he was with this battalion that he was wounded for the second time, winning a Military Cross in the same action. In a trench raid on June 28th 1917 in which his fellow officer, Lieut F B Wearne, won the Victoria Cross, Robertson sustained gunshot wounds to his left leg and face. The raid, intended to take prisoners, obtain identification and destroy dug-outs as well as divert attention from the 46th Division to the right, involved three officers and 80 other ranks as well as one officer and 20 other ranks of the 3rd Australian Tunnelling Company. Although adjudged successful, the raid cost the battalion three officers and 45 other ranks, killed wounded and missing. The Australians lost one killed and 13 wounded.

Later, on 17th September, The Supplement to The London Gazette (page 9583) announced Robertson’s award of the Military Cross:

T./Lt Magnus Rainier Robertson, Essex R. For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty when commanding the centre and most important party of a raid. He went from post to post, encouraging his men, and, although wounded in two places, most ably appreciating and dealing with a very varying situation. He brought up reinforcements at a critical moment , and frustrated all counter-attacks, finally seeing all his wounded safely away and returning with the rear party under heavy rifle fire and machine-gun fire. He set a magnificent example of gallantry and disregard of danger throughout the operation.

Robertson was again admitted to the 20th General Hospital at Camiers and shortly afterwards, sent to the Officers’ Military Hospital in Devonport, England. There, on 10th July, a Medical Board reported that his cheek wound had healed but the wound to his thigh was still discharging. “The right cheek was struck by a piece of shrapnel splinter causing a simple flesh wound. A MG bullet ploughed the fleshy part of outer [unclear] of left thigh. No injury to bone or important tissues.”

Remarkably, just one day after he had been wounded, The East Sussex News carried a report which must have reached Mary Robertson in Chailey at least two days before the official War Office telegram. The article ran:

Lieut M R Robertson, Essex Regiment, whose residence, Brook House, was recently opened as a Convalescent Hospital for Wounded Officers, has been wounded in action in France for the second time.

Frances Blencowe, (sister of Robert Campion Blencowe, JP) wrote to the authorities on Robertson’s behalf later that month. An influential member of the Chailey community in her own right, for the past three years she had been nursing with Sussex 54 VAD at Hickwells and Beechland House hospitals and had also spent time at Netley Military Hospital near Southampton, and in Serbia. Now she was the Commandant of the new hospital for RFC officers which, thanks to Mary and Magnus Robertson’s generosity, had been set up at their home, Brook House.

Would it be possible, she wrote to her friend Sir Francis Davies, for you to say a good word and to enable the owner of this house to have his Convalescence here? We are a Convalescent Hospital and it would be so nice for his old mother to have him here and he would be a great help here. He is a most conscientious person and would take no forbidden liberties. His MB [Medical Board] is at Devonport and he himself is at Bigandon Hospital, Buckfastleigh, South Devon.

For his part, Sir Francis seemed at a loss what to do. A note scribbled in Robertson’s file and dated 26th July 1917 reads: “Sir Francis Davies would be very grateful if you would tell him what he may say in reply.” When that reply duly came it cannot have failed to disappoint Frances Blencowe and Mary Robertson. “The officer is a patient in a Convalescent Hospital” the note reads testily. “We deal with medical boards and are not concerned with transfer from one hospital to another.” Robertson remained in south Devon.

On 9th August 1917, a medical board held at the hospital recommended three weeks’ leave and did not think Robertson would be fit for General Service for a further three months. Nevertheless, before that time had elapsed, Robertson, now back with the 3rd Essex at Felixstowe, was again appearing before a board (on 10th October) which this time passed him fit.

On 9th November 1917, according to Robertson’s Casualty Form Active Service (CFAS), he proceeded to France. On 30th November 1917, a Lieutenant Robertson is mentioned in the Burrows volume that deals with the service battalions, as being involved in a skirmish in which the 11th Essex blocked a German attack. On 14th December 1917 he was posted to the 9th Battalion.

On 24th February 1918, Robertson was given two weeks’ leave and in April he gets more mentions in Burrows, this time in relation to the 9th Essex being heavily attacked and ‘A’ Company under Captain Robertson having “a most trying day” which saw the men fire 15,000 rounds of small arms ammunition. The 9th Essex was struggling to maintain a position known as The Quarry and Lieutenant Mussett recorded his memories of that time in Burrows:

“The Quarry portion of the line was occupied by ‘A’ Company, whose headquarters consisted of two white bell tents, nestling in The Quarry, and in them Captain Robertson and the M.O. carried on their duties. Visiting ‘A’s’ section of the line, to the left and slightly forward of ‘C’s’ in the small hours, I shall always remember dear old Robby seated in his tent, during a lull in the night’s gunfire, engaged in writing by a candle’s glimmering ray, with an old wooden box against the tent pole as writing table, with conscientious thoroughness writing some returns himself, whilst others were taking the opportunity of a much needed rest.”

On 22nd August 1918, the 9th Essex went over the top at Morlancourt. The battalion took its first two objectives but sustained heavy casualties. Six officers were killed and 120 other ranks killed, wounded and missing. Magnus Rainier Robertson was one of the officer fatalities. Burrows (page 116) describes the action as follows:

“Immediately after crossing the Bray-Meaulte Road, the Battalion ran into much trouble and heavy machine gun fire. The sun was up, the mist had cleared and the 9th Essex were below the high ground around Becordel. “D Company (Wheeler), on the left, entered their objective and “B” in the centre, gained a culvert, but “A”, on the right, were caught in a level field of stubble devoid of protection. No further advance was possible and the troops endeavoured to make what cover they could with their entrenching tools. Captain Robertson was hit again and again while his runner, Private Small, made valiant efforts to find cover for him. Here, Lieut Bailey was also killed. It was a most trying day, the men being hit one after another.”

On 24th September 1918, Messrs Cox and Co’s Shipping Agency Ltd, forwarded a small package of Captain Robertson’s personal effects to Chailey by registered post. The following year, probate of his Will was granted. He left an estate valued at £44,789 10s and 7d.

Captain Robertson was buried in Sandpit British Cemetery, Meaulte and on 31st October 1918, the War Office wrote to his mother to inform her of this. His body was later disinterred and re-buried at Meaulte Triangle Cemetery (now known as Meaulte Military Cemetery). His grave was later given the reference G.15. His family had the additional words JESU MERCY / CHAILEY, SUSSEX carved on his headstone

Magnus Robertson’s death brought to an end this particular branch of the family. His mother, who had seen all three of her children die, passed away in 1933.

On May 12th 2005, Captain Robertson’s British War Medal was sold at auction in London for £110.


Frank Briton said...

Captain Robertson was a member of Loyal Orange Lodge No.398 in Lewes and is commemorated in the Lodge Bible which is still used at meetings today

Paul Nixon said...

Thank you for this, Frank.