14 May 2015

Grandfather, what on earth were you thinking !!!

Those of you who in the past have read my blog will be well aware that I have a fascination with all things World War One and know that I love to research and try to find out as much as I can about the 20 plus family members who I have identified so far as having served during this war. Late last year during the course of my research I came across a document that stunned me and really made me sit back and think …… “golly gosh great, great grandfather, what on earth were you thinking” !!!

I was researching on www.ancestry.com, trying to locate the service records for my Scottish great great uncle Robert LINDSAY, the brother of my paternal great grandmother Elizabeth Speirs RENSHAW (nee LINDSAY). Lindsay is a fairly common surname in Scotland, and add to that the very common name of Robert, and it was like looking for a needle in a haystack. Since great, great uncle Robert had returned safely from the war there would be no record to be found for him on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website, and I had not a clue as to which regiment or battalion he had served with, other than it was a Scottish one.

So I was slowly and methodically working my way down the list of service records for all the Robert LINDSAY’s from Scotland when I came across a record for a Robert LINDSAY from Blantyre, Lanarkshire. This location caught my eye as “my Lindsay’s” came from around that area. Further reading revealed that this record wasn’t for my great, great uncle Robert though, but was in fact for his father, my great, great grandfather. His next of kin was listed as his wife Bridget LINDSAY (nee MURPHY) which was indeed the name of his second wife, so this was definitely my Robert.

My great, great grandfather
Robert Speirs LINDSAY
(1868 - 1928)
Robert had enlisted exactly 100 years ago today on the 14th of May 1915 and I was thrilled to see a description for him which showed he was 5ft 4in tall, weighed 143 lbs, had a fresh complexion, brown eyes and light brown hair. “How wonderful to finally learn these details about him” I thought to myself as I read through his records, “....... but great great grandfather, you were born in 1868 so wouldn’t you be too old to be a serving soldier in world war one ?"

Robert’s three sons (Andrew, Robert and James) were all serving soldiers at this time, aged in their mid 20’s, so the age shown on Robert’s enlistment of 38 years was a long, long way from the truth. Robert was in fact almost 47 years old but had somehow managed to convince the recruitment officers that he was only 38. He had enlisted locally at Hamilton but within one week had been assigned to the 3rd (Reserve) Battalion of the Cameron Highlanders (No. 18162) at Inverness.

Robert had been physically examined and had been found “fit for homes services only”. But he obviously had the desire to do more than just stay in Scotland on the home front as 11 months later he was requesting a transfer to the Royal Engineers. I am very fortunate to have found a copy of the hand-written letter he wrote to go with his transfer request. In this he states:

On being medically inspected I regret that I have been found fit for Home Services only. I quite agree that this is true, so far as service in the Cameron Highlanders is concerned and I beg of you to consider my transfer to the Royal Engineers as a miner, on the grounds that I have been a miner for twenty years, and would be quite fit to undertake the duties and render good service as a “Sapper” in France. I am exceedingly anxious to proceed to the “Front”, and if I am unable to do so as a Cameron Highlander, I beg of you to allow me to go as a miner. Trusting this, my requisition will meet favourable consideration. 
I am Sir, your obedient servant,

18162 R Lindsay, Pte

After quite a bit of correspondence back and forwards, as well as another medical exam to determine if Robert was in fact fit to serve in the Royal Engineers, he was officially transferred on the 10th of May 1916 and assigned to the Royal Engineers 3rd Provisional Company (No. 158271). 

On the 25th of May 1916, just over a year after he initially enlisted, Robert got his wish and embarked for France. In July 1916 the Royal Engineers 256th Tunnelling Company was formed and Robert was assigned to them and moved with them to the Vimy front in Northern France. At this time the British Army had 30 different tunnelling companies working in France and had in the previous 12 months sought the services of many experienced coal miners from back home. Because Robert was an experienced miner having spent over 20 years underground at the Bothwell Castle Colliery, this was probably the only reason he got his wish and got to see active service.

But his time in France was short-lived and just over 100 days after his arrival in France he was on his way back to England, suffering from 'sickness'. Exactly what type of sickness we will probably never be able to find out but most likely it would have been a combination of dysentry, vomiting and fever caused by the horrendous conditions the men were forced to live in and work in. It often brought down even the strongest of men and was the cause of many thousands of deaths during the war. Robert arrived home on the 4th of September 1916 and was discharged from the 256th Tunnelling Company five days later on the 9th of September under “King’s Regulations paragraph 392 XVI (no longer physically fit for war service)”. 

Whether Robert was disappointed by his short-lived stay in France we will never know. He was so keen to get over there that he lied about his age, but I personally think that upon witnessing the horrors of war he may well have been a bit relieved to actually be coming home alive. After recuperating back in England Robert was declared no longer medically fit for war service on the 24th of November 1916 and was officially discharged from the army on the 15th of December 1916.

But that isn’t the end of Robert’s story. On the 5th of June 1919, seven months after the official end of the war, Robert re-enlisted with the British Army with the 174th Company of the Labour Corps (No. 703574) and four days later was sent back to France. I have been unable to find out as yet the exact movements of this Company but I do know that it was heavily involved with “grave registration” work in France. This work involved the collecting of bodies and the locating of out-lying or previously unknown graves, and then the re-location of them into the formal cemeteries that were being developed throughout France and Belgium. This would have been an absolutely horrendous job for Robert and the other men in his Company to have done, with many of the bodies still lying in the mud or out in the open many months or even years after their deaths. It would also have been extremely dangerous work as it is estimated that nearly one quarter of all the shells fired during the war had failed to detonate but instead lay buried where they fell just beneath the surface of the ground. One can only imagine the gruesome scenes that the workers of the Labour Corp saw and the horrors they had to deal with and I’m sure that along with all the other soldiers who saw active service in World War One, they were forever scarred by their experiences.

After five months of hard work Robert came home and was yet-again officially discharged from the British Army on the 12th of November 1919 under “King’s Regulations paragraph 392 XXva (no longer required for war service, surplus to requirements)”. He wasn’t far off being 52 years old and was quite possibly one of the oldest serving regular soldiers at this time.

I mentioned at the top of this article that one document I found stunned me somewhat and I will include it here as it too is part of Robert’s story. This document followed Robert home from France when he returned home due to sickness in September 1916 and it leaves me a bit unsure of exactly how I feel about this whole scenario of Robert being so old and serving in the war. 

In a way I am very proud of what he did, especially re-enlisting after the war to return to France to help deal with the gruesome task of locating and helping to identify bodies. But just like a previous article I have written on this blog about another part of Robert’s mysterious life, another part of me is quite confused as to what exactly his motives were.
  • Why was he so determined to go to war that he had to lie about his age ?
  • Did he genuinely have the desire to go over there to help or was he like many thousands of others who thought it would just be some great holiday or adventure ?
  • Did he feel left out being at home when his three sons were over at the front and he simply wanted to go and join them ?
  • Or was he just after the recognised pension schemes that he knew would follow after the war ?

The life of a tunneller in France during World War One was an extremely hard and very physically demanding one. As well as having to work deep underground in very confined conditions with the risk of cave-in or explosion always on the cards, there was also the real danger that your tunnel would accidentally meet an enemy tunnel and then one can only imagine the chaos that would have followed.

A preserved WW1 British tunnel on the Vimy
front. I wonder if Robert played any part in
the digging of this particular tunnel. **
It must be remembered that when the above document was written Robert was nearly 50 years old, over twice the age of many of the other tunnellers he would have been working with. I often wonder whether his superior officers ever realised that he might have perhaps been older than what he stated on his enlistment papers. If they didn't realise this then perhaps this is the reason why he is being labeled as “lazy” as there is no way a man of 50 could physically keep up with a young, fit man in his early 20’s. 

As for the comments that he was “unreliable" and "unintelligent”, I’ll just have to take these on the chin. Perhaps he was unintelligent but this certainly wasn’t his fault and it’s something I will probably never now be able to get confirmed or denied. Robert died in September 1928 aged only 59, after painfully suffering for over a year with cancer of the oesophagus. 

Robert, you are my great, great grandfather and I very proudly carry your Scottish genes. While many others chose to stay at home and do nothing when war was raging across Europe, you got out there and did your bit to help even though you really didn’t have to. And regardless of how you came across to others, I am still proud of what you did with your life and what you achieved. But once again you have left me with so many more questions than answers. I know that I will probably never find the answers I desire but I will keep searching, determined to find out all I can about what made you the person that you were. 


Please note:
The photo marked ** is not mine and was found online here during my research.

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