Lest We Forget: World War I memories from the Front

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23 October 2012
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imports_MIL_cutoutpoppy_59396.jpg Lest We Forget: World War I memories from the Front
A personal account from Bill Harriman of his grandfather's wartime service, with a dog-eared photo of a young NCO, two medal ribbons, two postcards and a cheap clasp knife. ...

I was pleasantly reminded that the Season of Remembrance is coming fast upon us by the gift of a small collection of World War One memorabilia.

There is a dog-eared photo of a young NCO, two medal ribbons, two postcards and a cheap clasp knife. It is typical of the stuff that I see at every Antiques Roadshow.

The man in the photo is G/19548 Corporal Samuel Robinson of the Royal West Kent Regiment. He wears the standard issue ‘Gorblimey’ cap with the prancing white horse badge of the West Kents.

The two embroidered cards are typical of the products of the huge industry that sprang up to provide keepsakes and novelties for soldiers to send to their loved ones back in Blighty.

The ribbons are the British War Medal 1914-1920 and the Victory Medal. Some 6,500,000 were struck in 1919 and they were awarded to anyone who had served in the forces.

The War medal had a high proportion of silver which often meant that it was pawned during the hard times of the 1920s.

I don’t know much about Sam Robinson other than that he came from farming stock in Northamptonshire. He was born in about 1883, and married a Fenland girl called Anne Beeby in 1915.

Anne’s family were farmers and they kept the Dog-in-a-Doublet pub on Whittlesey’s North Side – a well-known haunt of local ’fowlers.

The Royal West Kents had a distinguished war record serving in India, Mesopotamia, France and Flanders. At Neuve Chapelle in March 1915, the Regiment held up a determined German counter-attack for three days against overwhelming odds, eventually seeing the Jerries off.

Sam’s service records did not survive the Blitz in World War 2. German incendiary bombs destroyed about 60% of WWI records.

However, the Public Record Office’s excellent on-line medal roll archive allowed me to confirm his medal awards and gave me his service number. After that, my research hit a brick wall.

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However, help came in the form of Chris Jupp curator of the Royal West Kent’s Regimental museum in Maidstone. Chris found Sam in the regimental muster rolls. He appears to have been part of a draft of men transferred from the Sherwood Foresters.

I was always puzzled that a man from the Midlands should end up serving in a southern regiment. However, due to heavy losses, recruits were effectively no more than battlefield casualty replacements posted where they were needed. Sam was posted to the 7th Battalion of the Royal West Kents.

During 1918, they saw considerable action suffering heavy casualties and with many men taken prisoner. His clasp knife provides compelling evidence of the Battalion’s engagement with the Germans. It is a cheap old thing made from stamped steel with jigged bone grips.

Originally, it had two blades, probably a knife and perhaps a can-opener. I say originally because all that is left is a twisted mess of buckled plates and shattered grips.

It is clear from this that it was hit by a bullet or a shell splinter. Sam owed his life to this knife; a couple of inches the wrong way and he would have been seriously wounded or even killed.

After the war Sam qualified as a master baker and confectioner. He died in 1948.

The First World War wiped out a generation of men. The relatives of those who died were sent a commemorative bronze plaque; 1,355,000 were made.

Sam Robinson’s clasp knife ranks amongst my most treasured possessions. I love it because it tells a story of an ordinary man who, by an amazing stroke of Fortune survived the carnage of World War One to return to a normal life.

I also treasure it because it’s a part of my own story; Corporal Sam Robinson was my grandfather.

 

Read the full version of this, and many more, interesting articles in the November/December 2012 issue of The Armourer.