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Sold on 6 July 2004

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Medals From The Collection of Hal Giblin

Hal Giblin

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№ 429


6 July 2004

Hammer Price:

A fine Great War group of three awarded to Captain H. M. Robertson, Royal Welch Fusiliers, who was killed by a trench mortar bomb in January 1916: a comrade in arms to Dunn and Graves, he is mentioned in both of their memoirs

1914-15 Star (Lieut., R.W. Fus.); British War and Victory Medals (Capt.), contained in an old fitted
Spink, London leather case, extremely fine (3) £600-800

This lot was sold as part of a special collection, Medals From The Collection of Hal Giblin.

View Medals From The Collection of Hal Giblin


Helenus Macauley Robertson was the son of Sir Helenus Robertson of Upton Grange, Chester, the chairman of the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board. Educated at Eton from 1895-1900, ‘where his cultivated tastes enabled him to win prizes for English essay and English verse’ - attributes that would no doubt find favour with men like Graves - he went up to New College, Oxford, where he took an honours degree in history. And, ‘like the patriot he was, he identified himself at both centres with the Officers’ Training Corps, and thus was ready when the call to arms came in 1914.’ He was also a successful “oar”.

Undoubtedly possessed of a brilliant mind, Robertson was called to the Bar in 1904, where he became a pupil in the chambers of Sir John Simon, K.C., and devoted himself to chiefly Admiralty and Commercial cases - such was his success in court that he won briefs for cases that were tried in the Admiralty Division of the King’s Bench. Robertson also had an interest in politics, ‘leaning to the progressive Conservative side’, and stood - unsuccessfully - as a candidate for the Tyneside division of Northumberland in the general election of 1910. Yet such grand beginnings aside, Robertson ‘was a delightful companion, animated by a keen sense of humour. Snobbishness of any kind he detested. Straight-forward and upright himself, he hated whatever was affected or insincere.’ Yet more attributes that must have placed him in good stead with his coming call to arms.

Enrolling in the Inns of Court O.T.C., he obtained a commission in the 3rd Battalion, Royal Welch Fusiliers, with whom he went to France in May 1915. Later he was transferred to the 2nd Battalion, a posting that he shared with Robert Graves, who recalled their protracted journey together up to Laventie in
Goodbye To All That:

‘At the end of July, Robertson, one of the other Royal Welch officers attached to the Welsh, and myself had orders to proceed to the Laventie sector. We were to report to the Second Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers ... Robertson and I agreed to take our journey as leisurely as possible. Laventie lay only seventeen miles off, but our orders were to ‘proceed by train’; so a company mess-cart took us down to Bethune. We asked the railway officer what trains he had for Laventie. He told us one would be going in a few minutes; we decided to miss it. No other train ran until the next day, so we stopped the night at the Hotel de la France ... The next day Robertson and I caught our train. It took us to a junction, the name of which I forget, where we spent a day botanizing in the fields. No other train arrived until the following day, when we went on to Berguette, a rail-head still a number of miles from Laventie. There a mess-cart was waiting for us in answer to a telegram we had sent. We finally rattled up to battalion headquarters in Laventie High Street, having taken fifty-four hours to come those seventeen miles. We saluted the adjutant smartly, gave our names, and told him we were Third Battalion officers posted to the regiment. He did not shake hands with us, offer us a drink, or say a word of welcome ...’

Worse was to come, as so memorably described by Graves, when they reached the mess, for as Lieutenants of the Militia they were mere “warts” and entitled to no decency whatsoever. Graves bid the gathered throng of officers a “good morning, gentlemen” as they entered the room, but received no reply. And Robertson evidently broke the rules by asking for a whisky - “Sorry sir,” said the mess-waiter, “it’s against orders for young officers.” This struck Graves as quite ridiculous, if only because of Robertson’s relatively advanced age and the fact he was ‘a solicitor with a large practice, and had stood for Parliament in the Yarmouth division at the previous election.’ Then the second-in-command, a highly unpopular character known as “Buzz Off”, was heard to ask the Adjutant, “Who are those funny ones down there, Charley?” - “New in this morning from the Militia. Answer to the names of Robertson and Graves,” came the reply. And the Colonel intervened, “Which one is which?” whereupon Robertson made himself known, only to be told he had not been invited to do so. At this point ‘Robertson winced but said nothing’ and Graves said under his breath, ‘You damned snobs! I’ll survive you all. There’ll come a time when there won’t be one of you left in the battalion to remember this mess at Laventie.’ Both men were relieved to be sent up to the trenches that night.

In spite of this unpromising start, Robertson and Graves settled in to life at the front, where they were undoubtedly kept busy - the 2nd R.W.F. rarely letting a night go by without a patrol being sent out into “No Man’s Land”. And before long they became embroiled in a bloody encounter in the battle of Loos, an action vividly described by Graves in
Goodbye to all That:

‘We went up to the corpse-strewn front line. The captain of the gas-company, who was keeping his head and wore a special oxygen respirator, had by now turned off the gas-cocks. Vermorel-sprayers had cleared out most of the gas, but we were still warned to wear our masks. We climbed up and crouched on the fire-step, where the gas was not so thick - gas, being heavy stuff, kept low. Then Thomas brought up the remainder of ‘A’ Company [Graves’s unit] and, with ‘D’ [Robertson’s unit], we waited for the whistle to follow the other two companies over. Fortunately at this moment the adjutant appeared. He was now left in command of the battalion, and told Thomas that he didn’t care a damn about orders; he was going to cut his losses and not send ‘A’ and ‘D’ over to their deaths until he got definite orders from brigade. He had sent a runner back, and we must wait ... My mouth was dry, my eyes out of focus, and my legs quaking under me. I found a water-bottle full of rum and drank about half a pint; it quieted me, and my head remained clear ... We waited a couple of hours for the order to charge. The men were silent and depressed ... Finally a runner arrived with a message that the attack had been postponed ... My memory of that day is hazy. We spent it getting the wounded down to the dressing-station, spraying the trenches and dug-outs to get rid of the gas, and clearing away the earth where the trenches were blocked. The trenches stank of a gas-blood-lyddite-latrine smell ...’

Dunn, too, refers to Robertson going about his frontline duties, and the odd near squeak, such as the occasion the enemy blew a mine when the pair of them were standing-to on the fire-step - ‘earth and stones fell all round us ... it failed to wreck the sap, but the walls caved in and partly buried a man’. So, too, does he recall other unpleasant elements of trench life:

‘There was more gas tonight. It should thin out the rats, filthy pests. Two of them once woke Ormrod, mating on his bed; his vigorous kick threw them on to Robertson, who mumbled, “Yes, what is it?” - thinking that Brigade Orderly’s familiar midnight hand had been laid on him ...’

Yet amidst all of this danger and hardship, Robertson clearly made his mark, for having come through the battle of Loos he was given a Captaincy and appointed Adjutant. On Christmas Day 1915, however, he only just got through his rounds with the C.O., when they visited the Battalion’s assorted billets and ‘at eleven messes were offered, and had to drain, 5 glasses of port, neat whisky 3, rum, claret and champagne, 1 of each. A “glass” is a conventional term for a quantity served in a tumbler, mug or mess-tin. Each would drink about three pints of the mixture. At the last dyke they had to cross the Transport Sergeant fell in, embracing the plank he meant to place for their crossing. They got over without mishap. It was the last effort that nobility required of them’ (Dunn refers).

Robertson was killed in his dug-out by a trench mortar bomb on 26 January 1916, an incident to which Dunn again refers:

‘Robertson was killed when our line was being strafed with everything. Of six inside C Company’s tin-roofed sand-bag shack he only was hit. The minnie burst just outside without touching any of the half-dozen men standing near. Before starting to go round the companies he had telegraphed C. S. Owen [another officer of the R.W.F.] wishing him “many happy returns of the Kaiser’s birthday.” ’