A YOUNG Helensburgh naval officer who was a nephew of Andrew Bonar Law was shot by a sniper in a World War One trench battle.
Sub-Lieutenant John Pitcairn Robley, whose aunt Annie was the wife of the future Prime Minister, was the younger son of dairy proprietor William Pitcairn Robley and his wife Edith.
Born in Glasgow on December 3 1895, John was educated at Larchfield School and then Loretto School in Edinburgh.
After leaving school he went to work for a Glasgow firm of iron merchants, William Jacks & Co., which was run by a Helensburgh man and in which Andrew Bonar Law was a partner for a time.
When war broke out in 1914 he joined His Majesty’s forces, and was gazetted as a Temporary Sub-Lieutenant in the Nelson Battalion, Royal Naval Division.
In 1915 he took part in the early weeks of what turned out to be an eight-month campaign in Gallipoli fought by Commonwealth and French forces.
The aims were to force Turkey out of the war, to relieve the deadlock of the Western Front in France and Belgium, and to open a supply route to Russia through the Dardanelles and the Black Sea.
The Allies landed on the peninsula on April 25-26, the British at Cape Helles in the south and the Australian and New Zealand Corps north of Gaba Tepe on the west coast, an area which became known as Anzac. The difficult terrain and stiff Turkish resistance soon led to the stalemate of trench warfare.
A popular officer, John lost his life on June 5 when the Battalion was under heavy fire in the trenches.
It was reported: “Sub-Lieutenant Robley was firing from a trench at the flashes of Turkish rifles. He stood upright to allow some troops to pass him in the trench, and was shot through the head by a sniper.”
He died immediately, and was later buried with two of his fellow Battalion officers at Skew Bridge Cemetery, Helles. His name is on the Cenotaph in Helensburgh’s Hermitage Park.
Only three months after his death there was little further serious fighting and the lines remained unchanged. The peninsula was successfully evacuated in December and early January 1916.
After John’s death, his father received a full and moving account of his wartime service from Petty Officer Robert McCaw, of Anderston, Glasgow.
He wrote of the part Sub-Lieutenant John P.Robley played with the Nelson Battalion 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, comprised the 13th, 14th, 15th and 16th platoons.
A platoon consisted roughly of fifty men, divided into four sections, and controlled by one officer, one petty-officer, and four leading seamen.
The training camp of the Royal Naval Division was on the Downs near Blandford, Dorsetshire. Huts were assigned to the different platoons, and the 13th platoon of “D” Company, Nelson was in one.
Petty Officer McCaw wrote: “Our officer, Sub-Lieutenant Robley, was accommodated with a small room in the officer’s huts, situated on the opposite side of the parade-ground from these of the 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.
“It showed the interest and enthusiasm Mr Robley had in his work, when he was able to lecture for over an hour, and hold the men’s attention all the time.
“He quickly gained the respect and confidence of the platoon. Sneering references 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.
“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.”
After inspections by Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, and the King, the Nelson Battalion travelled by train to Avonmouth, near Bristol, and embarked on the Cunard liner Franconia.
They steamed through the Grecian Archipelago, and dropped anchor in Mudros Bay, Lemnos, for twelve days, before moving on to Port Said in Egypt for a week.
Next they embarked on the SS Minnetonka, and on April 16 they woke to find themselves in a beautiful bay in the island of Skyros.
Petty Officer McCaw continued: “During our sea trips, the men though still kept in training, but 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.”
Action followed in the Gulf of Saros, with the guns of the escort ships shelling the Gallipoli Peninsula opposite Bulair Lines. At night “D” Company went away in boats to threaten a landing and attempted unsuccessfully to draw enemy fire, before they steamed to Gaba Tepe — now better known as Anzac.
There they remained for fourteen days in intense heat in which they never had a wash, never had their 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 their turn in firing-line, reserve-line or supports.
Nelson Battalion lost many men there, but on Thursday May 13 they boarded the SS Alnwick Castle and next morning landed beside a beached ship at Sedd-ul-Bahr.
Petty Officer McCaw wrote: “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.
“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 its merciful shadow in the glare of the noon-day sun.”
On Monday May 17 Mr Robley took his platoon to Lancashire Beach to make a new road. A shell burst nearby, killing seven of another party. After two more bursts, Mr Robley gave the word to seek cover. After this they moved to a support trench.
He wrote: “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 resting in the daytime but at night fully armed, and with picks and shovels, we went up the gully 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 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.”
For the next few days they were in the trenches, and Mr Robley was said to be in his element with a rifle in his hands sniping whenever a head showed, or a shovel was thrust above the Turkish parapet.
Eight days in a so-called rest camp followed, but they were kept busy wheeling, shovelling and quarrying stone.
On Thursday June 3 they were again in the trenches, and Mr Gilbert of “B” Company, Nelson, a brother of Sub-Lieutenant Gilbert of “D” Company, was killed. Next morning at 2.30 a.m. they were withdrawn to the rest camp.
The Nelson men were in support trenches at Backhouse Post where an endless and gruesome stream of wounded emerged from the sheltered path in the gully, on their way to the dressing stations.
They then advanced to the trench which had been their firing-line, 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.
It was late at night and very dark when “D” Company leapt over the parapet and crossed the open ground, Mr Robley as always leading.
He and the other officers dressed the men into as true a line as possible to ensure that the trench when dug would be straight.
Petty Officer McCaw recalled: “We 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 inadequate for a task needing speed. Mr Robley passed the word for more picks and shovels to be sent .
“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. I asked: ‘How are things going?’ ‘Horrible,’ he replied.’I don’t know 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 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 our 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 June 7, 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.
“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.”
n His brother, Lieutenant Harry Robley, served on HMS Warspite which bore the brunt of the first attack at the Battle of Jutland on May 31 1916.
The Helensburgh and Gareloch Times reported in an article entitled ‘The Great Naval Fight — Wonderful Escape of Local Officers: “With the battle cruiser squadron there had gone out from the Scottish port what in the official announcement are called ‘four fast battleships’.
“It is said she became isolated from her consorts, got surrounded by half a dozen enemy ships, made a brilliant fight against the odds, disposed of more than one of them, and, by clever manoeuvring, showed a clean pair of heels.
“The officers who escaped injury included two young men from Helensburgh — Lieutenant Harry Robley, Yew Bank, 33 Glasgow Street, and Midshipman Eric Donald, late of Hayfield, 6 Queen Street.”
Two weeks later the paper added: “Lieutenant Harry Robley and Midshipman Eric Donald were in town over the weekend and looking very well after their thrilling experiences in the great naval fight.
“They were both very reticent and averse to giving any information.”