Local hero became war hero

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Robert-Martin-wA YOUNG Helensburgh pilot died on active service at Flanders in World War One . . . and was hailed a hero.

Robert Martin lost his life in September 1917. His obituary stated: “He performed some heroic deeds in connection with the recent air raids worthy of the highest honour.”

But Robert was also a local hero for other reasons in a short but dramatic life.

Born in 1893, he was the eldest son of Mr and Mrs John Martin, who ran a wine and spirits business at 8 West Clyde Street, and lived at St Kilda, 60 Colquhoun Street.

In 1906, his father purchased Garelochhead Hotel, at the south end of the village opposite the pier.

The hotel, established in the 1830’s, was a thriving business with custom from steamer travellers, and — from 1894 — railway passengers.

As a result the hotel had been greatly enlarged, and a track created from the back of the hotel to the station.

By custom and practice, another role fell to the owner of the hotel, that of piermaster.

While the day to day duties were delegated or sub-contracted, young Robert became familiar from an early age with the pier and the vessels that arrived there, as well as the possible dangers.

Educated at Hermitage School and Allan Glen’s School in Glasgow, he was a keen swimmer and member of Helensburgh Swimming Club, and this led to his first heroic action within months of the family move to Garelochhead.

A young boy named Johnstone fell off the end of the pier, and 14 year-old Robert dived in fully clothed and rescued him.

This act earned him a British Humane Society award.

Around this time he also helped another youngster who got into difficulty in the Fruin Water, possibly a schoolmate.

Soon after, the Martins themselves suffered a drowning in the family.

In August 1910, Robert’s younger brother John was one of a group of boys fishing from Garelochhead pier when he slipped and fell into the loch. This time there was no-one to dive in, and the delay proved fatal.

In the summer of 1913, Robert was mentioned again in the news for his actions in saving another life.

During a regatta at Helensburgh a jollyboat, of which Robert was a crew member, was swamped off Ferniegair. The coxswain, a young lad called Duncan McKay, was thrown into the water.

Again Robert put his own life at risk to rescue the coxswain, and this brought him two awards — a testimonial from the Royal Humane Society, and a certificate and reward of £10 from the Carnegie Hero Trust Fund.

When war was declared in 1914, Robert quickly volunteered for military duty. He served with the Army in Flanders and was awarded a commission at the end of 1915.

The following year, he transferred to the Royal Flying Corps, and was promoted to Lieutenant in July 1917.

Periods of leave were in short supply, but he found time that same year to marry his English sweetheart Marion Eve. Soon though, he was back in action.

Many think of the Royal Flying Corps pilots in the First World War as having a series of daring dogfights in the sky, which did happen frequently. But the aircraft were also used for other missions.

In the early years target spotting and aerial photography were priorities, but as time went on, the aircraft came to be increasingly used for bombing raids.

Robert was soon undertaking this dangerous task, and he lost his life on September 4 1917 above the battlefields of Flanders. He was 24.

The Martin family sold Garelochhead Hotel in 1921 to Spencer Dane. Two years after that, the hotel went on fire and remained as a shell until 1932, when new owners rebuilt it.

The hotel gradually regained some of its former prestige, but after the Second World War business gradually declined until closure was forced on the owners in 1993.

The building was demolished two years later, to be replaced by houses. The pier was closed in 1939, and the last remnants demolished in June 1992.