The First Tank VC
By Ian Robertson (Grand Nephew)
Published in Autumn 2017 edition
At the beginning of World War I tank warfare was not in the manuals of the day. To break the deadlock of trench warfare however, the belligerent nations began to develop armed armoured tracked vehicles. These were crude machines. By Autumn 1917, the tank had made its appearance on the battlefield. Clement Robertson, from Delgany in Wicklow, was one of the first to volunteer for the newly established Tank Regiment – and the first tank Victoria Cross recipient. Robertson Family
Clement was born on 15 December, 1890, in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa as his father was serving there at the time. He had four brothers, three older and one younger. His great grandfather was William Robertson who married Margaret Jameson in 1801. She was the daughter of John Jameson the founder of the John Jameson and Sons Distillery and Margaret Haig (daughter of John Haig the original proprietor of John Haig and Sons). His father John Albert Robertson was born in 1851; he was in the Royal Artillery and served in South Africa. He retired after the Boer War and settled more permanently in Delgany in County Wicklow. The five sons were all involved in serving King and Country in one way or another. William Cairns Robertson (1882-1950) DSO Royal Artillery, Albert John Robertson (1884-1954) (My Grandfather) Royal Navy Rear Admiral and MVO, Sir Fredrick Robertson Kt Bach CSI CIE (1885-1964) was in the Indian Civil Service, Clement Robertson VC (1890-1917) KIA, and Charles Wyndham Robertson (1892- 1971) served with the Monmouthshire Regiment. Charles then joined the engineer firm John Jameson & Sons after the war.
William Cairns Robertson DSO, the eldest, became a Lieutenant Colonel in the Royal Garrison Artillery like his father. He had joined at the end of the Boer War and served in the Great War. He was awarded the DSO in 1918 and was mentioned in Despatches. Albert John was my Grandfather. He chose the Royal Navy. He was born in 1884 and like his brothers was educated at Hill House, St. Leonards on Sea. He joined the HMS Britannia Royal Naval College in 1898 and went to sea as a midshipman in 1900. After his promotion to Lieutenant in 1905 he specialised in the navigation branch. Throughout the Great War he served with the Second Cruiser Squadron of the Grand Fleet. He was navigator on HMS Achilles and was there during the engagement with the sinking of the disguised German Auxiliary Cruiser Leopold in March 1917, in defence of the armed boarding steamer Dundee, which the Leopold had attacked.
Albert was mentioned in dispatches following this engagement and noted for early promotion as ‘an exceptionally skilful and cool navigation officer’. From June 1918, he served on the armoured cruiser HMS Minotaur. These ships operated in the North Atlantic protecting merchant shipping. HMS Minotaur was involved in the Battle of Jutland in 1916. These two ships were Warrior Class Armoured Cruisers. Albert was thrown into the freezing Atlantic Ocean on a couple of occasions and this affected his health in later life. After the war, he worked at the Portsmouth Navigation School and from 1922 until his promotion to Captain he was navigator on the Royal Yacht Victoria and Albert. He became Captain of Dockyard and Kings Harbourmaster at Portsmouth from 1931 to 1933 and became ADC to King George V. He retired on promotion to Flag Rank in 1936. He was also a member of the Royal Victorian Order.
Sir Fredrick, I don’t know that much about, except that he worked in the Indian Civil Service. He left Trinity College Dublin in 1908 with a BA. He was in the Indian Civil Service from 1909 to 1937. He had a number of different positions and clearly did well because he was knighted in 1945. He was awarded the Honour of ‘Companion of the Star of India’ in 1941, and the ‘Companion of the Indian Empire’ in 1935.
Charles Robertson, the youngest, studied engineering at Trinity College Dublin and hadn’t finished his degree when war broke out. He joined the Royal Monmouthshire Regiment and served during the war in Palestine and Egypt. The Monmouthshire Regiment were engineers and built bridges, roads and defence works. He was mentioned in Despatches. Following the war, he went to the Sudan on an irrigation project. His later life was spent as a director of John Jameson and Sons Distillery. His passion was golf and he won the Irish Close Championship in 1925 as a member of Delgany Golf Club.
‘Later that year at the end of September the push towards Passchendaele was in progress. By this time Clement had been promoted and was now Acting Captain and in command of a section consisting of five tanks.’
The five brothers were all fanatical golf players and were founder members of Delgany Golf Club. It is Fredrick whose name appears on the monument at the entrance to the Club as one of the founders in 1908. Clement won the Captain’s prize in 1908 and Charles won the Presidents Cup the following year.
Although born in South Africa, Clements pent his childhood in Delgany. He went to Haileybury College in England and then to Trinity College Dublin to study Engineering.He graduated in 1909, and went to Egypt to work on the Nile Irrigation Project. With the outbreak of war, he returned to England and joined the 19th Royal Fusiliers. He applied for a Commission in the 3rd Reserve Battalion, Queen’s Royal (West Surrey)Regiment and was successful. This was 1916 and, in an effort, to break the stalemate of trench warfare on the Western Front they were secretly developing and testing a large,armoured, mobile vehicle with cannon and machine guns. This machine, they hoped, could travel through no-man’s land,crushing the barbed wire defences, cross the enemy trenches and fire sideways down the length of the trenches. The Heavy Machine Gun Corps was being formed. This would later become the Tank Corps and later styled the Royal Tank Regiment.
Clement volunteered, and with his engineering background, was accepted as one of the first officers appointed. He went to Belgium in January 1917 as a Tank Commander. He was in action in early June 1917, in the assault and taking of the Messines Ridge. His tank was part of X Corps and in support of units of the London Regiment of 140th (4th London) Brigade, part of 41st Division. I have walked the route he took that morning from Arundel House towards his objective at White Chateau Stables and on to Opal Reserve and have seen where his tank was hit by a 5.9- inch artillery shell. The left Sponson was badly damaged. Three of his crew were hit; Sergeant William Clegg was killed and two others were badly wounded. I have visited the grave of Sergeant Clegg in the Dikkebusch New Military Cemetery; killed in action 7 June, 1917, aged 32, from Burnley in Lancashire. The tank could not precede and had to limp back to base.
Later that year at the end of Septemberthe push towards Passchendaele was inprogress. By this time Clement had beenpromoted and was now Acting Captain andin command of a section consisting of fivetanks. On October 4th, he was to take histanks into action at a small village calledReutel, a few miles east of Ypres, in supportof the infantry. The front line was on thesoutheast corner of Polygon Wood. Thetanks had to be brought safely in darknessand under heavy shellfire to that point first.
For three nights prior to this, Clement and Gunner Cyril Allen worked, without sleep, to reconnoitre and tape a safe route for the tanks to take. This was the Third Battle of Ypres and by now the ground was a bare sea of mud and craters. You will have seen the photographs showing just stumps where trees once grew, mud so deep that a man could drown in it. The hard ground of the damaged road was the only way. Eventually on 4 October, they were to move up to the start line. They crawled from Sterling Castle, through Black Watch Corner and along the south side of Polygon Wood. Constantly under shellfire and with the weather deteriorating, Clement and his assistant were not happy that they could follow the tapes safely from inside the tanks. They therefore got out of the tanks and Clement and Cyril Allen guided the tanks on foot. They reached the start point at 3am and rested for a few hours and at dawn they moved off. Clement knew that there was still a real danger of the tanks missing their way. So, with great determination he continued to lead them on foot. The small bridge over the Reutelbeek miraculously was still intact. It was the only way to cross the marshy ground to their objectives on the other side of the small valley. Captain Robertson was certain that if the tanks failed to see the bridge and follow the hard ground to it then action would be lost.
‘The gunfire was intense by now and was concentrated on the leading tanks. The commander of the first tank was amazed to see Clement still untouched‘
The German barrage came down furiously, rifles cracked, machine guns spluttered, but the two lone figures went ever forward. They were well ahead of the infantry now, the only two living creatures to be seen. Bullets whistled by them, flattening with a dull sound against the thick hides of the following tanks, shell bursts flung showers of mud over them, but they walked on, unhurt and undeterred. At last they came to the bridge. Gunner Allen went back to guide the rear tanks and Clement guided the leading tank over and then the others one by one. The gunfire was intense by now and was concentrated on the leading tanks. The commander of the first tank was amazed to see Clement still untouched. The tanks were now safe to continue to their respective objectives and when Gunner Allen reached the bridge, he could not see his Captain. The fire was so intense that, in his own words he ‘had to crawl on my hands and knees’ eventually finding his brave Captain in a shell hole, shot in the head. Gunner Allen took maps and documents from Clement’s body and finally took shelter in one of the last tanks. Clement was 26 years old. The Tank Section went forward and successfully drove the enemy from their strong points.
For his actions on 4 October, Clement was awarded the Victoria Cross (VC) and his medal was presented to his mother by Brigadier General C. Williams CB, Commanding Dublin District at the Royal Barracks in Dublin. It is sad that she did not feel up to the journey to London to have it presented by the King, as would be customary.
Acting Captain, The Queen’s Royal West Surrey Regiment, attached to A Battalion, Tank Corps
The citation reads:
On 4 October 1917 at Zonnebeke, Belgium, Captain Robertson led his tanks in attack under heavy shell, machine-gun and rifle fire over ground which had been ploughed by shell-fire. He and his batman had spent the previous three days and nights going back and forth over the ground, reconnoitering and taping routes, and, knowing the risk of the tanks missing the way, he now led them on foot, guiding them carefully towards their objective, although he must have known that this action would almost certainly cost him his life. He was killed after the objective had been reached, but his skilful leading had already ensured success.’
Gunner Allen was awarded the DCM (Distinguished Conduct Medal) for his splendid devotion to duty. It was unfortunately not long before death claimed him also. He was killed some seven weeks later in Cambrai where the tanks were next to go into action. His body was not found and his name appears in the Louvreval Memorial. Killed in action on 20 November, 1917. He wrote a letter to my Grandmother outlining the events leading up to Clement’s death. It is a moving a poignant letter, beautifully written in pencil and using wonderful English. The sadness is in the fact that he never got a chance to send this letter to my Grandmother. It only appeared a few years ago when a relation was looking through some of Cyril’s effects that had survived and been kept in an attic for 90 years.
Clement Robertson is commemorated on a plaque in Delgany Parish Church and on the Memorial in Trinity College Dublin. He is buried in Oxford Road Cemetery in Belgium near where he fell.
On 4 October 2017, the friends of the Tank Memorial Ypres Salient organised a special centenary remembrance ceremony dedicated to Captain Clement Robertson VC of the Royal Tank Corps. At this occasion the bridge at the Reutelbeek was officially named ‘Robertson’s Bridge’.
This article first appeared in the Victoria Cross Journal in March 2014. Ian Robertson, Clément’s nephew, served with the Irish Guards and today is Chairman of the Irish Guards Association in the Rep. of Ireland.