Robert William Webb
Service in the Northamptonshire Regiment during the Great War
Memorial in Nieuport, Belgium
Naval Service as a Boy Sailor during the Great War
Naval Service as an Ordinary Seaman during the Great War
This is the story of two brothers from Northamptonshire who, as teenagers, served their country in the Great War. Robert William Webb, the elder brother, joined the Northamptonshire Regiment possibly around his sixteenth birthday. He was killed in action in Belgium in July 1917 at the age of eighteen. In August 1916 Frederick, his younger brother, enlisted as a Boy Sailor II in the Royal Navy on his sixteenth birthday. He survived the war and went on to serve as a regular seaman until 1931.
Back in civilian life in Northamptonshire and after a long engagement Frederick married Annie Bass in July 1936. I was the only son of their marriage as Frederick sadly died in January 1938 when I was just seven months old. Thus I have no personal direct memory of the two brothers.
The detail of what befell the two brothers before, during and after the Great War is not written in a formal manner, where every significant event is supported by a specified reference. What follows is their story written as a belated personal tribute and in gratitude for their service and sacrifice to our country.
The resources I have used to compile their story includes inherited personal mementos, aural history and certificates from the General Register Office. I have also used census records, official military sources, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission [CWGC] and websites too numerous to mention individually.
Background of the brothers’ family
Robert John Webb the father of Robert and Frederick[and hence my grandfather] was born around 1870 in Far Cotton, Northampton. At the time of the 1901 census he and his family were living in Fillongley, Warwickshire. The household included his wife Emma [maiden name Childs] and four children born in villages around Nuneaton. Thus Robert, their third child, was born in Marston Jabbett in1899 and Frederick, their fourth child, was born in Fillongley in 1900.
On my father’s birth certificate, dated 2nd October 1900, grandfather Robert’s occupation is given as farm labourer. However the 1901 census record shows he was a cowman on a farm in Fillongley. By June 1905 two more children had been born to Robert and Emma.
Sometime between 1905 and 1913 grandfather Robert and his family moved to the village of Courteenhall, a few miles to the south of Northampton.This village and surrounding land was dominated by the large estate of the Wake family. At this time the head of the estate was Sir Hereward Wake[12th Baronet] who was to die in1916. It is safe to assume that grandfather Robert was employed on the estate.
By the time of Robert William’s death in July 1917 the family had moved to a farm cottage in Barkingside near Ilford in Essex. The marriage certificate of Annie, the youngest daughter of Robert and Emma, shows that grandfather Robert had died before 1934. I do have a memory of grandmother Emma. In the years shortly after the end of the Second World War I remember meeting her on at least two occasions in her home in Woodford Bridge, a few miles from Barkingside. I remember her as a tiny lady who was very deaf, she would have been about 83 years old at that time.
Robert William Webb
Service in the Northamptonshire Regiment
I have no photographs or medals from my Uncle Robert’s life in the Army to assist in the story of “this teenage Tommie”. Although I was born twenty years after his death I feel we have a bond through our shared names. I am the only grandchild of Robert and Emma with the surname of Webb. When I was born in 1937 my given names were Robert David, perhaps in remembrance of my uncle. I wonder if he was known as Bob which is my usual name.
If we look at the short and tragic life of the younger of the “brothers in arms” in 1913 what would we find? He and the rest of the Webb family were living in a tied cottage on the Wake estate in Courteenhall. His father would be employed on the estate in a job concerned with cattle, perhaps a dairy herd. Having left school at the age of thirteen or fourteen it is likely that Uncle Robert would have been given a job of some description on the estate.
I have no record of when Uncle Robert joined the Northamptonshire Regiment. Frederick, his younger brother, enlisted in the Royal Navy on his sixteenth birthday, perhaps Robert joined the Army at the same age. Did he sign up through patriotic fervour? Did the Wake family encourage men and boys from the estate to volunteer? [The eldest son of Sir Hereward Wake, also named Hereward, was following a military career and saw active service in the Boer War and the Great War] At whatever age Robert enlisted the change from a quiet country life to that of 31320 Private R. W. Webb would have been a dramatic and possibly traumatic experience.
Some of the facts which follow were provided by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission [CWGC] and other details were taken from internet websites. In the Great War the Northamptonshire Regiment raised 13 Battalions and received 58 Battle Honours and 4 Victoria Crosses. The Regiment also lost 5950 men. There is some evidence to show that at one time Uncle Robert was a driver in the 7th [Service] Battalion which was formed in Northampton in September 1914. The Battalion was mobilised for war in September 1915 and, after landing at Boulogne, was engaged in various actions on the Western Front.
At some point Uncle Robert was transferred to the 1st Battalion of the regiment. This battalion was mobilised for war in August 1914 and had been fighting on the Western Front since that date. In June 1917 the battalion, as part of the British Fourth Army [now reduced to the XV Corps] relieved French troops at the western end of the Western Front in Belgium. This area was classed as a relatively quiet sector of the front, but as the daily casualty lists showed there was really no such thing.
The 1st Battalion of the Northamptonshires and the 2nd Battalion of the King’s Royal Rifles found themselves defending the extreme western end of the Front between the Belgian town of Nieuport and the sea. The town, almost destroyed above ground, had been equipped by the French troops with a considerable system of tunnels which some of the British forces used for cover.
Early on the 10th July the German Army began a huge bombardment which was followed later by intense fighting in what became known as the Attack on Nieuport. A survivor of the battle wrote “I shall always remember the 10th July 1917. On this day the Germans started their twenty-four hours intense bombardment with high explosive and gas shells and, during this terrible time, we had I regret many, many casualties. You were safe nowhere. All the time cellars and dugouts rocked with the terrible explosions. God alone knows how men endure such terrible times”.
It was during this battle that the short life of my Uncle Robert ended, one of the 20,000 teenage Tommies killed in action during the Great War. If there is anything positive to say about this battle it is that, by the the end of it, the German attempt to break the line had broken down.
Like so many Allied soldiers Robert has no known grave but his death is honoured on a memorial in Belgium. The official words from the CWGC are as follows.
“In memory of Private Robert William Webb 31320, A Coy, 1st Bn., Northamptonshire Regiment who died aged 18 on July 1917. Son of Robert and Erluna Webb of Fencepiece Farm Cottages, Barkingside , Ilford, Essex. Remembered with honour on the Nieuport Memorial”.
I can offer no explanation as to why Robert’s mother is described as Erluna when her real name was Emma.
The Memorial in Nieuport, Belgium
Nieuport is a town in the Province of West Flanders on the south-west side of the River Yser, two miles from the sea. The memorial is located to the north of the town. It commemorates over 500 British officers and men who fell in operations of 1914 and 1917 near the Belgian coast and whose graves are not known.
The memorial takes the form of a pylon of Euville stone, 8 metres high, surrounded by a bronze band on which are cast the names of the fallen commemorated. It stands on a triangular paved platform and at each corner of the triangle is the recumbent figure of a lion facing outwards. The memorial was designed by W.B.Binnie with sculpture by C.S.Jagger.
The memorial bears the names of 548 officers and men of United Kingdom forces who died during the Great War in operations near the Belgian coast and whose graves are not known. Of the 548 named on the Memorial 22 are sailors and soldiers who fell in 1914 and 1915. The remaining 526 belonged to the XV Corps in the year 1917 and included in this figure are 83 men from the 1st Battalion of the Northamptonshire Regiment.
In July 2009 my wife Cynthia and I visited Uncle Robert’s memorial. We believe that we were the first relatives of Robert to see the memorial so it was a poignant occasion. We alighted from the coastal tram at Nieuport Station and then walked to the memorial, beautifully maitained by the CWGC.
The memorial itself was very much as expected from the photograph provided by the CWGC. However we were somewhat taken back to find that the monument is now located on an immense and busy, roundabout. Also sited on the roundabout are memorials to the fallen soldiers of Belgium and France. The British memorial is also very close to the road, clearly visible to passing drivers. The setting is so different from the typical military cemetery in that part of Belgium, where neat rows of headstones are arranged in a peaceful location.
As we left the site we reflected on the fact that the memorial to honour the death of a teenage Tommie from rural Northamptonshire is now located in such a busy, and noisy, position. Perhaps Robert would appreciate that his name, cast in bronze, can be seen by so many people nearly a century after his death.
Naval Service as a Boy Sailor during the Great War
Now we begin the story of Frederick [Fred] who was my father and the younger brother. In 1913 we can, without question, place him living in the village of Courteenhall in Northamptonshire. This is because I now possess a small version of the Holy Bible [with incredibly small print] which is inscribed as follows.
“Frederick Webb, Courteenhall Sunday School March 1913 [signed] J. Wake”.
Joan Wake, who died in1974, was a daughter of Sir Hereward Wake the 12th Baronet.
From Fred’s official navy record it is possible to learn that on entry to the Royal Navy, on August 20th 1916, his civilian occupation was recorded as “Milk Boy” This can only be the sort of job found on a large estate where the milk boy would deliver milk from the diary to the “big house” and to the cottages of estate workers. Thus I think it fair to assume that, at this time, Grandfather Robert Webb and his family were still living on the Wake Estate in Courteenhall.
As my father approached his sixteenth birthday he may have felt the same pressures to volunteer for war as his elder brother Robert had done [and described earlier]. I have found no connection between the Webb family and the sea. Perhaps Dad’s choice of service in the Royal Navy was influenced by “letters from the Front” which his elder brother would have written to his parents.
Many of the basic facts which follow were taken from my father’s official Naval Record. I first saw this hand written record, on a microfiche reader, in the National Archives building in Kew some ten years ago. Armed with Dad’s service number [taken from his Great War medals], my wife and I had travelled down to Kew and it was this number that gave us access to the basic facts of his life in the Royal Navy. Copious notes were made in hand from the microfiche reader. However this section of Royal Navy records has now been digitalised and in October 2014 I was able to download, from the National Archives website, Dad’s hand written record for the modest sum of £3.30. Facts from a number of most interesting websites have helped me to expand the life, during the Great War, of the younger of the two “brothers in arms”.
Fred’s service record shows that he joined the Royal Navy on 20th August 1916, his sixteenth birthday, in Chatham. He was given the service number of J51529 and the rank of Boy Sailor II. His first posting was to HMS Impregnable, this title being used to cover a number of training ships in Devonport. In October 1916 he rose to the rank of Boy Sailor I and then remained on HMS Impregnable until December. Fred then moved to HMS Victory I. This title encompassed both the flagship of the Commander-in -Chief, Portsmouth and the onshore barracks where further training was given to Boy Sailors.
My father first saw active service in March 1917 when he was posted to HMS Moldavia, an armed merchant cruiser. This vessel was built as a passenger liner in the Greenock Yard of Caird and Co. Ltd. for the P. and O. Steam Navigation Company. She was launched in March 1903 as the SS Moldavia to sail on the UK- Australia service with a passenger capacity of 510. However the Great War intervened and in 1915 the ship was requisitioned by HM Government and converted at the Royal Albert Dock. She left this dock in February 1916 as HMS Moldavia.
When my father joined the crew of HMS Moldavia she was part of the 10th Cruiser Squadron whose role was to enforce the blockade against Germany between the north of Scotland and Iceland. The Squadron intercepted merchant ships, put an armed guard aboard and then ensured they sailed to an Allied port where the cargo was inspected.
From July 1917 onwards HMS Moldavia became an escort vessel to convoys, duties with an inherent risk of u-boat attack. The ship carried out these duties without incidence into 1918. In March 1918 she was dispatched to Canada and on 11 May left Halifax as an escort to Convoy HC1 bound for London. HMS Moldavia carried both cargo and 477 men from the US Army 28th Regiment.
The Moldavia had completed the crossing of the Atlantic without incident and in the early hours of 23rd May was steaming up the English Channel. Disaster stuck when she was hit on the port bow by a torpedo fired by UB-57 and badly damaged. She continued steaming for about 15 minutes but it became clear she was sinking. Miraculously all troops and crew were safely evacuated, except for 56 US troops who were on a lower deck and were killed by the torpedo explosion and the inrush of water. HMS Moldavia sank under the waters of the channel at 3.50 a.m.
This must have been a terrifying ordeal for my father at the age of 17 years. But he was not the only Boy Sailor I on board that day. William Sandell, at the age of 16 years, had been posted to the Moldavia as a messenger boy. On 23rd May he had been detailed to act as a messenger to the Captain. In a bravery commendation he was praised for behaving in a
“very gallant manner……although knocked down by the explosion and struck by a grating, he rendered his Captain invaluable services in running messages and in generally assisting him on the Bridge after the explosion”.
Another hero from the sinking of the Moldavia was Lieutenant Charles Simmons. Born in 1881 he was an experienced merchant seaman, with some Royal Navy training, who from March 1915 onwards found himself at sea in the Royal Naval Reserve. In June 1917 he became First Lieutenant on HMS Moldavia. It is believed that he was responsible for supervising the lowering of boats prior to the ship sinking, an action which saved many, many lives. It is sad to note that he was killed on escort duties off the west coast of Scotland in October 1918. Before his death he had been awarded the Distinguished Service Order [DSO] in recognition of his service on vessels employed on patrol and escort duties.
After the sinking of the Moldavia Dad found himself back at HMS Victory 1 for further training. In June 1918 he was posted to HMS Gibraltar.
Naval Service as an Ordinary Seaman during the Great War
HMS Gibraltar was an old 1st Class Cruiser built in 1894 when she would have been manned by a crew of 554 sailors. In June 1918 she formed part of the anti-submarine training school at Portland [quite an ironic posting for my Dad].
At some point between June 1918 and his 18th birthday my father decided to become a regular sailor in the Royal Navy, despite being torpedoed a few months earlier. So on 20th August 1918 he began a 12 year engagement. A number of physical characteristics were entered on his service record on this date as follows: height 5ft.5in., chest 35in., with brown hair, grey eyes and a fresh complexion.
Fred began his 12 year engagement as a well-trained Ordinary Seaman on HMS Gibraltar and was still on this ship at the end of the Great War. His service in the Navy should have ended on 28th August 1930. However, on this date, he was aboard HMS Kent which was part of the China Station Fleet off Hong Kong. It took my father a long time to get back to this country and he was finally discharged in 1931.
The end of the story
On Armistice Day in 2014 the BBC televised a documentary as a tribute to “The Teenage Tommies”. The programme followed the lives of five courageous volunteers and was presented by Fergal Keane. The documentary was sad, disturbing and yet ultimately uplifting as Fergal recalled the bravery of the five Tommies, only two of whom returned to this country. I am sure that the courage shown by the teenage Tommies on the Western Front was matched by the boy sailors of the Royal Navy.
At the end of the programme Fergal Keane used these words [slightly expanded to include the boy sailors]
“They volunteered as boys, they were trained for war as boys but once on the battlefield or ship they were expected to fight and suffer like men”.
So, in the service of their country in the Great War, both Robert and Fred lost their youth and the elder brother made the ultimate sacrifice.
My father was awarded two medals for his service in the Great War. The British War Medal was given to all who served between 5th August 1914 and 11th November 1918. In addition he received the Victory Medal, also called the Inter Allied Victory Medal, which was awarded to all who received the British War Medal. Official Army records show that Uncle Robert was awarded the same two medals but their present location is unknown.