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Robert Watson was baptised at St. Saviour`s Church in Preston on the 20th March 1875 the son of John and Ellen Watson (nee Fletcher). His parents had both died by 1891 and the Census of that year shows that Robert was living with his two older sisters Alice (1870) and Margaret Elizabeth (1873) at 14 Whittingham Street in Preston. All three siblings were working in a cotton mill, the two girls as cotton rovers and Robert as a cotton creeler.

Robert married Alice Ann Lynch at Christ Church in Preston on Christmas Day 1898 and the couple went on to have three children; Grace Ellen (1900), Thomas (1901) and Harold Leo (1903-1903). In 1911 Robert, Alice and their two surviving children Grace Ellen and Thomas were living at 27 Gerrard Street. At the time Robert was employed as a general labourer (fitter) at Messrs. Coulthard & Company`s works and Alice also had a job in one of the local mills.

On the 2nd September 1914 Robert went to the recruiting office in Preston to enlist. He was 39 years and 8 months old at the time and was only a small chap standing at just five feet one and half inches tall. He had grey eyes, sandy hair and weighed 119lbs. Robert was allocated the service number 3752 and posted to the 3rd (Reserve) Battalion.

Robert sailed to France on the 3rd December 1914 as part of a batch of reinforcements for the much depleted 1st Battalion.

The 1st Battalion war diary entry for the 4th December 1914 notes;

“At HAZEBROUCK refitting. A draft of 458 N.C.O`s and men under 2/Lt Gilliland, 3rd Bn Loyal North Lancs Regiment joined the battalion. 2/Lt Gilliland posted to “B” Coy”.

The Second Battle of Ypres started on the 22nd April 1915 and lasted until the 24th May of that year. The 1st Battalion as part of the 2nd Brigade first became involved in the action in the early part of May.

An attack was planned for the 7th May but was subsequently postponed until the morning of the 9th. It was after the attack on the 9th May that Robert Watson was later posted missing presumed dead.

Extract from the Battalion War History

7th May 1915 – A long day of preparation, every man was issued with 220 rounds of ammunition, a gas mask and two sandbags.

8th May 1915 – The Battalion left Les Choquaux at 8pm and moved into battle position in the third line of breastworks behind the Rue du Bois, and was in position there by midnight.

The attack went ahead as planned on the 9th May 1915 and a few weeks later a letter appeared in the Preston Guardian penned by Privates James Treadwell and J.C. Barnes from Preston, both had been wounded. The letter was originally sent from the Queen Mary Hospital in Whalley to their Grandmother in Preston.

“A THRILLING CHARGE – Interesting story by Preston Soldiers”

“Grandmother, a 15 inch gun gave the signal for the battle, and then came a bombardment which lasted three hours and a half. It was a Neuve Chappelle battle all over again on a much greater scale, Field guns, howitzers and siege guns all joined in the chorus that bellowed and beat in heavy waves of sound along the line. The shells streamed overhead shrieking and screaming. The reports of their burst clapped and rumbled in one long rolling unbroken uproar.

The German lines were veiled and hidden in drifting clouds of white, black, greenish and yellow puffs of smoke. For nearly three hours and a half the British shells pounded the German lines and the front parapet crumbled and broke and gaped in patches under the steady fire. The barricades were stoutly built but there was no hesitation when the time came to charge. Suddenly the `Loyals` swarmed to the German trenches and the open space was filled with running figures. The appearance of those running figures was the signal for a sudden outbreak of rifle fire and the murderous machine like whirr of the machine guns.

The space was about 400 yards – 400 yards of whistling, pelting bullets and bursting shrapnel storms, and our lines were rent, battered, torn and beaten out of shape. It was no longer a charging line but the remnant still pushed on in the teeth of death…..the running groups melted and withered, men fell in clumps and clusters, the dead lying crumbled where they fell. The wounded were hobbling and staggering crawling back to shelter from the scouring bullets. Right to the trenches our attack pushed, but there it stayed and died, and we got the word to retire, which the `Loyals` don`t like doing at any cost.

The retirement was an appalling and dreadful business. Our line swarmed out again over the hard fought ground, and doubled back towards the British trenches.

There are a good many Preston lads who took part in this charge lying in the Queen Mary Hospital at Whalley now.”

A second letter written by three men attached to the machine gun section of the 1st Battalion was sent to the Daily Post in Preston and published on the 18th June, 1915.

1575 Private Alfred Blackburn, 2006 Private William Stead and 1603 Private Joseph Milner describe what they witnessed on the 9th May 1915 under the headline;

WOUNDED FIRED UPON –  PRESTON PRIVATE AND THE GERMAN SNIPERS

“We were rushed to the trenches on Saturday last, May 8th. We stayed in our reserve trenches until the following morning, in the bitter cold, waiting orders. At 5am one of our great 15 inch guns fired and that was the signal for one of the greatest battles in the history of the world.

As fresh guns opened fire behind us, we were all ready to mount the parapet on the word to advance to our next line. The bombardment lasted for one hour and when the inferno ceased the boys were up and out before you could look round. They knew some of them would never return, but that was not the question, they were out to avenge their comrades who had fallen in this terrible war.

Slowly, they advanced until they got to the German barbed wire, which was cut by our shells. Whilst this was going on we had our machine guns trained in case they tried to come over, but as we say nothing could live under such a heavy fire our artillery were sending across. Our lads got into the German lines without opposition, but the wounded soon began to come in, because the German shells were bursting amongst the men crossing the open. It would make your heart bleed to see the German snipers firing on our wounded as they were trying to get back to safety in the trenches. But this makes the brave men out in the front all the more eager to give the German cowards a sound thrashing.

The day will come when we shall avenge our fallen comrades, and when it does we shall not forget.”

The attack was a costly one, 7 Officers and 190 non-commissioned officers and men killed or died of wounds and 21 men posted missing.

An article with a photograph of Robert was also published in the Preston Guardian a short while after his death had been confirmed.

Watson 1

Robert`s body was never recovered from the battlefield and so his name is remembered on the Le Touret Memorial to the Missing.

His widow Alice Ann was awarded a pension of 17s/6d for herself and their two children with effect from the 14th February 1916. It is not known whether any of Robert`s personal effects were ever returned to Alice. She remarried in 1918 to George Pickup and Mrs Alice A Pickup of 21 Woodhouse Grove in Preston signed for Robert`s medals after the war.

Rank: Private
Service No: 3752
Date of Death: 09/05/1915
Regiment/Service: The Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, 1st Bn.
Memorial: LE TOURET MEMORIAL

Janet Davis

Janet Davis

Janet Davis has been researching her family history for many years and through this she discovered many relatives who served in WW1. This interest then led Janet to do many walking the battlefield tours with her husband. In April 2013 she discovered this website and volunteered to help. Janet believes that there are lots of stories still to be told, most of them very sad but at the same time they are a fascinating insight into the men, their families, what they did and where they came from.
Janet Davis

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