Moseley’s first Headmaster
Despite the average life expectancy of junior officers in the Great War trenches being only six weeks, E. H. Robinson survived the war, rising to the rank of Major and receiving four awards for gallantry under fire. Keith Townsend looks back at the military career of Moseley’s first headmaster.
Ernest Harold Robinson, the youngest of six children of parents James and Emma, was born at Newport, Shropshire, on 12 January, 1890. He lived above the grocer’s shop managed by his father in the town square and attended the local Adams Grammar School. Going on to St. John’s College, Cambridge, he gained a Bachelor’s degree in modern languages in 1912 before beginning his teaching career at Magnus Grammar School, Newark on Trent, Nottinghamshire.
After only two years his career was to be interrupted. He had gained his first experience of military life as a member of the Cambridge University Army Cadet Force, clearly a factor in the later establishment of Moseley’s ACF, and with war imminent he wasted no time in applying for an army commission, expressing a wish to serve in an infantry regiment. His application was supported by the headmaster of Magnus, who wrote of him; “I have great pleasure in bearing witness to the worth and capacity of my colleague, Mr. E H Robinson He has been a member of the staff here since he took his degree and during the whole of that time has given me the utmost satisfaction in every way. He is a man of initiative and resource, robust in condition and always keeps himself fit. His character is excellent and I believe he would make a useful officer with a minimum of training.”
The newly gazetted 2nd Lieutenant Robinson was posted to the 7th Battalion, The King’s Shropshire Light Infantry, which he joined at Codford, Wiltshire, then home to some 14,000 troops, on 14 September, 1914. Newly formed, 7 Battalion consisted entirely of raw recruits, led in the main by equally raw officers. Of its initial 18 commissioned officers only the commanding officer and two others had any previous military experience.
So began almost four months of intensive training. The troops, armed with wooden rifles, undertook twice daily five mile route marches while the officers, one Major, two Lieutenants and twelve 2nd Lieutenants, were put through four hour sessions of drill and exercised in word of command under a Marine Colour Sergeant.
After further training at Bournemouth between November and May, 1915, during which they were expected to defend the local coastline armed only with deactivated “drill purpose” rifles, the battalion went to Aldershot, rifles catching up with them toward the end of August.
Now considered fit for war, 7 KSLI left for France, arriving at Boulogne on 28th September, 1915, from where it was sent to Hazebrouck, Flanders with orders to march to Merris. En route it was diverted to Meteren. Meanwhile, the baggage train, commanded by Lt. Robinson and two others, had arrived at Le Havre. Unfortunately no one told Lt. Robinson of the change in orders, so it was four days before the battalion received its supplies.
From Meteren they were ordered to relieve the Canadians at Ploegsteert Wood. However, with its usual efficiency, the army changed its mind and as soon as 7 KSLI was in place it was transferred to Bousseboom, in the Ypres sector.
On 13 October the battalion moved into Sanctuary Wood, about three miles south east of Ypres, suffering shelling on the way and finding itself fighting in waterlogged trenches. They were relieved on 21st October and sent for a month’s rest, consisting of training and refitting, after which they marched to Reninghelst, about ten miles from where they were to fight at St. Eloi. Again they found trenches in very bad condition.
Casualties from the first three tours averaged four killed and 12 wounded per tour. Wastage from sickness was, however, very considerable, partly due to the repeated 10 mile slog over rough ground. This was compounded by bad weather, with 7 KSLI recording 43 cases of trench foot in one week. One soldier was heard to grouse, “It ain’t the war I complain of. It’s the way to it.”
The entire battalion had only 25 steel helmets, all allotted to Lt. Robinson’s machine gun unit. It experienced a gas attack on the night of 19 December and remained at Sanctuary Wood until 2 February 1916, when it was ordered to rest.
The rest was short lived. On 14th February a strategic point was lost to a strong German attack and 7 KSLI were ordered, under heavy snowfall, to retake the lost ground, which they succeeded in doing on 2nd March, with light casualties. There they remained until relieved by Canadians on 4th April, leaving the machine gunners and Lewis guns, under the command of Lt. Robinson, in the field. On 5th April Lt. Robinson was holding one of the craters with a Lewis gun and five men. Although two of his men were killed and he and another injured he refused to leave the crater, remaining with the two uninjured men, working the gun until it was destroyed. The three were not relieved until 11th April, after which, suffering from shrapnel wounds to his right thigh and knee, Lt. Robinson was returned to England.
For his actions during this battle he was awarded the recently introduced Military Cross, available to officers below the rank of Major for conspicuous bravery. His award was announced in the 1917 New Year’s Honours List. He was also awarded a gratuity of £83.6s.8d (£83.38)
By July 7th KSLI was involved in the Battle of the Somme and, by 14th July, the Battle of Bazentin Ridge, where they led the assault, encountering heavy losses. The German lines were eventually taken and held by the rump of the battalion, six officers and 135 other ranks, beating off five counter attacks until they were relieved on 20th July.
On returning to his regiment in September, more training ensued before the battalion moved to Mailly in preparation for the Battle of Ancre.
Lt Robinson was wounded again on 10th October. By the time he returned to duty in August 1917, now with the rank of Captain, his
battalion had been engaged in the battles of Ancre (Nov. 1916), Arras and The Scarpe (both Apr. 1917). On 4 September they moved to the Ypres salient, where they took the German second line, capturing 70 prisoners and a number of heavy guns. There followed a quiet period until December.
For his part in this battle Captain Robinson was mentioned in dispatches and later awarded the Distinguished Service Order. His medal citation reads; For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. He led his company in an attack until further advance was impossible. He then reorganised them and collecting all men available of other companies, successfully repelled two counter-attacks, although the troops on either side fell back. His skillful leadership and resolute bearing were a magnificent example to the remainder of the battalion.
Toward the end of December, newly promoted to Major, Robinson took temporary command of the battalion after its CO was killed. Nothing more is heard of him until 12th April, 1918, when he was wounded in the right ankle at the Battle of the Lys and returned to England. His actions that day earned him a Bar to his MC, effectively a second Military Cross.
He returned to arms during September, 1918, only to be wounded in the head and arms on 2nd October, near the village of Flesquieres, during the Battle of the Canal du Nord. Returned to England, he was awarded a Bar to his DSO.
He spent the rest of the war in hospital in Plymouth, retiring from the army on being dischatrged early in 1919. He returned to Magnus Grammar School before coming to Moseley in September, 1923. He served as headmaster until his retirement at Christmas, 1955,
With war again looming, in 1938 Ernest Robinson applied to be placed on the Retired Officers’ Reserve but his application was vetoed by Birmingham Education Dept., who insisted that he remain as Head of Moseley. By June 1940 he had been appointed to command the 4th Battalion, Birmingham Home Guard and, in common with all other battalion commanders, was given the honorary rank of Lt. Colonel by February, 1941.
Ernest Robinson died at his Oxfordshire home in October 1968. His funeral was well attended by former pupils and staff.