A Wearside soldier who was shot at dawn 96 years ago today is finally to be honoured for his bravery. Sarah Stoner looks at the life, and death, of Robert Hope.
His crime? Going absent from the trenches.
That the former shipyard worker had been shot at, shelled and gassed in some of the bloodiest battles of the First World War made absolutely no difference to the firing squad.
The Deptford lad had signed his own death warrant by going missing for 11 weeks. Once captured, his fate was sealed. Robert was one of 306 men shot at dawn during the conflict.
“I was never told about Robert when I was growing up,” said Roker man Bernard Hope, a second cousin to Robert. “It’s like he was written out of our family history.
“He wasn’t executed because he committed a crime like murder, but just because, for whatever reason, he went absent without leave. He was probably shell-shocked.”
Robert, the eldest son of shipyard driller Robert Hope and his wife Mary Ann, was born in Deptford in 1896 and spent his early childhood at 3 Bright Row.
By the time of the 1911 census, the family had moved to 10 Cornwall Street, and 14-year-old Robert was already working – as an apprentice caulker in the shipyards.
Just four years later, on June 7, 1915, Robert – by now 19 – enlisted in the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers at Newcastle, under the pseudonym of Private James Heppel/Hepple.
“I have no idea why he used a false name, but the surname was the maiden name of Robert’s grandmother, Isabella. Perhaps that’s why he chose it,” said Bernard.
Robert was shipped off to Ireland for initial training, where he married 16-year-old Derry girl Rosina McGilloway on August 6, 1915, following a whirlwind romance. The couple were soon parted, however, when Robert was posted with the 1st Battalion to Gallipoli on November 13. It is possible they never saw each other again.
Indeed, following three months in Gallipoli, he was sent to Egypt and, on March 18, 1916, landed with his battalion at Marseilles for service in France and Flanders.
Just four months later, on July 1, 1916, the 1st Inniskillings went into action on the first day of the Battle of The Somme – tasked with capturing three German trenches.
It was to prove the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army, with thousands killed in action. The 1st Inniskillings War Diary reveals just how brutal it was:
“Immediately our lines appeared on the parapet, the enemy brought heavy machine gun cross fire to bear, which heavily decimated the advance,” wrote one officer.
By the end of the day, more than half of Robert’s battalion – 19 officers and 540 other ranks – had been killed, wounded or were reported as missing in action.
“It surprises, and saddens, me that a man who fought so bravely at the Somme, in Egypt and Gallipoli could be shot at dawn for desertion. It just wasn’t fair,” said Bernard.
Robert and his surviving comrades were relieved of front-line duties following the massacre, although they carried out tours of duty on the front for several more weeks.
A transfer to the relatively quiet Ypres front followed at the end of July but, on the night of 8-9 August, 1916, a German gas attack near Potijze caused 135 casualties.
Almost 90 of Robert’s unit were killed in the attack but, with fighting continuing, the survivors were moved back to the Somme on October 5 – with little time to recover.
It must therefore have been an exhausted, and quite possibly shell-shocked, Robert who marched with his comrades to front line trenches of the Somme yet again on January 21, 1917.
By the time D Company reached their destination, however, Robert was no longer with them. As night fell, he simply melted into the shadows and disappeared.
No more was heard about Robert until 11 weeks later, when two military policemen stumbled across him sleeping in an empty house in Albert, a town near the Somme battlefields.
When asked where his battalion was, the battle-weary soldier replied: “At Bapaume. I’ve come to do some shopping for my Captain.”
The men did not believe him.
Instead, they arrested Robert and charged him with desertion at a field court martial on June 9, 1917, at Fienvillers. It is estimated the hearing lasted just 10 minutes.
Evidence was given about his previous good character and unblemished military record, and the Wearsider made a brief statement in his own defence as well:
“When the policemen arrested me I told them that I was on my way to join my Battalion. I thought they were somewhere in the Bapaume district,” he told the trial.
He was found guilty, however, of desertion and sentenced to death. Only Commander-in-Chief Douglas Haig had the power to stop the execution, but chose not to.
“Robert was obviously an extremely brave man, and possibly he had just had enough.
“More probably, he was suffering from some sort of post traumatic stress disorder,” said Bernard.
“The people back in Britain didn’t realise just how bad things were for the men fighting at the front. They were dangerous times – you could be shot by either side.”
Details of Robert’s death were accidentally unearthed by keen genealogist Geoff Simmons, while he was researching the career of his great uncle Alan Lendrum in the 1st Inniskillings.
The graphic designer was left particularly intrigued by the mention of one episode in July 1917, when Captain Lendrum was court martialed for refusing to take charge of a soldier’s execution.
“My uncle’s excuse was that the man – Robert Hope – was known to him and he did not believe he should have been ordered to undertake such a task,” said Geoff.
“After the court martial he was demoted from Captain to Lieutenant, but in view of his continued bravery in the field, this was overturned later in the war.
“I am very proud of the stand my uncle took over the execution of Robert.”
Geoff’s three-year search for links between the two soldiers led him to uncover the never-before-told tale of Robert’s romance, war bravery and subsequent death by firing squad.
And, after he shared the story with pals, the Friends of In Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres came forward to offer to hold a remembrance service for the “forgotten hero.”
The ceremony will be held this Saturday at Ferme-Olivier Cemetery, near Ypres – where Robert is buried – and Geoff has been asked to make a small address.
“I’ve been so moved by this story. Robert’s name isn’t on any war memorial, and it is so sad he has been largely written out of our history,” said Geoff, who lives in London.
“Robert’s young wife Rosina married again, when she was listed as a ‘spinster’ on the wedding certificate, and had 10 children – none of whom were told about Robert.
“In fact, some family members in Derry were led to believe that he had run off with another woman. Such was the shame and scandal attached to what happened to him.
“But Rosina still thought enough of him to pay for an inscription on his grave and she corresponded all her life ‘with someone in Sunderland’ – probably Robert’s parents.
“This weekend’s service will be some small way of remembering him properly. The confusion and half-truths that have swirled around him can now be put to an end.”
Robert’s cousin, Bernard, added: “I think it is wonderful, I really do, that Robert is going to be officially remembered for the first time. It really is about time.”
l Do you have a photo of Robert, or perhaps of a group of apprentice Wearside caulkers in 1911? Email Sarah Stoner at: email@example.com