Honouring South African WW1 heroes who have won the Victoria Cross for Valour, the highest British decoration for bravery. This South African qualifies to stand head and shoulders above his countrymen – Captain Clement Robertson VC. Here is his story.
Clement Robertson was born on 15 December 1890 (15 November 1889 is indicated in the Haileybury school register) in Pietermaritzburg, Natal, South Africa as the son of Major John Albert Robertson Royal Artillery and Frances Octavia Caroline (nee Wynne). Clement was one of five brothers (William Cairnes, Albert John, Frederick Wynne and Charles Wyndham).
Clement was later educated at Hill House School, Filsham Road, Hastings, at the East India Company College (Haileybury College) from 1904-1906 and Trinity College, Dublin (BA BAI Engineering 1909). He and his four brothers were keen golfers and were founder members of the Delgany Golf Club. Clement won the President’s Cup in the first year it was played for in 1908. In 1911, he was a boarder at Croft House, part of Cotherston, Darlington while an articled pupil to a civil engineer engaged on waterworks. He was employed as a civil engineer with the Egyptian Irrigation Service for three years and returned to England on the outbreak of war.
World War 1
He enlisted in 19th Royal Fusiliers (2nd Public Schools) on 8th October 1914 and joined at Epsom. He applied for a commission on 30th December 1914 and was commissioned on 16th January 1915 in 3rd (Reserve) Battalion, The Queen’s (Royal West Surrey Regiment). He was attached to the Royal Engineers from June 1916 to February 1917, then the Heavy Branch, Machine Gun Corps from March 1917 and was attached to the Tank Corps from September 1917 as a Tank Commander.
During the Battle of Messines in Belgium Clement had a narrow escape when on 7th June 1917, his tank A56 was hit by a 5.9” shell, which killed Sergeant Clegg and wounded two other crew. Although A56 was badly damaged, he brought it back to base and was later appointed to command 12 Section in 3 Company and made an Acting Captain of A Battalion.
In the British advance on 4th October 1917 at Zonnebeke, Belgium, Captain Robertson led four British tanks of 12 Section in attack under heavy shelling as they pushed forward east of Polygon Wood towards Reutel, between Zonnebeke and Gheluvelt.
Robertson, was Section Commander of 12 Section. The advance would need to cross the Reutelbeek. Although only a small stream it posed a formidable obstacle for the tanks.
Conditions on the battlefields of Passchendaele were terrible. Thick mud made any kind of movement difficult, and shelling had badly damaged most of the roads. When they’d been used earlier in the battle many tanks had ended up hopelessly bogged.
Robertson was determined this wouldn’t happen. For three days prior to the assault from Sunday 30th September onwards Captain Robertson and his ‘batman’, Private Cyril Allen, worked tirelessly to mark a safe route up to the front line for the 28 ton tanks. They struggled across the shattered ground under constant shellfire to lay out lengths of cotton tape for the crews to follow. They successfully finished the job and returned to the tanks late on the evening of the 3rd October.
Almost immediately Robertson turned round and began moving forwards again, leading the tanks to their starting points. They were in position by 3am on the 4th of October.
The attack began at 6am. The ground in No Man’s Land was just as bad, so Robertson, accompanied by Allen, broke cover from the armour and continued on foot, walking in front of the tanks to guide them forwards. The German artillery, machine gun and rifle fire was intense, but he refused to take cover, as he knew his tank crews needed to be able to see him.
The tanks were to cross the Reutelbeek using a narrow bridge. One by one Robertson guided them safely across. As they continued forwards Robertson was shot and killed. His tanks fought on, helping to successfully drive the Germans back.
In so guiding these four tanks carefully towards their objective he must have known that this action would almost certainly cost him his life, however his skilful leadership had already ensured success, and for this he was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.
For his brave actions in support of Captain Robertson, Pvt. Cyril Allen received the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) and was tragically killed later in the war on 20th November 1917, Cyril Allen’s DCM citation reads; “For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. He twice marked out routes under heavy enemy barrages, though on the first occasion he was blown up and badly shaken. Later he accompanied the tanks into action on foot, showing magnificent courage and contempt of danger”.
Captain Roberts’ Victoria Cross Citation:
For most conspicuous bravery in leading his tanks in attack under heavy shell, machine-gun and rifle fire, over ground which had been heavily ploughed by shell fire. Captain Robertson, knowing the risk of the Tanks missing the way, continued to lead them on foot, guiding them carefully and patiently towards their objective, although he must have known that his action would almost inevitably cost him his life. This gallant officer was killed after his objective had been reached, but his skilful leading had already ensured successful action. His utter disregard of danger and devotion to duty afford an example of outstanding valour.
Death and Remembrance
Clement’s body was recovered and he was buried in Oxford Road Cemetery, Ypres. As he never married, his VC was presented to his mother by Brigadier General C Williams CB, Commanding Dublin District, at the Royal Barracks Dublin on 27th March 1918. In addition to the VC, he was awarded the British War Medal 1914-20 and Victory Medal 1914-19. His medals are held privately.
Captain Robertson VC is commemorated on the Haileybury College Memorial, his photo is in the Tank Museum, Bovington, Dorset while there is also a memorial plaque in the Christ Church, Delgany.
Captain Robertson is also remembered in a Tank Corps flag raising ceremony in Ypres which takes place every year on 4 October at the Tank Memorial Ypres Salient.
Researched by Peter Dickens
Related Work and Links:
Reginald Hayward VC “Superhuman powers of endurance and courage” Reginald Hayward VC
William F. Faulds VC Taking gallantry at Delville Wood to a whole new level; William Faulds VC MC
Andrew Beauchamp-Proctor VC ‘Proccy’ – South Africa’s ‘Bravest of the Brave’
Extract published with the kind permission of The VC and the GC, The Complete History, published by Methuen and The VC and GC Association in 2013. Also with reference to a large extract from Victoria Cross and George Cross, a complete history on-line, Tank 100 Tank Museum on-line , thanks also to Charles Ross from the South African Legion.