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Holden, Tom: The Brothers Robertson – in Blood and Arms – my Grand Uncles & The Great War

by Tom Holden

For this Mystery Ancestor Night early in the centenary of The Great War, it is timely to present my relatives who participated in that cataclysm. Going over my family tree, I discovered that the only two who did were the only ones neither too young nor too old for combat. These were my granduncles:
  • William “Bill” George Robertson (1892-1964)
  • John Herbert “Herb, Hub” Robertson (1895-1962)
I have little memory of them because both lived far enough away and were deceased before I was an adult. What I show here is from records found through online research.

They were born in Palmerston, Wellington Co., Ontario to a Scottish immigrant shoemaker and the daughter of an Ontario Methodist minister and had three older sisters, one being my paternal grandmother.

Uncle Bill attended University of Toronto soon after war’s outbreak in August 1914 in the Applied Science class scheduled to graduate in 1918. He joined the Canadian Officer Training Corps when it was formed, age 21. Nineteen months later, he deployed to England with the Canadian Overseas Expeditionary Force, Field Artillery, 67th Battery, UofT as a Gunner. Presumably, his engineering training would be an asset for calculating trajectories and aiming.

Having had scarlet fever in his youth, the awful battlefield conditions succumbed him to severe bronchitis and scabies and months in hospital. He fought in France and was “shellshocked and invalided” in March 1917, according to the UofT Roll of Service 1914-18.

A deceased cousin who knew Bill better than I had written “Gassed at Vimy, lost leg above knee as a result of a shrapnel wound.” The Canadian Corps was stationed on the slopes of Vimy Ridge in October, 1916 and the famous battle was in April, 1917. The grievous injury was in later conflict near Arras, France after he was sent back into combat with the Anti-Aircraft Artillery in 1918. His Military Service Record of 91 pages was digitised at my expense some years ago and is now online at Library and Archives Canada. It is filled with medical reports.

Bill returned to finally graduate as a Metallurgical Engineer from UofT in 1922, a delay of four years. I do not know how his physical and emotional injuries affected his life except for my faint memory of his peg leg. He married Margaret Greta Laird before 1925 by which time he was in his 30’s; they had no offspring. By 1930, they lived permanently in Franklin, Sussex, New Jersey, where he worked as a chemist for a zinc mining company. He is buried there.

Uncle Herb followed in some of Bill’s footsteps. He was drafted in 1917 at the age of 22 while working as a Steamfitter, presumably in Sudbury where he was examined medically. By that time, he must have been well aware of his brother’s experience and the loss of some friends. His draft card shows he was called up to the 64th Depot Battery, Canadian Field Artillery, Guelph while my cousin recorded him as with the Royal Canadian Horse Artillery. I have no further record of his service but Library & Archives Canada aims to have all Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) service records digitized and online by 1916.

Herb is recorded as a clerk in a Palmerston shoe store (probably his father’s or my grandfather’s) after the war and as a “shoe merchant” after his father’s death in 1922, marrying Clara Amanda Hobson in 1923. They had one son, named identically to the baby’s uncle. In 1928, Hub was drawn to join his brother Bill in New Jersey and worked in “Engineering” for the same zinc mine. He was registered for the WW2 US draft at the age of 46 but was not called up. The family remained in the area of Franklin, NJ for the rest of their lives.

Herb had four grandchildren, one named William George Robertson III after his granduncle. I must track down this second cousin for photographs and story exchange.