WE WILL REMEMBER THEM: The physical and psychological sacrifices made by all those who served, including those who survived the horrors of trench warfare, are important to recall, writes DAVID MORGAN
As we outlined in last week’s column about how the lives of ordinary people of Croydon were affected, sometimes tragically, by war, it had been common at the start of the last century for people to emigrate from this market town on the borders of south London and Surrey to seek a better life in the Commonwealth.
Although Canada and Australia were the destinations of choice for many, several from Croydon settled in New Zealand. And when war broke out in August 1914, it was an almost reflex reaction for them to to sign up to fight “for King and country”, albeit with the forces from their adopted country.
Although we tend to focus on those who lost their lives in the conflict, there are those who survived the horrors of World War whose stories should be told, too.
One was Edmund Colin Nigel Robinson. Born in Croydon, he emigrated to New Zealand and became a farmer. Robinson was 24 years old when he signed up for army service in 1915. He was given the service number 23/1303.
His attestation papers provide several details about him. He was born on January 30 1894 in Croydon although with no address given. His formal education finished in the Sixth Form at Westminster City School. His religion was described as Presbyterian. After moving to New Zealand, he met and married Mary Read, who was the daughter of another family who had emigrated from Britain. They tied the knot on September 15 1915 at St Joseph’s Church, Buckle Street, Wellington.
Their wonderful wedding photos survive and provide a beautiful piece of social and family history.
Robinson enjoyed his new life, working a farm at Pihama, Taranaki, not far from Mount Egmont, as the dormant volcano will have been known at the time, and about 155 miles north of Wellington.
He had to travel to Morrinsville, a provincial town in the Waikato region of North Island, to sign up. He was initially placed in the 21st Rifles. His service record stated that he remained in New Zealand, training for 210 days before being sent abroad.
It was towards the end of his training programme that Edmund and Mary were married. Robinson embarked for Egypt a short time later, on November 13 1915. By then, he was attached to the 1st Battalion New Zealand Rifle Brigade as a lieutenant, the first level of the officer ranks. His service record shows that he was in Egypt over that winter, before transferring to the Western Front in France in 1916.
In January 1917, Robinson he was promoted to captain and later that year, in November, he was mentioned in dispatches for “distinguished gallant services and devotion to duty”.
His service record doesn’t state where this event happened. But 1917 was also the year when Robinson was gassed. This happened at Messines in June. Although the Allied forces exploded mines which killed many Germans, they paid a heavy price for their attack. In particular it was the New Zealand troops, with Robinson among them, who suffered terribly. They had 3,700 casualties, with 700 killed.
The effects of the poisoned gas meant that Robinson developed a severe cough. His secondment to a light mortar trench battery ended in April 1918. On November 8, 1918, just days before the Armistice was declared, Captain Robinson was signed off, considered unfit for duty. He was moved to a rest home in Brighton for a short time, where he was diagnosed with chronic pulmonary disease, before being put on a ship back to New Zealand.
He arrived home at the end of December 1918.
Despite the diagnosis, Robinson was determined to go back to work as a farmer. He applied for and won a “Ballot farm”. These were farms that the New Zealand government allocated for returning soldiers to provide them with an opportunity to settle and develop. Edmund Robinson, reunited with wife Mary, thus started to work a farm at Mangateparu near Morrinsville.
Twenty years later, when the Second World War broke out, Robinson, by now 45, still looked to play a role. In October 1940, he was appointed as a commander for their Home Guard in the town of Paeroa, south of Auckland, close to the Pacific Ocean coast. The Home Guard remained in operation until the threat of invasion from the Japanese had passed, late in 1945.
Edmund and Mary Robinson had three children. Mary Robinson died in 1959. Edmund married twice more before his death in 1972, aged 82.
So many soldiers, sailors and air crew who have been involved in the conflicts of the 20th Century were often reluctant to speak about their experiences. Their recollections were often too painful to be revived. Some soldiers went to their graves in peacetime never having told a soul about the hardships and suffering, or about the horrors inflicted by mankind on one another.
For soldiers who experienced trench warfare and were smothered by the debris from a huge mine explosion, it was all so very real. I expect it took many, many nightmarish dreams before Captain Edmund Robinson could ever sleep soundly again once he returned to New Zealand.
Read more: How a search for a new life ended in wartime death in the Sinai
Read more: How ‘chums’ and Contemptibles set standards at the Minster
Read more: The brothers in arms who lost their lives at Ypres and Gallipoli
Read more: The tale of a Croydon private’s life, and death, on the Somme
David Morgan, pictured right, is a former Croydon headteacher, now the volunteer education officer at Croydon Minster, who offers tours or illustrated talks on the history around the Minster for local community groups.
If you would like a group tour of Croydon Minster or want to book a school visit, then ring the Minster Office on 020 688 8104 or go to the website on www.croydonminster.org and use the contact page
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