New book about Kelso man on the Somme

Kelso WWI book cover

Kelso WWI book cover


A century has passed since the start of the Great War, but it has taken much of that time to come to terms with its impact on communities.

Especially the impact on small, close-knit rural communities, like those found in the Borders.

From Kelso and the surrounding district alone, 243 men lost their lives in the carnage of the First World War.

The battles of the Somme, Pilckem Ridge, Menin Road Ridge and Passchendaele, were all battles in which Kelso man, Charlie Robeson fought on the Western Front.

And in a new book just published, his grandson, Derek, has shared the personal letters, photographs and experiences of his grandfather, who survived three years in the frontline trenches of the Western Front.

At the same time, the book, titled A Son of Kelso on the Somme, highlights what Charlie’s fiancée, Winnie, was experiencing as a nurse, on the Home Front.

To make it more meaningful, information is included about family life in the Borders before and after the war.

Charlie Robeson lived in Kelso prior to 1914 and returned to Kelso in 1919 to marry Winnie where they lived a full and happy family life.

Derek told us: “A primary objective of the book, was to get the family photographs and letters reproduced before they faded from view and to piece them together, in a meaningful way, as a family record.

“The book is also an educational resource, intended for upper secondary school age children, but hopefully it will have a wider appeal to all age groups, as an interesting piece of social history.”

Charlie was born at Lilliesleaf in November, 1888. He spent his youth there and moved to Kelso, to train as a saddler and harness maker after leaving school.

From 1907 to 1912, he played rugby for Kelso and Jed-Forest, winning several Border League titles and sevens medals.

Charlie turned professional in 1913 and played rugby league for Oldham in the 1913/14 and 1914/15 seasons.

He made 44 appearances for the club, lifting the Lancashire Cup with the winning team, in the Northern Union League cup final of 1913.

It was in the spring of 1916, that Charlie joined the Royal Engineers and between 1916 and 1918 fought with the 39th Division of the British 5th Army, in France and Belgium, as part of Kitchener’s Army.

In the autumn of 1916, he and his comrades fought in the first Battle of the Somme and was involved in actions near Albert and Thiepval.

His company was present at the taking of the infamous, German-held fortress, the Schwaben Redoubt, near Beaumont Hamel.

Throughout 1917, he fought the enemy, and the weather, amid the hellish mud at Passchendaele – digging frontline trenches, laying duck boards and fighting alongside the infantry. In the official war diaries written at the time and which form the backbone of the book, there are entries for Charlie’s involvement in raids on enemy trenches in the summer of 1917.

But it is back in the mud and blood of the Somme, near St. Quentin, in the spring of 1918, that we get a feel for what the war in the trenches was really like, through the letters Charlie sent home.

One particularly poignant 1918 letter, started on March 20 and finished 14 days later on April 14 , covers the period of the devastating German spring offensive which saw 177,000 British soldiers became casualties.

In the letter, Charlie describes being involved in bayonet charges against German machine gun posts. He survived being hit by flying bullets and two bullet holes are plain to see in one letter he sent home.

Charlie went on to win the Military Medal for bravery in the field during the offensive of 1918, but his division, the 39th, was all but wiped out and after two years of continual fighting, its remaining soldiers were withdrawn from the frontline. They were sent into reserve positions to train incoming American troops. Although the armistice came into effect in November that year, Charlie was forced to wait until March of 1919 before he could return home to the Borders.

After the war, back in Kelso, he became a master saddler and harness maker and, in 1921, married Winnie.

The followimng year he bought over the saddlery business of W. Kerr in Roxburgh Street and traded there successfully for a number of years.

In 1924, the couple was blessed with the birth of the first of their four children, Robert (Robin), followed by Margaret, James and Mabel.

Charlie died in April 1951, at the age of only 63, hastened by the physical hardships of trench warfare and the effects of German mustard and chlorine gas attacks.

It has taken Derek nearly two years to compile the book and says he is very grateful to all those who provided assistance, including the Fallago Fund, which gave grant aid. The end result is a high quality colour production with lots of historical facts and images.

A Son of Kelso on the Somme (£15) is available from Hector Innes Photography in Kelso and during St James’ Fair in Kelso this weekend. All proceeds go to Poppy Scotland and Help for Heroes.




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