Robert Randerson

Name: Robert Randerson
Rank:
Captain
Unit/Regiment:
6th (Service) Battalion, Alexandra, Princess of Wales’s Own (Yorkshire Regiment)
Date of Death: 7 August 1915
Cemetery:
Lala Baba Cemetery, Turkey


Robert Randerson’s Headstone – Photo by Peter Bennett

Some debate occurred in the Yorkshire press in March 1915 as to who was the first Northern Union (rugby league)player in Yorkshire and beyond to obtain a commission in The Great War.

The Huddersfield Daily Examiner1 and Yorkshire Evening Post2 declared that in Yorkshire the accolade fell to Wakefield Trinity’s William Lindsay Beattie who was appointed temporary 2nd Lieutenant in the Border Regiment on 15 March 1915.3 He lost his life on 27 January 1917. Lancashire-based Wigan’s Gwyn Thomas was reputed to be the first-ever commissioned Northern Union player. Thomas survived the war and joined Huddersfield in 1919.

Both papers overlooked Batley winger, Robert Randerson.

Robert joined the Leeds University Officer’s Training Corps (OTC) shortly after Britain’s entry into the War. The London Gazette of 25 August 1914 lists Robert as amongst those OTC cadets and ex-cadets appointed as temporary 2nd Lieutenants.4 Promotion quickly followed. In January 1915. The London Gazette announced his appointment to temporary Lieutenant with effect from 10 December 1914.5 Only months later, on 15 May 1915, he became a temporary Captain as notified in a June edition of the same official journal.6

Letters of correction to the papers followed, and the Batley Club itself was adamant the honour belonged to its player. In its Annual Meeting of May 1915 it pronounced:

Randerson…..was the first N.U. player to receive a commission. This honour has been claimed by others but it belongs to Lieut. Randerson and the Batley Club.7

Within weeks of this discussion, on 7 August 1915, Robert was to lose his life in the Yorkshire Landings at Gallipoli.

Born in York on 29 November 1890, Robert spent his childhood in the city. It was a fairly comfortable upbringing. The Randersons were an old, established York Catholic family. Robert’s grandfather, William Randerson, was a well-known miller and corn seller with an extensive business in the city.8 Robert’s father, after whom Robert was named, followed the same trade, earning his living as a master corn miller, then as a grocer and corn merchant. He regularly won contracts to supply York Board of Guardians with flour and oatmeal for the workhouse.9 His Roller Flour Mill was upgraded in 1890, to make it “one of the most advanced mills in the district.10

Robert’s parents, Robert (senior) and Annie Wilkinson, married at St Leonard’s Catholic Church in Hazlewood, Tadcaster, on 30 September 1885.11 The service was conducted by the groom’s brother, the Very Reverend Canon Benjamin Randerson, parish priest at St Charles’s, Hull. Trained at Ushaw College, and initially a curate in Leeds, after his stint in Hull he subsequently went on to become the parish priest at St Hilda’s, Whitby.12

Annie was from another old English Catholic family, the daughter of well-known Yorkshire agriculturalist John Wilkinson. She was born at Everingham, where the family farmed land on the estate of Lord Herries.13 They subsequently farmed lands in the Hazelwood and Barkston Ash areas, including Newstead Farm in 1881 and Lead Hall Farm in 1891. If you are familiar with St Mary’s Church at Lead and the Wars of the Roses Battle of Towton of 1461, probably the largest and bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil, this is the area in which Annie’s family lived before her marriage.

Annie and Robert Randerson (senior) settled to married life at Haxby Road, in the Clifton area of York. This is where the family are recorded in the 1891 census. And again, in an indication of the family’s social status, also in the household is a general servant, Mary Ann Finan.14 Perhaps this is the servant for which Annie Randerson placed a series of adverts around the time of Robert’s birth in late 1890. With three children aged four and under, domestic help was now a priority, and the family were willing to pay annual wages of around £10 – £12.15

Robert was the Randerson’s third child. Their daughter, Annie Elizabeth, was born in 1886, followed by Benjamin in 1889. After Robert came William in 1892, but who died in February 1902 aged nine; John Wilkinson arrived in 1897, with youngest son, George, being born in 1899.

After completing his education at Archbishop Holgate’s Grammar School in York, Robert furthered his education at St Mary’s College, Hammersmith. He is recorded as a student here in the 1911 census.16 The objective of this establishment was to train Catholic men to serve as teachers in Catholic schools throughout the country. His chosen career path echoed that of his sister Annie. In the same census she is recorded as a nun at St Wilfrid’s Priory, Arundel,17 where she was headmistress at the town’s St Philip’s Infant’s School.

It was whilst at college that Robert’s sporting ability reached national attention. In May 1912 he was described as a “diamond in the rough” in one of the performances of outstanding merit during the annual inter-collegiate championships at the Stamford Bridge Grounds.18 In the 4 May contest, which involved metropolitan teaching or training colleges, he broke the championship record for the 100 yards, running it in an outstanding time of just over 10 seconds on a rain-sodden track.19 The following week, on 18 May, he was taking his place in the A.A.A. Olympic trials, again at Stamford Bridge. The aim of these trials was to select British athletes to participate in the Stockholm Olympic Games. He was eliminated at the semi-final stage of the 100m flat race,20 although it was said if picked he would be unable to take his place.21

By April 1913 Robert was in Batley, taking up an appointment as an assistant master at St Mary’s school, taking apartments at Mrs Power’s home at 37 Norfolk Street, Batley.22 He soon became involved in the wider Parish community, holding the role of choirmaster at St Mary’s church.23 He also continued his sporting interests and, as a result of this, he became known throughout the town.

Robert Randerson

He was spotted by Batley rugby club whilst carrying on with his sprint training at Mount Pleasant, the home of Batley Athletic and Cricket Club, of which they were part. Despite never having played either rugby code, being a soccer player at Archbishop Holgate’s,24 the club recognised his potential and were keen for him to try his hand at the game. Eventually he asked, and received, permission to do so from the Education Committee. Showing their keenness to secure him, the Batley club secretary brought the papers to school, where Robert signed on as an amateur.25 At this stage he did not intend staying with Batley, his eyes set on a return to York, so held back from signing on professionally.26

Robert Randerson, middle row, second left, circa 1913 – from his playing scrapbook

He initially turned out for the reserves, his first game being a 7-5 away loss on 1 November 1913 against Lane End United in the Leeds and District League. Even though they lost it was agreed that in his first game of Northern Union, playing on the wing, “he made a surprising good show.27 Even at this early stage he had ambitions in the game, writing:

I have received a good start in the handling code and will try to keep up uniform success. Every match at some time or another I will try by an extra effort to do “something” for that is how players get their names.28

This eagerness for success, and his apprehension about his newness to rugby and potential crowd reaction, showed itself in his relief when his first home match was called off. He wrote:

I was pleased because I do not want to make a stupid mistake through ignorance before the home spectators.29

His next game was away to York Reserves. Despite Batley’s one-point victory Robert came away frustrated, in particular with his centre:

I was eager to shine at York it being my own town and I did not get a single pass throughout the game. Tom Parker was my centre. It was nothing but tackle and tackle again and on several occasions he left me with two and even three to one.

There never will be good combination between wing men and centres while the praise a centre for playing a good game when he has wasted his wing.30

Despite his exasperation, he won plaudits for his performance, as illustrated by the Batley News verdict:

The outstanding player, however, was Randerson, who made his second appearance in the wing three-quarter position. Although the passes he received were few he found plenty of scope in the tackling department. He worked like a Trojan and his play was applauded by the home spectators. It is to be hoped the Batley Committee will keep their eyes on this promising player.31

He scored his first try for the Reserves against Methley at the end of November 1914. He was now settling into the game. Besides descriptions of the games, conditions and weather, his scrapbook is full of anecdotes about his Northern Union escapades.

Like his journey to play Featherstone, when he turned up at Batley railway station instead of Dewsbury. He managed to get a train to Wakefield, once there leapt onto a passing tram to Kirkgate, where he exited and sprinted after a departing train, managing to leap into the guards van at the end, to the cheers of the watching staff. He made it to the game.32

Or the one against York at the end of December 1913 where the York linesman offered him half a crown if he would let one of their men score – it only served to make Robert go in for the “poor old chap” worse than ever.33

Or the Christmas derby game against Dewsbury at a Mount Pleasant covered in pools of water, with a keen biting wind, and a mixture of hail, rain and snow, where Robert spent any spare moments he had scraping off sludge. The ill-tempered game, with Dewsbury “letting the boot go” and a player giving Robert “a fine kick with the ball far away,” ended prematurely 10 minutes from time with a near riot of fans after a Dewsbury forward knocked a Batley player unconscious. The crowd poured onto the field, threw a bucket of water at the touch judge who had taken no action against the culprit, officials had to be protected as they left the field, and the Dewsbury players – in particularly the offending forward – were subjected to punches and kicks as they too left the pitch.34 Robert’s summary was:

He deserved all he got and I was glad to see him get it.35

Robert was also becoming accustomed to the game, feeling “as quick as a cat” and believing he ran even faster with the ball than without.36 However, he still clung on to his amateur status. Even at this stage he did not want to play for the Batley first team – he had not yet given up on his ambition to transfer to his home town team of York and he wanted to make it as easy as possible. He wrote to York in February telling them:

…if they did not find me a place this week the offer of signing on for nothing was off.37

Nothing came of it, and on 11 March 1914 Robert signed on as a professional for Batley,38 feeling in better form than ever.39 Three days later he made his first-team debut in an 11-0 Challenge Cup defeat at Halifax. In what local press described as a “creditable debut40 they reported he was the only man in the three-quarter line to escape criticism, and if the ball had gone to him more frequently:

…it is quite on the cards that Randerson’s first appearance in big football might have been of a sensational character.41

Robert admitted to feeling nervous before his debut, but in a good way, the kind of nerves “that works one up to greater efforts….42 Once on the field the nerves dissipated totally, and he noted:

I was disappointed to lose my first match without a score.43

His second appearance came in a victorious 21-5 winning home match on 21 March 1914 against Keighley. And it was here, at Mount Pleasant, that Robert opened his professional try-scoring account, going over twice. Prophetically after the game he wrote:

I am having my years of plenty now surely and in the full sunshine of favour how soon the years of famine and the clouds will come I do not know. Perhaps never for I shall not wait until my failings have covered my success.44

He played twice more before the 1913/14 season closed, scoring a further try against Halifax on 28 March 1914. This despite an injured thigh. As a result of the injury though, in his final match of the season, a 10 April 17-0 away loss against York, in his words he:

…could do little better than hobble about and that ended my first season as a pro.45

Little did anyone know that his sunshine years on the rugby field were to be over all too soon, and the outbreak of war would cut short a very promising start to his Northern Union career.

As soon as war was declared Robert’s strong sense of duty kicked in. He was the first Batley player to enlist. Applying for a temporary commission as an Army Officer on 10 August 1914, he was quoted as saying:

I am not a fighting man; I don’t like to fight, but I ought to go and fight at a time like this.46

Back in Batley his enlistment necessitated a re-arrangement of the St Mary’s Boys Department school timetable, an event noted in the school log book.47

His service papers show he stood at 5’ 9½” and weighted 164lbs. Testimonies to his moral character and suitability for officer status included one from his former headmaster at Archbishop Holgate’s Grammar School.48 He was duly accepted, and went on to serve with the 6th (Service) Battalion, Alexandra, Princess of Wales’s Own (Yorkshire Regiment), one of Kitchener’s New Army volunteer battalions, better known as the Green Howards.

Captain Robert Randerson, courtesy of the Green Howards Museum, Richmond, North Yorkshire

It was whilst serving with the Yorkshire Regiment based at Belton Park, Grantham, that he made his final appearance for Batley in a home match against Keighley on 10 October 1914. He told the club secretary Kershaw Newton it would be his last game with the Gallant Youths until peace was signed as, with his exhaustive training programme of marching, drilling, lectures and special studies as an officer on top of his ordinary duties, he was “about played out by the weekend”49.

He explained his decision in a statement published in the Batley News:

I have sixty men under me and am responsible for them, and will have to lead them in war. To make them and myself efficient requires all my time and energy, and I do not think it would be right to risk laying myself up with an injury….50

Poignantly he wrote of his final game:

…I will come, and hope to see many of my old friends round the railings as a sort of good-bye until we get the serious business through; and when honour and justice are satisfied I trust to have many a jolly game on the hill.51

In transport difficulties which echoed the problems of his earlier reserve game, he arrived just in time for kick-off, with the club having to arrange motor transport to collect him from Wakefield railway station.52 He scored one try in Batley’s 19-0 victory but, ironically given his concerns about injury before the game, he suffered the misfortune of a kick to the head. This blow confined him to a darkened room for a few days on returning to Belton Park.53

Although his Batley rugby days were done, his sporting involvement continued with his battalion at Belton Park. Here he organised football matches and cross country running for the men.54

In April 1915 the battalion moved to Witley camp, near Godalming in Surrey. At the end of June they received orders to travel to Liverpool from where they departed on board H.M.T. Aquitania on 3 July, bound ultimately for the Dardanelles. It was not a journey without event. Only a day into their voyage whilst off the south east coast of Ireland, where the passenger liner Lusitania went down only two months earlier, a torpedo fired by a German submarine passed close under their stern. Another submarine alarm sounded on 7 July in the Mediterranean, on the leg between Gibraltar and Malta.

They initially docked at Lemnos on 10 July, then moved on to Imbros. During July they acclimatised and practiced night landings and attacks.

Then, on the evening of the 6 August, crammed onto two lighters, they left Imbros. These crafts were described as a kind of tug-boat with a small bridge, covered over to protect the troops from shells. They could ground easily on the beach, and the backs dropped down to let the troops off. The lighters, which had a small engine and could do around six miles per hour, were initially towed to their destination by destroyers.

As they neared the peninsula their speed decreased, and search lights appeared to pick them up. Then, as they neared the shore under their own engine power, they were greeted with a burst of rifle fire. They finally disembarked at around 11pm on the Gallipoli peninsula, south east of Nibrunesi Point. The aim was to take Lala Baba, a low hill between the southern side of Suvla Bay and the Salt Lake.

Map of Suvla Bay and ANZAC Cove from Gallipoli Diary, Vol. 2 by Sir Ian Hamilton – Edward Arnold, London. Nibrunesi Point is the headland projecting into the sea at grid reference 103 – Wikimedia Commons

As the men moved off from the shore they were immediately engulfed by total darkness, unable to see their comrades around them. It was then the Turks struck.

Lala Baba was eventually taken, but the Unit War Diary records a heavy price paid with 16 officers and about 250 other ranks killed or wounded in the fighting during those first hours of the night of 6/7 August 1915. This was out of a total of 25 officers and 750 other ranks that set off from Imbros only a short time earlier.55

Robert was amongst those officers killed. He died on 7 August 1915, within hours of landing. The War Office telegram to the family read:

Deeply regret to inform you that Capt R Randerson Yorks Regt was killed in action Aug 7. Lord Kitchener expresses his sympathy.56

According to a fellow officer, he met an instantaneous death as a result of a gunshot wound to the head. In a letter to Robert’s father the officer wrote:

We made our landing of the evening of the 6th August below the Salt Lake. The 6th Yorks covered the landing of the rest of the Brigade. At about 10 a.m we disembarked from the barge with little opposition and started up the peninsular to take a hill called Talla Baba [sic], and there we lost a lot of men. I got there just before 12 midnight. Some of our men had gone over and some were held up by the Turks entrenched on top and there were several of our officers wounded and killed there. I was told your son had been killed there and the sergeant who told me said that he had been shot through the head, so his death seems to have been instantaneous.57

The first news of Robert’s demise reached Batley around the 12 August when Mrs Power, with whom he had apartments in Norfolk Street before the war, received a brief note from Robert’s father informing her he had been killed in the Dardanelles.

Local tributes poured in for him, newspapers referring to him as “Gentleman Bob”.58 The Batley Reporter and Guardian praised his “manly character and sterling qualities” concluding:

He was a true sportsman and a most popular player on the field and a perfect gentleman in private life.59

The Batley News eulogised his virtues saying:

A pattern of good conduct on the football field, handsome appearance, of excellent physique, and a splendid teacher, his demise removes from the Heavy Woollen District one whose manifold example commends itself to the rising generation.60

The members of the Batley Education Committee were equally fulsome with their tributes to Robert in their meeting at the end of September 1915. They expressed sympathy with his family and appreciation for his work in the town. Alderman H. North said that:

Captain Randerson was a typical gentleman; an ideal leader of boys and a man appreciated by his scholars and school managers. …… His death had removed from Batley a most capable servant of the Education Committee….. The town was poorer by his demise.61

His parents wrote two desperate letters to the War Office begging for the return of his personal belongings. The second from his mother, dated 15 November 1915, read:

Sir

It is now nearly four months since my son Capt. R. Randerson was killed in action on the 7th August at the Suvla Bay landing and I have been very anxiously awaiting the arrival of his kit.

Will you kindly inform me where I am to apply to for same. Naturally I yearn to treasure his last trifles and any information there may be regarding his estate wishes.

Yours truly

Annie Randerson62

There is no record in his papers of anything, other than his identity disc, being forwarded to his family. He left no will, with Administration being granted to his father for his effects valued at £563 2s. 6d.63 His medals – the 1915 Star, British War and Victory – were forwarded to his father.

Robert is buried at Lala Baba Cemetery, Turkey. He is also remembered on the family headstone at York Cemetery. In addition to the St Mary’s War Memorial, he is also commemorated in several other locations including on Batley War Memorial, in York Minster’s the King’s Book of York Heroes, on the War Memorial at Archbishop Holgate’s School in York, and on the University of Leeds’ Brotherton War Memorial.

Image © Paul Clarke (WMR-74106) https://www.iwm.org.uk/memorials/item/memorial/74106, free to reuse for non-commercial purposes under the IWM Non Commercial Licence.

I will leave the final word on Robert from the school in which he worked. Almost exactly one year to the day from the St Mary’s log book entry about timetable changes forced by Robert’s enlistment, the same log book has an entry on 16 August 1915 announcing that school re-opened after the midsummer holiday. It went on to say in a restrained, understated way:

News received that Captain Randerson, Assistant Master from this school, was killed in action at the Dardanelles on August 7th.64


More information about Robert Randerson, including a childhood photograph, can be found in my book The Greatest Sacrifice: Fallen Heroes of the Northern Union, which remembers rugby league players who died as a result of the war.


Footnotes:
1. Huddersfield Daily Examiner, 25 March 1915.
2. Yorkshire Evening Post”, 27 March 1915.
3. The London Gazette, Publication date: 19 March 1915, Issue: 29106, Page: 2745.
4. The London Gazette, 25 August 1914, Issue 28879, Page 6697.
5. The London Gazette, 15 January 1915, Supplement 29043 Page 594.
6. The London Gazette, 11 June 1915, Supplement 29192 Page 5736.
7. Batley News, 22 May 1915.
8. Whitby Gazette, 16 April 1897.
9. Yorkshire Gazette, 26 September 1891.
10. The Yorkshire Herald, 18 September 1890 and 11 October 1890
11. Yorkshire Gazette, 3 October 1885.
12. Whitby Gazette, 16 April 1897.
13. Skyrack Courier, 2 May 1913.
14. 1891 England & Wales Census, TNA Ref: RG12/3885/27/48/304.
15. The Yorkshire Herald, 23 October 1890 & 3 December 1890.
16. 1911 England & Wales Census, TNA Ref: RG14/260/162.
17. 1911 England & Wales Census, TNA Ref: RG14/5360/250.
18. Star Green ‘Un, 11 May 1912 and Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 11 May 1912.
19. The Referee, 5 May 1912
20. Westminster Gazette, 18 May 1912 and Yorkshire Evening Post, 21 March 1914.
21. Star Green ‘Un, 18 May 1912.
22. Batley Reporter and Guardian, 13 August 1915 and Robert RandersonBritish Army Service Records, TNA Ref WO 339/11831
23. Batley News, 14 August 1915.
24. Yorkshire Evening Post, 21 March 1914.
25. Robert Randerson’s Football Reports from 1 November 1913;
26. Ibid.
27. Batley News, 8 November 1913.
28. Robert Randerson’s Football Reports, Ibid.
29. Ibid.
30. Ibid.
31. Batley News, 22 November 1913.
32. Robert Randerson’s Football Reports, Ibid.
33. Ibid.
34. Ibid.
35. Ibid.
36. Ibid.
37. Ibid.
38. Rugby League Player Registers.
39. Robert Randerson’s Football Reports, Ibid.
40. Batley News, 21 March 1914.
41. Ibid.
42. Robert Randerson’s Football Reports, Ibid.
43. Ibid.
44. Ibid.
45. Ibid.
46. Batley News, 14 August 1915.
47. St Mary of the Angels RC School Batley, Log Books
48. Robert Randerson British Army Service Records, Ibid.
49. Batley News, 10 October 1914.
50. Ibid.
51. Ibid.
52. Ibid.
53. Batley News, 14 August 1915.
54. Grantham Journal, 20 March 1914.
55. Unit War Diary, 6 Battalion Yorkshire Regiment – 1 June 1915 to 31 January 1916, TNA Ref: WO 95/4299.
56. Robert Randerson British Army Service Records, Ibid.
57. Batley Reporter and Guardian, 1 October 1915.
58. Batley News, 21 August 1915.
59. Batley Reporter and Guardian, 13 August 1915.
60. Batley News, 21 August 1915.
61. Batley News, 2 October 1915.
62. Robert Randerson British Army Service Records, Ibid.
63. Soldiers’ Effects Register, National Army Museum, NAM Accession Number: 1991-02-333, Record Number Ranges: 10819-12157, Reference: 55
64. St Mary of the Angels RC School Batley, Log Books


Other Sources Not Referred to in Footnotes:
• 1939 Register.
• Batley RLFC, Laurie Grailey (Club Historian) Letter.
• Commonwealth War Graves Commission
• England and Wales Censuses, 1871 to 1911, TNA, various references.
• GRO Birth, Marriage and Death Indexes.
• Long, Long Trail website.
• Medal Award Rolls.
• Medal Index Cards.
• National Probate Calendar, Administration, Robert Randerson.
• Newspapers – various;
• CHRIS, ROBERTS JANE ROBERTS. Greatest Sacrifice: Fallen Heroes of the Northern Union. SCRATCHING SHED PUBLISHING, 2018.
• Soldiers Died in the Great War.
• Teacher’s Registration Council Records.
The Tablet, Et Cietera, 28 August 1915 http://archive.thetablet.co.uk/article/28th-august-1915/23/et-cietera and Catholic Roll of Honour, 1 January 1916 http://archive.thetablet.co.uk/article/1st-january-1916/13/the-catholic-roll-of-honour