Lieut Robert Taylor, a lost and found hero
Author: Tom Muir
Many who died in World War I suffered another form of death when their records were destroyed during the Blitz in World War II. There are around five million ‘burnt records’, as they are known, documents that told the story of soldiers who fought in the ‘Great War’, but who are now forgotten. One brave young man who almost suffered a similar fate was Robert William Taylor from Flotta. If not for a conscientious workman his story may have remained forgotten, or only half remembered in his family.
It all started one bright and sunny afternoon in the late 1990s when a friend, Bruce Craigie, who worked for the Orkney Islands Council as a gardener at Tankerness House Gardens, came into the museum workshop carrying a large photograph. He told me that he was working at a house clearance and that he had taken this photograph out of a skip. It was an unframed portrait photograph of a very fresh-faced young man wearing a Royal Field Artillery uniform. Such photographs were a common keepsake of a loved one who was serving in World War I. The photo was scratched across the young man’s face, as rubbish had been tossed into the skip on top of it. Bruce thought that it was a pity that the photograph would go to the rubbish dump, and I agreed with him. After a quick chat to the Museums Officer, Bryce Wilson, it was decided that we should accept it.
The next step was to try to discover who he was. Orkney is a small place and between Bruce and myself we established a family connection to the man in the photograph. I discovered that the man whose property was being cleared out after his death was a cousin of an old lady called Clara Sutherland, who I knew. I took the original photograph to the Orkney Library’s photographic archives, where it was copied. David Mackie managed to remove the unsightly scratch on the young man’s face digitally on his computer (which you see on this blog) and gave me a small copy of the photo.
I phoned Clara Sutherland and asked if she knew anything about the young soldier in the photograph, but it didn’t ring any bells with her. I asked if I could drop by and show her the photo and she was more than happy for me to do that. I wasn’t feeling too hopeful, but on showing her the photo she declared, “That’s me uncle Robbie!” She remembered it hanging over the fireplace in her grandparents’ house in Flotta. “I have his Military Cross,” she said, “would you like to see it?” I was rather taken aback, to be awarded the Military Cross was an important decoration for any soldier to receive.
She had the Military Cross in its box; not only that, it was in the original envelope that it had been sent to his father in. She said that she didn’t know what to do with it and asked if the museum would like it.
We were honoured to accept it. Later Clara found a few more of his items and donated them also. They are all on display in the 20th Century Gallery.
Clara then told me a bit about her uncle Robbie. He was born at Mounthooloie (also called Little Bow) on 14th September 1893. His mother died when he was seven years old and he was raised by his father and older sister. After school he joined the National Bank of Scotland, working in Thurso and Stromness.
When war was declared he wanted to join, but he was in a reserved occupation and the bank manager refused to release him for war service. Robbie worried what people would think of him if he didn’t fight.
The guilt of not ‘doing his bit’ drove him to plead his case for release and eventually his boss relented and set him free. He volunteered for service on 6th July 1915 aged 22.
Fired with enthusiasm and wishing to find out more about Robbie I delved into the local newspapers in the Orkney Library & Archive, where his deeds were reported. He had risen through the ranks to become a Lieutenant in the Royal Field Artillery.
He fought at the Battle of the Somme and suffered gunshot wounds to the left arm and right shoulder. He was sent home to Orkney to recover from his wounds. This was to be his last visit to his native islands. He then saw action in the Battle of Arrass and the Third Battle of Ypres.
It was during the Third Battle of Ypres, known as the Battle of Passchendaele, that he won the Military Medal for bravery in the field in August 1917. He was in a forward observation post, directing artillery fire on German positions.
When the two signalers serving under him become casualties he continued alone, directing gunfire against two German counter-attacks which were successfully broken up.
He never lived to see the medal he had won. Robbie was seriously wounded by German artillery fires on 23rd October and died from wounds the following day, on 24th October 1917, aged 24.
The Orcadian, December 1 1917 - THE LATE LIEUT. R. W. TAYLOR, M.C., R.F.A.
‘The following was observed in “The Scotsman” on Monday, 19th November: – Lieut. R. W. Taylor, M.C., R.F.A. (died of wounds) was a highly popular and efficient young officer, who had been through nearly two years of the hardest fighting, and won the Military Cross last August by a rare exhibition of tenacity and skill in sending back information of the highest value while acting as forward observation officer.
He had been all the time with one battery and his major, an officer of the old Regular Army, had formed a high opinion of his capacity and character.
“He was,” he wrote, “my best subaltern officer, and I have seldom met one so good. He was besides one of the most unselfish and cheerful fellows I have ever been lucky enough to soldier with, and we all feel his loss as a friend as much as a soldier.”’
I asked Clara if she had the circular bronze plaque, known as the ‘death penny’ or ‘dead man’s penny’, that was issued to the families of those killed in action. She didn’t, but had the scroll that accompanied it. What happened to the ‘penny’ is unknown.
I also asked her if she had his service medals, but she didn’t have them either. He would have been entitled to the British War Medal and Allied Victory Medal as well as the 1914-15 Star, which was presented to those who volunteered before conscription was introduced in 1916.
It is possible that his father never claimed them, as they were not automatically issues to the families of those who died. She told me that his service revolver was sent back to his father with his other belongings, but that he threw it over a cliff into the sea. Strangely, it seems to have turned up in the United States of America and is now in the possession of a gun collector.
The publicity that was created around the donation of the medal saw Clara being interviewed for the ITV news programme North Tonight.
Robert’s pieces are on permanent display in the Orkney Museum’s 20th Century Gallery. His story was also told in the National Museums Scotland World War I exhibition ‘Next of Kin’, which toured Scotland from 2015-2017, ending at the Orkney Museum.
In 2014 Robert’s story was featured in Jackie Storer’s book ‘Hidden Stories of the First World War’, which was a project created by the British Library.
She had contacted me at the museum for information about a survivor of the sinking of HMS Hampshire. I told her Robert’s story and she included it as one of the 30 essays on people who had served in the war on both sides. My great-uncle, John Drever from Westray, was also included in the book.
As the centenary commemorations of the end of World War I came closer Orkney was selected to be one of 32 beaches to participate in the project ‘Pages of the Sea’. The brainchild of film director Danny Boyle, 32 images of people who died in World War I would be raked into the sand on a beach at low tide and then the sea would wash them away. Ideas for who to feature in Orkney was asked for and I suggested Lieut Robert Taylor.
The fact that he joined the army rather than stay safely at home in a reserved occupation spoke for the many who enlisted from a sense of guilt rather than enthusiasm.
Robert was chosen and the image of the photograph that was rescued from a skip became the focus of remembrance at Scapa Beach on 11th November 2018.
Robert Taylor’s story is now known to many thousands of people thanks to the thoughtful actions of Bruce Craigie. Had he left that photograph in the skip, buried underneath rubbish, we would never have heard of him.
Instead, he has featured in a travelling exhibition, book and ended up as the face representing all those from Orkney who fell in that bloody conflict. His Military Cross remains one of my favourite pieces on display in the Orkney Museum; not because of the reason it was awarded but because of the story that lies behind it.
Once restrictions are lifted and we can open as normal once more, please come in and see these pieces for yourself.
For more information on Robert Taylor follow the links below.