Many soldiers traveled half way around the world to do their bit for the war effort and then died in silly accidents. Violet Ann Robertson wasn’t a soldier of course – but she was a soldier’s widow, and her death in England in 1917, was as much a tragedy as her husband’s had been 2 years earlier at Gallipoli.
Violet’s parents Frances & Harry Chapman had both hailed originally from England, but had married in Australia in 1867. One of ten surviving children, Violet, who was also known by the family as ‘Dearwah’, had been born in the Melbourne suburb of Ascot Vale in 1885, and was just four years old when she lost her father. Her mother never remarried.
In 1909 at the age of twenty-four, Violet married Alexander John Robertson. Two years her senior, he had been born in Bundalaguah in country Victoria. A Melbourne University graduate, with a Bachelor of Mining Engineering and a Master of Science, he had also been a member of the University Rifle Club and completed four years in the Victorian Cadets.
Alexander was working in Western Australia, as a Mining Engineer & Geologist with the WA Mines Department, when he made the decision to enlist in the AIF in 1915. After passing through Officer Training School in March & April, he embarked at Fremantle on the A2 Geelong on the 6th June 1915, sailing as a 2nd Lieutenant with the 6th reinforcements of the 11th Battalion.
Not wasting any time, the reinforcements were sent via Egypt straight to Gallipoli. Alexander and his men reported for duty on the 4th August, and were immediately thrown into a fight for their lives. Their battalion had just captured a Turkish position which they named Leane’s Trench, and on the morning of the 6th the Turks threw everything into regaining it back. Alexander led his platoon in the defense but luck and ‘experience’ failed him. It was noted in “Game to the Last”: “As ‘near as I can make out, he was hit in the head by a piece of bomb exploding in the trench; he then got up on the parapet and emptied his revolver into the oncoming enemy…..From the time he jumped on the parapet there was no hope for him, as Jacko was raining bullets into us’.”
Alexander was buried in the Shell Green Cemetery by Chaplain J.G. Robertson. (probably no relation)
Since Alexander had sailed, Violet had been living with her sister Lucy in Kew, Victoria, but in January 1916 she returned to Western Australia, possibly to tie up some loose ends. With no children to keep her in Australia, the following month she embarked on the Medina, and set sail for England. Her intention was to spend a couple of years there, and complete a course in nursing, preferably in one of the Australian hospitals as a VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment).
The Australian VADs mostly consisted of women from middle to upper class families who had the private means to travel overseas to help in the war effort. No doubt they had as many reasons for volunteering as the soldiers; those wanting to do their ‘bit’ for King & Country, others thinking only of helping their men, and then there would have been some who saw it as a chance to break away from the stifling conventions of the time and perhaps experience a little freedom, or even a little adventure. Possibly in Violet’s case, a small amount of survivor guilt may have even swayed her decision.
Living at Abingdon Court in Kensington, she found employment in the Coulter Hospital at No. 5 Grosvenor Square, London. This was a hospital which had been established in September 1915 by an American Mrs Charlotte Herbine, in a house lent to her by Sir Walpole Greenwell. With the generous help of American friends and large contributions from Lord Sandwich, who was the hospitals first president, Mrs Herbine ran the 100 bed hospital with Lady Juliet Duff as the commandant and Miss Baxter as matron.
These auxiliary hospitals were often set up in houses, schools, halls etc by various organizations such as the Red Cross and St Johns, or as in this case, by private individuals or groups with the means to do so.
Working in such a hospital, Violet may have escaped the type of hostility that could be encountered working as a VAD in a Military hospital. This was often the case when the VADs were seen as an extra burden by the trained nurses, who didn’t have the time to teach them even the simplest tasks. There was also a certain amount of jealousy if a VAD was referred to unwittingly as ‘nurse’ or ‘sister’ by the unbiased patients.
Violet did well at Coulter where she began as a wardsmaid. After passing her VAD examinations, she was appointed quartermaster and drug dispenser to the hospital, and later went on to become an assistant electrician. However, late in 1917 she was ready to move on from her hospital work, having qualified to go to France as a motor ambulance driver. But a twist of fate intervened.
Gunner Morris Stansmore, ex Light Horse, who was on furlo after his release from hospital, was teaching Violet to ride. It was Thursday the 29th of November, and they had been riding together around the fashionable bridle path, Rotten Row, in Hyde Park for about 45 minutes, when Violet suggested that they trot. She was riding astride, but Gnr Stansmore felt she had ‘bad hands’ with a horse, however he let her go and followed her. “She was at a hand gallop and went all right for about 50 yards when she sat up and pulled, but it had no effect. The corner at Victoria Gate was very sharp and dangerous and here the horse suddenly swerved, and Mrs Robertson was thrown on her head under the rail.”
Taken by army ambulance to the nearby St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington, Violet failed to recover. The resulting inquest carried the verdict of accidental death on the 29th November 1917.
Gnr Stansmore, his furlo over, returned to Base on the 3rd December, only to go AWL 2 days later for a period of 3 days. No punishment was meted out for his transgression. Instead the charge was marked ‘dismissed medical grounds’; the leniency perhaps taking into account his possible feelings of guilt over the death of his pupil. He returned safely to Australia mid 1919, where he died in Melbourne in 1948.
Violet’s brother-in-law Captain Horace Stevens, a dentist with the 14th Field Ambulance, was detached from a training depot in Grantham and marched into Admin HQ in London the day after Violet’s death. It’s highly possible he had taken on the task of seeing to her affairs.
Violet and her husband now rest in separate countries, a world away from their homeland – but as her mother noted in sad and loving remembrance on the first anniversary of her death: “Both went to do their duty for their country.”
Quote 1: from “Game to the Last” by James Hurst
Quote 2: from an article in “The Times”, supplied by P. Wood & J. Strawbridge (UK)
Heather (Frev) Ford, 2009