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australian rowers profiles and history

SGT Robert J Robertson

Mercantile Rowing Club

1881 Oxley (near Wangaratta) Victoria – 26 August 1916

Robert John Robertson was a member of Mercantile pre WWI and worked as a clerk at the time of his enlistment. He enlisted into the Australian Army at the age of 30 on 13th March 1915, regimental number 590. 

He was born in Wangaratta, and at 5 feet 7 1/2 inches in height and 10 stone in weight, too big for a coxswain and so more like a lightweight rower despite no lightweight rowing taking place in those days.

Very little is known of his rowing background as he did not win any races. It is possible that he was a cousin of the Robertson brothers from Goroke near South Australia who raced for Scotch College and Mercantile before WWI. One of these brothers, Geoffrey, died in WWI.

It is suspected that he was one of those members who simply enjoyed the sport and camaraderie of the Club. It is also probable that Mercantile became his family since he had no other direct relatives according to his war records. Whilst he notes his next of kin as a cousin, correspondence on his military record indicates that she was not a cousin but a past lover of Robertson, much to chagrin of her husband. More on this later.

Robert’s war record shows impressive leadership and a brave individual. Within weeks of enlistment and without previous military experience, his promotions began - first to Lance Corporal, then Corporal, then Sergeant. The last two promotions were gained in the field at Gallipoli during his enlistment year. This showed that he was a natural and effective leader, good soldier and obviously a good ability to maintain the trust of his men under the intense pressure of battle.

His Battalion, the 24th, first served in the Lone Pine sector at Gallipoli and stayed there until the evacuation in December 1916. Whilst at Gallipoli in December 1915, Robertson was injured with a shrapnel wound to the shoulder. Without very effective antiseptics and antibiotics in those days, such wounds could be fatal. He survived. 

After he was discharged from medical care, and on his first anniversary on enlistment, Robertson rejoined his Regiment which had then moved to France. He returned to action in July 1916 at Pozieres in C Company in some of the worst fighting of WWI. During the Battle of Monquet Farm on 26th August 1916, Robertson was killed in action. 

A platoon of the 24th approached the farm from the east given a lack of progress on other fronts by other platoons. WWI historian Charles Bean reports on the Battle of Monquet Farm and the contribution of Robertson on the day of his death.

On this flank two of the bombing parties of the 24th, advancing as the barrage lifted, reached their objectives: one, under Seargeant Pollington, managed to throw a few bombs near the north-east corner of the farm, but suffered heavily from machine gun fire and was driven back. The other, under Sergeant Robertson, bombed the cellars at the south-east corner, and having expended all its grenades, sought a further supply from Lieutenant Mahony ... .

The cellars at Monquet Farm in 1917 - Australian War Memorial Photo E253

Whilst the exact nature of his death is not known, many Australians died from German machine gun fire in that battle. He was just one of the 172 Australians killed that day in WWI and was buried at Pozieres.

From the snippets we have of his service, and the specifically the extract from Charles Bean's Official History, Robertson showed the key characteristics of the ANZAC Legend, namely courage, tenacity, resourcefulness and mateship.

Now back to the love story. 

His record shows that his next of kin was not a cousin but his former lover, who moved to Perth. It was not unusual in those days for the next of kin record to be used as a means of keeping in touch with close friends or lovers, such as this case. 

His lover’s husband attempted to have all military correspondence to her stopped despite being named next of kin. Further, he attempted to also stop her endeavours to correspond through her brother, who also posed as a cousin.  

I quote from the husband’s letter to the Defence authorities. 

I am appealing to you again to withhold the address as my anxiety to stop the matter is very real. In justice to you, I feel I must give you a little explanation. My wife and our little family were given a trip east by me in February 1914. They returned home in August, two or three days before war was declared. She had five months in Melbourne and when she returned to WA she was a completely altered woman, as far as I was concerned. This Robertson was, I believe, an old lover of her’s and although I knew nothing and was at a loss to understand her change, when I got possession of your letter of November last I did not hesitate to ask you for your assistance. 

The brief facts I have given will indicate why I appeal again. My sole idea is to nip any trouble in the bud if I can do so, and you can generously assist. I want to kill it quietly if I can for several reasons, and most of all for the sake of our little family. 

Very clearly the relationship with Robertson was deep and enduring, she actively sought information about him. In many ways, his death becomes a tragic love story.

Sadly, we do not know enough about Robertson who clearly was a great ANZAC and a great leader. He was a sad loss for Mercantile Rowing Club and the sport of rowing.

Andrew Guerin
March 2024


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