Donald Robinson was born in Tinsley, Sheffield, Yorkshire, on 25th September 1896 to Henry Robinson and his wife Julia Robinson [née Pope] and was the third of five children. His father was a steel merchant in which capacity the family lived near Swansea when Donald was an infant before moving back to Yorkshire.
After completing his education at Wellington, Donald went to live with his aunt in Sheffield, even though his father and siblings were in the same city, where he attended a local school before taking up a place at Sheffield University and serving in the Officers Training Corps [OTC].
Donald applied for a temporary commission at Pontefract on 20th January 1915 selecting the infantry branch as his first choice. He was duly commissioned as a Second-Lieutenant on 4th February 1915 into the 13th (Service) Battalion, The Prince of Wales’s Own (West Yorkshire) Regiment in York: on 10th April 1915 however it converted to a Reserve Battalion.
The following year, on 20th March 1916 whilst on leave from Rugeley Camp in Staffordshire, Donald was admitted to the Northern General Hospital with secondary syphilis where he was put on a treatment of mercury with the medical opinion on 1st May that this be continued for twelve months!
At his final medical board on 11th July Donald was pronounced fit for duty and returned to his unit. He was told to pack his kit and embark for France on a posting to the 15th (Service) Battalion (1st Leeds), The Prince of Wales’s Own (West Yorkshire) Regiment, also known as “Leeds Pals” as one of 10 new officers within 31st Division1. This was to be the first wave of battle casualty replacements as the Battalion had suffered serious losses during the opening phases of the battles of the Somme: 24 officers and 504 other ranks. Along with the nine other officers Donald reported for duty at 1.30pm on 16th July in the vicinity of LESTREM, some 8 miles north of Béthune in France.
Still virtually untrained, and with no experience of battle, Donald was sent to the First Army School of Instruction2 for a period of time on 13th August and by 5th November that year was deemed suitable material for promotion to First-Lieutenant – dead men’s shoes.
The routine of the Battalion was a period of time in the trenches where they coped with gas, sniper fire, rifle grenades and enemy shelling taking casualties on a regular basis, the occasional trench raiding party on the German lines and periods further back from the front line in billets or bivouacs.
By Christmas 1916 the Battalion was in the HEBUTERNE sector and on Christmas day itself:
All working parties were suspended on this day. A good Xmas dinner, consisting of Yorkshire Pudding, Turkey and Goose, Beef, Potatoes and Cabbage was provided for each NCO & man, who received in addition, one bottle of Bass’s Beer, 1 tin of Gold Flake cigarettes, an apple, orange and two candles.
In late February 1917 the Battalion relieved its sister formation, the 16th (Service) Battalion (1st Bradford); the ‘Bradford Pals’ and on the evening of the 25th, ‘C’ Company, under the temporary command of Lieut Donald Robinson, took up position in the German front line without opposition from the enemy and then the following day they occupied the 2nd and 3rd line near ROSSIGNOL WOOD, a forest north-east of HEBUTERNE. The Coy commander returned from leave on the 27th and Donald stood down.
By the end of April 1917 the Battalion had moved to ROCLINCOURT from where it proceeded into the line at GAVRELLE taking over the right sector and on 2nd May the Company Commanders were recalled from the line to be briefed on the following days operation - ‘The Battle of the Scarpe’, with Zero hour set for 3.45am. The Battalion strength stood at 547 officers and men.
After securing the area around ARLEUX at the end of the month, the British General Staff wanted to launch another attack, eastwards from MONCHY to try to break through the Boiry Riegel and reach a major German defensive fortification: the Wotanstellung. The timing was to coincide with the Australian attack at BULLECOURT so as to engage the Germans in a two–pronged assault. British commanders hoped that success would force the Germans to retreat further east. The operation the British were to undertake was another attack near the Scarpe. As neither the Australians nor British forces were able to make any significant headway in their respective operations, the attack was called off on 4th May after incurring heavy casualties.
Although the ‘Battle of the Scarpe’ was a failure, important lessons were learnt about the need for much closer integration between tanks, infantry, and artillery, which they were to apply in the ‘Battle of Cambrai’ later that year.
Operations on the front began on the morning of Thursday 3rd May 1917 with attacks on German observation balloons, four of which were shot down and another four damaged. The German defenders saw the British infantry forming up in the moonlight. At midnight a German patrol was seen and at 12.30am a German bombardment began for twenty minutes or so, followed by a second a while later as they shelled GAVRELLE and the surrounding area. There were few British casualties but the shelling caused considerable confusion and the German bombardment increased when the British preliminary bombardment began. Calm descended until zero hour when the Battalion moved into the attack.
The British advanced in four waves, illuminated by German rockets and Very lights and engaged by massed small-arms fire. Donald was now back with ‘C’ Company who had been designated as the ‘left support’ formation. No serious casualties were sustained up to this point. Machine Gun [MG] and heavy artillery was active on both sides but at about 5.30am, and with no definitive information available as to current progress, men began to dribble back to the lines having reached the first objective, but not being able to hold it and failing to reach the second. The Battalion War Diary3 recorded:
The Commanding Officer being still unable to get definite news, decided to take the whole situation in hand. He closed battle Headquarters, sent all papers back and runners, signallers and all Headquarters Staff were instructed to man the front line parapet. This was done, and heavy rifle fire was directed on groups of the enemy who could be seen returning seemingly from trench to trench over the top. All stragglers were collected and organised, and about 7.30am 80 men were available in the front line. There was no touch with battalions on either left or right, so trenches were blocked and bombing parties stationed on each flank.
The line from battle Hdqrs was run out to the front line trench and touch was got with the Artillery & Brigade.
At this period it was quite evident what had happened. The battalion had got forward all night, and driven back the enemy, but having no supports had lost all driving power, and the enemy realising this had turned on them, and commenced organising to counter attack.
The enemy could be seen approximately 400 strong in extended order from direction of C.21 Central and in close order from C.27 a 8.8. The Commanding Officer at once got in touch with the Artillery, and their barrage succeeded in breaking up the attack.
At 8.00am the CO applied for immediate assistance and a platoon from the 12th (Service) Battalion (Miners) (Pioneers), The King's Own (Yorkshire Light Infantry), [12KOYLI] arrived on the left flank. At 10.40am two companies of The Durham Light Infantry, [DLI] arrived; one took up a position on the extreme left with the other in close support on the SUNKEN ROAD. At 10.45am communication was re-established with the 6th (Service) Battalion, The King's Own Scottish Borderers, on the right.
With the afternoon fairly quiet the opportunity was taken to organise the surviving members of the Battalion, surviving officers were re-allocated to post and trenches cleared of the debris and corpses of the fallen. As evening fell it was realised that of the officers who had climbed out of their trench in the morning only three had returned, all with either shrapnel injuries or broken limbs. 4 officers, including Lieutenant Donald Robinson were dead, 8 reported missing, and of the other ranks 15 had been killed, 122 wounded and 262 reported missing.
At 11.30pm that night having sustained over 75% casualties, what was left of the Battalion, with their heads held high, commenced the withdrawal from the line, their place taken by 13th (Service) Battalion (Barnsley), The York & Lancaster Regiment, or to give them their more famous nomenclature; the ‘Barnsley Pals’.