A son's revealing pilgrimage

Royal Visit Descendants of soldiers who fought in pivotal First World War battle meet in St. John's

Terry Roberts editor@cbncompass.ca
Published on May 1, 2010

The descendants of two soldiers who played a pivotal role in one of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment's deadliest battles of the First World War were united in St. John's last weekend.

Kenneth Forbes-Robertson of England and Ken Gatehouse of St. John's were complete strangers before they met Friday.

They now share a bond and friendship that can never be broken.

Forbes-Robertson travelled to Newfoundland to take part in events marking the 215th anniversary of the establishment of the regiment.

The descendants of two soldiers who played a pivotal role in one of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment's deadliest battles of the First World War were united in St. John's last weekend.

Kenneth Forbes-Robertson of England and Ken Gatehouse of St. John's were complete strangers before they met Friday.

They now share a bond and friendship that can never be broken.

Forbes-Robertson travelled to Newfoundland to take part in events marking the 215th anniversary of the establishment of the regiment.

It turned out to be a life-changing pilgrimage for the 76-year-old.

His father, James Forbes-Robertson, commanded the Newfoundland Regiment for a short time during the war, and led a heroic defence of the village of Monchy-le-Preux in April 1917.

One of the eight soldiers at his side was a corporal named Charles (Chas) Parsons of St. John's, Gatehouse's grandfather. Parsons was regimental No. 783.

After they were introduced last Friday, Kenneth Forbes-Robertson and Gatehouse developed an instant connection, one first forged between their families on a battlefield in Europe more than 90 years ago.

Gatehouse believes his grandfather was lying next to the colonel in the firing line.

"His dad was always an important person in my life in that as a kid growing up, we had the picture of the nine men at Monchy, and I knew that his father had led the group. So he was a significant person for me, and it's been incredible to meet Ken here," Gatehouse said.

Gatehouse has done considerable research on the battle, and believes it was Forbes-Robertson's leadership that made the difference.

"The story is that he took out quite a few of the enemy," Gatehouse said of Forbes-Robertson, who was an expert marksman.

Kenneth Forbes-Robertson said his father never spoke much about the war. As such, his eyes were opened last weekend after speaking with people such as Gatehouse and Tony McAllister, the regiment's official historian.

"I've learned more about my father in the last 48 hours than I've heard all the rest of my life," Forbes-Robertson said.

Forbes-Robertson said he was greatly impressed with the level of knowledge and interest in the First World War activities of the Newfoundland Regiment.

"I'm simply in awe," he stated.

The battle at Monchy started on April 14, 1917. The regiment was under the command of Col. James Forbes-Robertson, a British officer. Forbes-Robertson had taken over from Lt.-Col. A. L. Hadow, who had fallen ill.

But things went very badly that day. The two companies from the Newfoundland regiment who launched the attack were quickly decimated, with hundreds killed, wounded or taken prisoner in the chaos.

The losses were second only to the battle at Beaumont Hamel the year before, when nearly 300 Newfoundlanders were killed.

When word reached Forbes-Robertson that the Germans were counter-attacking, he rallied the small group of men in his headquarters to check the German advance.

For four hours, nine men fought off several hundred attackers and prevented the village from falling back into enemy hands.

It was later declared by a British general that if Monchy had been lost, it would have taken 40,000 troops to win it back.

All nine men were highly decorated for their actions, and Forbes-Robertson would win the Victoria Cross - the highest award for gallantry in the face of the enemy - later in the war while commanding another regiment.

His son wore replicas of his father's medals during his visit to St. John's, and drew plenty of attention from those who recognized the Victoria Cross on his chest. The original VC is reportedly worth several hundred thousand dollars.

Only one member of the Newfoundland Regiment, Tommy Ricketts, received the medal during the war.

Although he was a British officer, Col. Forbes-Robertson spoke very highly of the Newfoundlanders, said his son.

"One of the few things my father said about the war was that the Newfoundlanders were the finest soldiers he fought with," he said.

After the war, Charles Parsons would always toast his comrades who fell at Monchy on April 14, said Gatehouse.

"It really has come full circle here today," Gatehouse said, adding that he would like to visit Monchy with Forbes-Robertson in the near future.

troberts@thetelegram.com