Robert Acﬁeld Gibbons came to Chelmsford by 1911 from Suffolk and worked as a salesman for the flour millers T.D. Ridley & Sons of Chelmsford. He joined the army in the spring of 1916 after a Local Tribunal and a County Tribunal rejected appeals from his employer not to be called up. He was killed in action at Monchy-le-Preux during the Battle of Arras in April 1917. His home was in Riverside.
Robert was born in Framlingham, Suffolk in 1884, the son of hairdressers Arthur Edward Gibbons and Sarah Elizabeth Gibbons (nee Smith) His father had been born in 1853 in Framlingham; his mother had been born in 1854 in Comberton, Cambridgeshire. The couple married in 1874 in Suffolk and in 1881 they had been living at Framlingham where Robert’s father was a master hairdresser.
Robert’s siblings, all Framlingham-born, included George Robert Gibbons (1875-1917), Florence Gertrude Gibbons (1878-1966), Beatrice Vere Gibbons (1881-1959), Ernest Christopher Gibbons (1883-1916) and Stanley Douglas Gibbons (1886-1926).
Robert’s father died in 1889, aged 36. Two years later the census recorded six year-old Robert living with his widowed mother, ﬁve siblings and a hairdressing assistant Wilfred Warner Thurtson in Framlingham. His mother was a hairdresser with his brother George an apprentice hairdresser.
Robert’s mother married Wilfred Warner Thurston on 3rd August 1891, but she died in 1900. Robert was aged 15 at the time of 1901 census, was employed as a merchant’s clerk and was resident with his 31 year-old widowed step-father and two siblings and a step-sister, Winifred M. Thurston at Market Hill in Framlingham. His step-father died aged just 34 in 1904 and after that Robert’s step-sister lived with Wilfred Warner Thurston’s sister in Framlingham and Ipswich.
By 1911 Robert had moved to Springfield and was recorded in that year’s census at 13 Riverside. He was aged 26 and employed as a clerk. At the time Leonard Pearsons, also a clerk, was boarding with him. Robert later worked as a flour salesman and traveller for Messrs. Ridley and Sons of Chelmsford and was a member of the Church Institute.
On 2nd March 1916 the Military Service Act came into force meaning that men such as Robert who were aged between 18 and 41 years old were liable to be called up for service in the army unless they were married, widowed with children, serving in the Royal Navy, a minister of religion, or working in one of a number of reserved occupations.
Local Tribunals were set up in towns to adjudicate on appeals for men not to be called up. Within a week of the Act coming into force Robert was the subject of one such tribunal. On 10th March 1916 the Essex County Chronicle reported:
“Messrs. T. D. Ridley and Sons. Ltd., flour millers, appealed for Robert A. Gibbons, 31, salesman, of Riverside.—Mr. Nurse, for the firm, said Col. Ridley and Capt. Ridley were serving, and Mr Gibbons was trying to do their work. There was Mr. Bewers. who was over 70 years age, and Mr. Williams went into the country. The Chairman: We are sorry can't giant it Mr. Nurse.”
Ridley’s then took the case to the first meeting of the County Appeal Tribunal. On 25th March 1916 the Essex Newsman reported:
“An appeal was lodged against refusal for exemption for R. A. Gibbons, Chelmsford, flour salesman and traveller for Messrs. T. D. Ridley and Sons. Mr. C. E. Rlidley, J.P., said Mr. Gibbone had taken the place of his two partners. Capt. Ridley had been in France for the last nine or ten months, and he himself had had to go back to the business. The Local Tribunal said leave it to customers to send in orders, but they could not do the trade and continue to tender to the War Office.—The appeal was dismissed.”
Soon afterwards, in April or very early May 1916 Robert enlisted into the army at Chelmsford and went on to serve as Trooper 2684 in the Essex Yeomanry. He was one of a large number of men transferred from 3/1st Battalion of the Essex Yeomanry to the Essex Regiment in December 1916 - others included Arthur Saltmarsh and Douglas Havelock Newman, both of who are commemorated at Chelmsford.
Robert subsequently served in France as Private 34188 in the 1st Battalion of the Essex Regiment which formed part of the 88th Brigade in the 29th Division. The battalion had, from July 1916 until November 1916, fought in the Battle of the Somme. By April 1917 it had left the Somme area and moved northwards to participate in the Battle of Arras. The battle commenced on Easter Monday, 9th April 1917 when Allied troops launched an offensive along a wide front which, despite early progress, failed to achieve the breakthrough they coveted.
On 12th April 1917 the Robert’s battalion completed a 20 mile march to arrive in Arras. From there, along with the rest of the 88th Brigade, it moved overnight four miles eastwards to relieve comrades in the 37th Brigade near the village of Monchy-le-Preux, Pas de Calais, France, where it arrived at 3 a.m. on 13th April 1917. A proposed early morning attack by the battalion on German positions was postponed just five minutes before zero hour. Another attack, planned for 2 p.m. was also cancelled a few minutes before the hour fixed. Nevertheless it was finally agreed to launch the attack in the early morning of 14th April 1917.
A post-war account of the battalion recorded the following for 14th April 1917:
“The effort was directed against the higher ground about a thousand yards east of Monchy, to be known later as Infantry Hill. with last minute instructions to the battalion on the right to occupy Bois du Vert should the barrage have driven the enemy therefrom. Strong points were to be constructed on both flanks. ‘The result of this operation, if successful, would be a position balloon shaped. as if blown from Monchy-le-Preux, which was the apex of a salient..’ The capture of the hill would afford observation over the Douai plain.
GIBBONS, ROBERT ACFIELD,
Private, 1st Battalion, Essex Regiment (formerly of the Essex Yeomanry)
Two battalions were alloted to the offensive - Newfoundlanders on the right (C and D Companies in the front line, with B in support and A as flank guard) and Essex on the left (three companies. W Capt. R. E. G. Carolin; U Capt. Tomlinson, and Z Capt. C. R. Brown M.C,, with X Company (Capt. H. J. B. Foster) as flank guard. 4th Worcesters were in support on the line vacated by the assaulting force and reaching to the Cambrai road. 2nd Hampshires were in reserve between Orange Hill and Monchy, with one company pushed forward to the north-eastern edge of the town, in alignment with the Worcesters.
The attack was launched at 5.30 a.m. under a creeping barrage commencing 200 yards from the enemy’s front line and lifting 100 yards every four minutes. There were also macine gun barrages on the flanks and four mobile machine guns accompanied the assaulting troops. It was a misty morning, with the wooded ground wet and heavy from recent rain and snow.
Essex rapidly advanced by short rushes and by 6.30 were reported to be digging in and to have taken a few prisoners. A patrol of four Newfoundlanders, taken out by an Essex officer, killed four Germans in a gunpit 100 yards in front of the final objective. The Germans had retired from Shrapnel Trench as soon as the barrage opened, though some trouble was caused by fire from an unlocated trench on the right. Patrols were sent forward to ascertain whether the enemy were in possession of Bois du Sart and Bois des Aubepines, and these reported that large masses of troops could be observed therein obviously preparing for the counter-attack. C
Captain Carolin, who had come in badly wounded, gave useful information to Battalion headquarters, especially concerning the concentration of Germans in the Bois du Sart. The destruction of the signal wires caused an hour’s delay in communicating with the artillery and thus hindered the break-up of the enemy formations. Relays of orderlies were sent to Brigade headquarters with urgent requests for artillery aid and later on two of them were found killed by shell-fire with their messages upon them.
X Company, Essex Regiment, detailed as flank guard on the left, quickly came into contact with the enemy. Under Capt. Foster prompt measures were taken to push forward. No. 8 platoon was checked by machine guns located in Arrow Head Cops, and whilst No. 5 platoon opened covering fire fron a line of shell holes, No. 7 platoon outflanked the copse, with the result that No. * again moved forward, capturing two machine guns and driving the enemy out of his position. A small wood was also in hostile occupation, but was cleared by Lewis guns and rifle grenades. Pressing forward to the northern end of Twin Copses the Company came under fire from a line of hidden machine guns and replied by establishing a chain of strong points.
From that time forward, however, the situation rapidly became critical. Heavy enemy artillery fire had been opened upon Monchy - which was almost levelled in a few hours - and the batteries on the Feuchy Chapel - Feuchy Road, covering an attack which developed mainly from Bois du Sart and the valleys north-east of the town. X Company were overwhelmed some time between 6.30 and 7.30, and by the latter hour the main attack had culminated against the front line companies.
The fighting was obstinate and men of Essex and Newfoundland suffered severely, but although practically destroyed as battalions their resistance broke the offensive if a German division. A few men dribbled in from X Company and were quickly organised for defence under the Adjutant (Lieut. C. P. Lawson) and Sergeant-Major Bailey, but from 7.30 a.m. onwards no messages arrived at Battalion headquarters nor did any more wounded report at the aid post,
Essex headquarters personnel and Battalion reserve manned street barricades in Monchy. A small part of the enemy’s force maintained its advance to the outskirts of the town, but got no farther. Headquarters of the Newfoundland at 11.30 a.m. held the south-eastern corner of Monchy and from a trench close to a garden fence brought machine-gun fire to bear on the enemy reoccupying Shrapnel Trench; 88th Brigade M.G.C. knocking out a German machine gun by fire from the Central Road east of Monchy.
At 1.30 p.m. a strong enemy force unsuccessfully struck against the line held by the Worcesters. The Hampshires were moved into Monchy at 5 p.m. and the Lancashire Fusiliers to the position the former vacated. The enemy made two more attacks in the afternoon, accompanied by destructive shell fire, but they died down and ay night the hardly-tried troops were relieved by the 86th Brigade.
From a study of the two Battalions [Essex and Newfoundland] narratives it would appear that shortly after 7.30 a.m. the Germans attacked the British left in overwhelming force and rolling up the Essex line, after a desperate resistance, swept across the front and destroyed the gallant Newfoundlanders.
The Essex and Newfoundland men had achieved a great feat of arms....the 29th Division Commander reported: ‘There is no question that the assault delivered by the Newfoundland and 1st Essex Regiments forestalled and disorganised a serious attempt by the enemy to capture Monchy’.”
But it was at a heavy price. Robert’s battalion had gone into action with 31 officers and 892 other ranks, of who at the end of the day 17 officers and 644 other ranks were reported to be either killed, wounded or missing. 203 of the missing were later confirmed to be prisoners of war. The Newfoundlanders reported 487 casualties out of 591 officers and men employed.
Among the 644 Essex casualties was Robert, who was subsequently presumed to have been killed in action. He has no known grave, is commemorated on the Arras Memorial, Arras, France, on the Civic Centre Memorial, Chelmsford (which records his regiment as the Essex Yeomanry) and is also commemorated on the Essex Yeomanry War Memorial at Chelmsford Cathedral. He was entitled to the British War Medal and Victory Medal.
Another Chelmsford man, Frederick Albert Reeve, also died on 14th April 1917 while serving with the 1st Battalion of the Essex Regiment at Monchy-le-Preux.
Robert’s next of kin was his brother Stanley Douglas Gibbons who lived at 26 Thorold Road, Ilford.
Acknowledgements to Ian Miller