World War One – Two of Stockton’s Heroes

‘Its funny how life has a habit of throwing up coincidences, isn’t it?

The start of this particular coincidence began with a visit to the Christmas markets in Belgium last year, during which, we made an unscheduled trip to the Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres, to attend the Last Post Ceremony, in commemoration of 54,615 courageous missing soldiers who gave their lives for their country in World War One.

Following our trip, we told our family and friends what a very emotional experience the ceremony had been, and even though it was a chilly dark night in November and lashing down with rain, the Monument was packed with people watching the buglers play the last post and the laying of the wreaths. This ceremony has been carried out at 8pm every evening, with the exception of the war years, since 1927!

After hearing about our trip to the Menin Gate, we received an email from my wife’s uncle, who lives in Australia, informing us that his Dad, my wife’s Grandad, served as a corporal with the Durham Light Infantry (DLI) in the battlefields at Ypres and the Somme, as a stretcher bearer/medical orderly. Thus, the second part of the coincidence appeared! His name was Richard (Dick) Robson, (1892-1958). Dick married Margaret O’Hara on Boxing Day 1914, before enlisting with the 5th Battalion of the DLI in April 1915, at its home Headquarters in Stockton. They lived in Shakespeare Street, Stockton, at the start of the war and brought their four children up in Milton Street and in Hume Street throughout the 1920s and 1930s, before moving to an ICI house in Billingham about 1938 or 39. Dick with his crew of family members, would provide for his family by catching salmon in the River Tees and selling them to residential hotels and on a Stockton Market stall! His mother Margaret Robson (nee Miller) can be seen standing behind a fish stall on a previous posting to this website titled “A postcard showing stalls at Stockton Fish Market”. This is my wife’s Great Grandmother!

The third part of the coincidence came about some months later as I was watching the programme “Antiques Roadshow” on the TV. One of the show’s expert antique dealers was being shown around an exhibition of militaria by a museum guide at Preston Hall Museum. The guide was explaining that the artefacts had been bequeathed to Stockton Council by a gentleman named Colonel Gilbert Ormerod Spence following his death in 1925.

Pardon my ignorance, but before my viewing of this antique show on television, I knew absolutely nothing about this distinguished Stocktonion, Colonel Gilbert Spence. Through my research I discovered that Colonel Spence was Stockton born, came from a wealthy shipbuilding family, who had once owned the large well known Elmwood property in Hartburn. Also, from the year 1900 he had risen through the ranks of the DLI to take command of the 5th Battalion DLI throughout the War, in Ypres and the Somme! Until he was shot and badly injured whilst taking part in the Battle of Lys in April 1918, thereby missing the last few months of the war.

Two men from Stockton, but from very different social backgrounds, (Upstairs, Downstairs comes very much to mind) tenuously linked via an army regiment and a Great War! Their lives would share the horrors of this War for nearly four years! Not only living through bitterly cold winters, trudging about in trenches filled with liquid mud up to their knees, with plagues of rats and lice for company. But also being in constant fear of enemy bombing, poisonous gas attack and the dreaded shriek of the whistle that sounded the signal to `go over the top’, through the barbed wire into `no mans land’ to be met with heavy shelling, flying shrapnel and machine gunfire! It’s just unimaginable! Nevertheless, these two heroic men were the lucky ones who did return home again!

When I informed my wife’s uncle in Australia about the existence and history of Colonel Gilbert Spence, his Dad’s former Commander, the fourth and most extraordinary coincidence manifested itself! I received the following response from him on the subject:-

“Like most ex soldiers my dad never spoke about the war, but the only story that I ever heard was the one about him saving the Regiment Colonel! The Colonel was part of a forward seeking patrol in which all of the party were killed, and with the Colonel badly wounded. Dad crept out from the Medical Unit, to survey the area and attend to any survivors, and found the Colonel badly wounded. A German scout came up on a large horse (the taller the horse the further the Scout could see) to survey the area, Dad picked up a rifle from the mud and shot the horse from under the scout. He put the Colonel on his back scrambled back to their own trenches! As you know these chaps, including Dad’s brother Jim, came back from the war to a major recession at home. Unemployed, Dad and Jim would stroll Stockton High Street, up one side and down the other, and often met the Colonel who would offer Dad some cash, in gratitude for Dad saving his life! This was always politely declined with the lie that “we’re doing okay”. Your Information about Colonel Spence now puts flesh on a half baked story. But I must admit that it made me very proud of my Dad, in saving the Regimental Colonel. His medals include the Oak Leaf Clasp to his Victory Medal (Mentioned In Dispatches). His other two medals are 14-15 Star, and the British War Medal (14-20) Ypres Salient 1 & 2 Battle of the Somme!”

It’s hard to believe that:- Fate brought two of Grandad Robson’s Granddaughters on an unplanned trip to a War Ceremony in Ypres, not knowing that their Grandad had served in the war over there 100 years before them!

Previously unknown information from the other side of the world informed them that their Grandad had served with the 5th Battalion the DLI in the battles of Ypres and the Somme!

A chance viewing of a television programme provided historic information about the DLI’s Colonel Gilbert Ormerod Spence!, and an amazing story would put these two brave comrades side by side on the front line of a battlefield in The Great War! How’s that for coincidence!

Tony Kemp on behalf of my wife Helen Kemp (nee Robson)

8 thoughts on “World War One – Two of Stockton’s Heroes

  1. Remarkable story Tony.
    Unbelievable how little we really know about our ancestors until we have time to look. Of course it was common for them not to talk about the horrible times they went through because they were so humble about what was actually remarkable bravery. Thanks for sharing. Let us never forget!


  2. Thank you Tony for publishing this story ‘Two of Stockton’s Heroes’. It is wonderful to see this story come alive that is a significant part of local history as well as a significant part of our family history.
    Susan Robson, Sydney, Australia.


  3. I loved this amazing story. I hope it generates other coincidences from those who read it. I was born and raised in Stockton when the town was small enough that you’d bump into people you knew in the High Street. I’m in the States now in a small town that has the same feel. Thanks for putting all the pieces together and sharing the story.


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