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WWI photo identified

Robert Alexander Bruce

One day in 2005 I visited the late Douglas and Bertha Murray at their Isbister home, eager to track down local historic images to include in my book, Voices from the Past: Stories of North Roe. I was thrilled when they dragged over an accordion box stuffed full of old photos – poses of friends and family members from the past century, all jumbled together. Local faces gazed back at me, but many were unnamed. I scanned some anyway, hoping to identify them over time. One of the photos I copied was of a uniformed WWI soldier. His boots were scuffed, his tunic wrinkled. His fair hands were sun-freckled, and he had jauntily tucked his left thumb into his belt. A brimmed hat topped his head, not an inexperienced recruit but a battle-worn soldier. Who was he?


It wasn’t until this past year that I once again studied the photo for clues. The badges on his lapel and hat placed him in the New Zealand forces. On his boots were horse spurs. Comparing these details with the list of North Roe soldiers suggested that it was Robert Alexander Bruce of Fladda, Lochend (1891-1917) who had served with the Auckland Mounted Rifles. This September when I visited Shetland for my book launch, I received final confirmation when I met with Lorraine Bruce, showed her the photo, and she exclaimed, “That’s my Uncle Robert!” His identity known, I could now uncover his story.


Robert was born at Scalloway in 1891, the eldest son and second of ten children. By the time he was 10 years old, the family had settled at the Fladda in Lochend. His father was a crofter with a small delivery business on the side. For a fee, he transported goods and people in his pony cart and horse wagon as far away as Lerwick. Robert Jr. attended the North Roe school under Mr. Bremner and was photographed as one of the participants in Reverend Biltcliff’s Young Men’s Academy in 1906. Robert doesn’t seem to have been a sailor. Rather, he emigrated to New Zealand in the 1910s where he found work as an orchardist and gardener for a doctor at Waiuku. On August 23, 1915, he signed on as a soldier for the duration of the war. Robert chose to enlist with the Auckland Mounted Rifles, his previous work with his father’s horses likely making the cavalry an appealing choice.


I know very little about Robert personally. I have no letters or diary, no words he wrote. I do know that he was single, 5 feet 9 inches tall and 145 pounds. He had grey eyes, red hair, a scar on his left forearm, and he died on November 14, 1917 – over 100 years ago – on a World War I battlefield in Palestine. By tracing his troop movements, however, I learned more about his final two years in the desert, and perhaps a little of his struggles and fortitude.


In early 1915, the Ottoman Empire – who had signed a secret treaty with the Germans – attempted to seize the Suez Canal, a vital waterway to the British Empire. New Zealand troops were sent to the Sinai Peninsula to join forces with the British, maintain their interests, and push back the Turks. Mounted troops were needed to fight in such open countryside; they “were expected to ride to the scene of a battle but – unlike traditional cavalry – dismount and go into action as normal infantrymen.” After three months’ training in New Zealand, Robert disembarked from H.M.T. Tofua at Suez. It was December 20, 1915, and Robert was 24 years old. The Mounted Rifles were promptly sent inland, where they met up with survivors of the failed Gallipoli campaign and trained in the different formations required to travel the desert. Relocating from Shetland and New Zealand’s mild and wet island climates to the sand and blazing hot sun must have been a difficult adjustment for Robert. The troops dug into the ground, “an endless task shovelling sand, which drifted into the trenches almost as fast as they could take it out.” They also went on long patrols, where they faced extreme heat and thirst.





The men had to transport a mountain of gear: over 200 rounds of ammunition, a bayonet, service rifle, and haversack filled with tins of “bully” beef and army biscuits, a mess tin for making tea, towel, soap, spare shirt, socks, food rations for 48 hours and 27 pounds of horse rations (enough to last three days), a personal water bottle and a canvas bucket filled with water to wash himself and water his horse. Some soldiers might also carry a bundle of firewood to boil tea. Strapped overtop it all were his greatcoat and a blanket. It was a common sight to see the weighed-down horses lying on their sides next to their riders during halts, “to rest their aching legs.”


The ability to care for their beleaguered horses and ride at a moment’s notice was critical to survival. Men were allotted one water bottle per day, while the horses had to drink brackish water. Camel trains brought their supplies, but “water supplies were uncertain, no one knowing definitely how long it would be before more was available…” To avoid the heat of the day, when possible the men would travel by night, falling asleep in the saddle. On those long night marches, “little [was] heard beyond the shuffling of the horses’ feet and jingle and rattle of accoutrements – the clink of stirrups and bits or perhaps the rattle of a mess-tin.” Survival through the daylight hours was excruciating, the heat “almost unendurable” and on May 16, 1916 “90 men were struck down with sunstroke, the heat being 118 degrees in the shade.” Flies clustered “in black clouds over everything,” even the food they were eating. At night, the men bivouacked under crude shelters: blankets stretched over their bayonets or the sticks from palm leaf fronds they had dug into the sand.


As the troops travelled east, they encountered the Turks, whose planes flew overhead and bombed them at night. While at rest, the weary troops scattered themselves in a long line, making them less of a target – a lesson learned the hard way. Incessant enemy aircraft bombing the soldiers’ nerves, as, no matter how far away, the engine drones sounded like they were directly overhead, and no one knew if they were the next ones to be hit. The planes attacked on a nearly daily basis, dropping bombs, and making a “bloody mess” as they hit their human and bovine targets. “Hospitals were long distant, and wounded men carried in cacolets slung on each side of a camel… the agony of the journey to hospital often proving fatal to men severely wounded.”


On August 3, 1916, the Turks attacked on the ground. The Allies retaliated, continuing a series of skirmishes and Turkish retreats, with losses on both sides. Each night the men patrolled, “long hours of watchfulness.” It was easy to get lost in the ever-changing sand dunes. “In every direction, as far as the wearied eye could see, was sand, sand, sand, –white and glaring… except for the occasional clumps of date palms, whose graceful tops just showed out of some slight hollow.” Formal dress was abandoned in the relentless desert. The men wore a singlet shirt, open at the neck, with a gun strapped across their chest. Returning from duties, “many would be unshaven, with red-rimmed eyes peering from faces darkened by sunburn and dust.” Men were required to “stand to” every morning at 3 a.m., this being the most likely time for Turkish attacks.


On June 26, 1917, after more than a year in the desert, Robert was admitted first to hospital and then a rest camp. The exhausting conditions had caught up with the soldiers: within two months, 222 men – nearly half of the regiment – had also been admitted. The regiment’s war diary noted on July 31st: “The summer heat and the extended period of campaigning are beginning to affect the health of the regiment.” After recovering, Robert spent two weeks at the School of Instruction and was qualified as 1st Class Honorary Gunner. He was promoted to Lance-Corporal on October 13, 1917, in time for a new series of assaults into Palestine.


After smaller battles and two failed attacks on Gaza, the Allies fell back and entrenched themselves in the sand, anticipating a Turkish counter-attack. Wearying patrol and outpost work carried on, week after week until they began their forward march once again. On October 31, 1917, after a wearying 36-mile night march, they attacked the Turks and took the city of Beersheba. Several more days of fighting continued their success, and they finally gained Gaza.


On November 14, 1917, near the orange groves nine miles south of Jaffa at Ayun Kara, they collided with the Turks once again. The enemy were dug into a hill and backed up by a “well-concealed battery and held trenches with the aid of numerous machine guns.” An officer who participated in the battle, Lieut.-Colonel C. Guy Powles described the mounted rifle’s assault. One regiment galloped “to the first fire position… and then… capture[d] enemy trenches on foot as infantry with rifle and bayonet and Hotchkiss and machine guns.” Under cover of artillery fire, the mounted men advanced until they captured the knoll. At one point, the Brigade found themselves on open ground, with no time to dig trenches for cover. The Auckland Regiment – and Robert – bore the brunt of the attack as the Turks charged with fixed bayonets. Fellow soldier, Arthur Briscoe Moore provided detail of the hand-to-hand combat:


"The Turks got to within bomb-throwing distance, but were eventually beaten off in the last thirty or forty yards of their advance… Casualties on both sides were very heavy, most of the grim combat occurring at very short range, some of our men being put out of action with hand grenades…


The fight ranged at close quarters for some time in the fiercest intensity, and then as the tide of battle turned, the remnant of the attacking Turks withdrew in disorder, leaving our men as victors in a frightful shamble of dead and wounded. Throughout that night our thin line of survivors held on to their positions ready for any renewed attack by the enemy, the darkness being made horrible by the groans and cries of the wounded Turks lying before our line. The early morning light revealed a field littered with corpses, some four hundred Turkish dead being counted before Auckland’s position alone."


The Allies had also suffered significant losses: 41 of their horses were killed and 22 wounded, with 185 casualties among the soldiers, nearly half of those from the Auckland Regiment. Among the dead lay 26-year-old Lance-Corporal Robert Alexander Bruce of Fladda, Lochend.


Robert was buried at the top of a hill, ½ mile west of Jaffa and one mile south of Ayun Kara. He has a memorial tombstone at the Commonwealth War Grave in the Ramleh War Cemetery overlooking Jerusalem. His name is engraved on the North Roe war memorial. And his photo lays peacefully in an old accordion box, no longer waiting to be found.


It’s November 14, 2023 – 106 years to the day since Robert’s death in a dusty, far-off land – and I sit comfortably across the world, an armchair researcher to a battle I had never heard of, learning about a man few would ever know. Until now.





Sources:

Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Lance Corporal Robert Alexander Bruce, Ramleh War Cemetery, Israel and Palestine (including Gaza). https://www.cwgc.org/.../652005/robert-alexander-bruce/


Moore, Arthur Briscoe. The Mounted Riflemen in Sinai and Palestine: The Story of New Zealand’s Crusaders. Whitcombe and Tombs Ltd, Auckland: 1920. https://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/tm/scholarly/tei-WH1MRif.html


New Zealand Archives, “Mounted rifles units: Introduction,” updated December 6, 2021, https://nzhistory.govt.nz/war/new-zealand-mounted-rifles


New Zealand Archives, Military Personnel Record, Robert Alexander Bruce, WWI 13/2536 – Army. Record no: 19552; R no: R21889159; Series: 18805. https://digitalnz.org/rec.../35022465/bruce-robert-alexander


Powles, Lieut.-Colonel C. Guy. The New Zealanders in Sinai and Palestine. Auckland, Whitcombe and Tombs Ltd: 1922. https://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/tm/scholarly/tei-WH1-Sina.html

1 comentario


saraleeherrington
12 mar

This is such a touching story of one who died so far away after suffering so much.

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