Thursday, November 10, 2011

Robert Nelson, Private in the British Tank Corps, WWI

Tin tobacco box given to my grandfather
by a German prisoner at the end of the war
Growing up, I remember my mother's stories of my grandfather Robert Nelson (born 19 Oct 1890 in Hetton le Hole, Durham, England), and how he fought in the trenches in France and Belgium during WWI. Other family members have said that he was assigned to the Tank Corps and  trained in Wareham, Dorset. My aunt has in her possession a small tin box (possibly to hold tobacco and papers for rolling cigarettes) that was given to my grandfather at the conclusion of the war by a German POW that he had met while in France. All family members agreed that the war was not something my grandfather liked to talk about, so there is very little additional information to be had from family sources.

Robert Nelson in his  British Army
Tank Corps Uniform
With these family stories as a guide, as well as a photograph of my grandfather in his WWI uniform, I sought to further verify what I had learned, and to find additional information that might add more depth to the story. I decided to start by using Google to search for information on the Tanks Corps and came across a number of websites dealing with Tank Corps History and research. Wikipedia, proved quite useful, as well as the Tank Museum website. Another valuable website dealing exclusively with British Army History during WWI entitled The Long, Long, Trail, provided a wealth of information. Other websites that proved extremely useful were the National Archives and
Through information I gathered from these websites, I was able to determine that my grandfather's uniform was consistent with those worn by British Soldiers during WWI, and the arm bade, cap badge and regimental badge were those of the Tank Corps. The following was information was gleaned from a Wikipedia Article which describes the uniform:
 The British soldier went to war.........wearing the 1902 Pattern Service Dress tunic and trousers. This was a thick woollen tunic, dyed khaki. There were two breast pockets for personal items and the soldier's AB64 Pay Book, two smaller pockets for other items, and an internal pocket sewn under the right flap of the lower tunic where the First Field Dressing was kept. Rifle patches were sewn above the breast pockets, to prevent wear from the webbing equipment and rifle. Shoulder straps were sewn on and fastened with brass buttons, with enough space for a brass regimental shoulder title. Rank insignia was sewn onto the upper tunic sleeves, while trade badges and Long Service and Good Conduct stripes were placed on the lower sleeves. A stiffened peak cap was worn, made of the same material, with a leather strap, brass fitting and secured with two small brass buttons. Puttees were worn round the ankles, and ammunition boots with hobnail soles on the feet. Normally brown, they were made of reversed hide and had steel toe-caps and a steel plate on the heel.”
Tanks Corps Cap Badge

The history of the Royal Tank Regiment began following the invention of the tank in 1916. At that time the six existing tank companies were part of the Heavy Branch of the Machine Gun Corps. On 28 July 1917 the Heavy Branch was separated from the rest of the Machine Gun Corps and given official status as the Tank Corps and “a request was made for the Tank Corp's own metal cap badge.” A close inspection of the cap badge on my grandfather’s uniform confirmed that it was indeed the official Tank Corp cap badge.
Tanks Corps Arm Badge from my
grandfather's uniform

While waiting for the new official cap badge to be manufactured and delivered, a provisional worsted arm badge became part of the Tank Corps uniform. This arm badge continues to be worn today and is believed to be the only badge of its kind to survive the years of WWI. A closer crop shows that the badge on my grandfather’s uniform is indeed the Tanks Corps arm badge.

The Derby Scheme
Derby Scheme Recruitment Poster
The first page of my grandfather's service record was an Attestation Form, dated 11 Dec 1915. This date is significant in that it was just three days before the deadline for registration under the Derby Scheme.  Britain entered the Great War in 1914. By the early part of 1915, the number of recruits had gone down significantly. The government struggled with the idea of conscription, and so decided to try a different scheme to raise enlistment numbers. In October of 1915, Edward Stanley, the 17th Lord Derby, was appointed Director-General of Recruiting and came up with idea that was dubbed “The Derby Scheme”. The scheme appealed to men between the ages of 18 to 40 to either enlist voluntarily or to attest with an obligation to come if called up. The deadline to register for voluntary enlistment was 15 December 1915.  I believe that my grandfather was one of the 2,185,000 who attested for later enlistment under the Derby Scheme. A war pension was introduced at the same time, which may have helped entice him to sign up, as he had a wife and three children and would have had concern about supporting them on the chance that he did not survive. Robert was assigned to the Army reserve and sent back to his home and job until he was called up for service.

Copy of Medal Index Card from National Archives
The next step in my research was a visit to the National Archives website to search for the index card of my grandfather’s service records. My search for “Robert Nelson, Tank Corps” brought up two entries. On closer look I discovered that one of the Robert Nelson’s was an officer who died in action, so I was fairly confident that the other Robert Nelson was my man. (I should note that I paid to view the Index Card on the National Archives website, but later learned that these same Index Cards are available on, to which I already had a subscription). The next step was to search for the actual service records. Not all of these records have survived, so imagine my delight when I found them! There were fourteen pages!

WWI Watercolour painting by Jean Berne-Bellecour: 
Sir John Dashwood's tank
On August 19, 1918, Robert was mobilized and posted to the Tank Corps Depot in Wareham, Dorset for training.  On the 24 of August, he was posted to a Reserve Unit.   In September of 1918, his wife Margaret had a son, Joseph, who lived only two days.  This must have been a very difficult time for the young father who had just left his home, and equally difficult for his wife who had to deal with her grief alone.  On Oct, 25, 1918, Robert was transferred to the B.E.F. (British Expeditionary Force), which was the term referring  to those who served in France on the Western Front during WWI.  He was given the Medical Category of A1, which meant that he was in good health, and assigned to the 5th battalion.  He embarked from Folkestone, on the southern coast of England, and Disembarked at Boulogne, France on the 28 October, 1918.

German POWs in French Prison Camp - National Archives via pingnews
The 5th battalion , formerly named “E Battalion”, was involved in a number of battles in the months leading up to the Armistace on 11 November 1918, including the Battle of Amiens,  2nd Battle of Bapaume, Battle of Arras, Epehy, St-Quentin, and the Hindenburg Line and were part of the Allied 100 Days Offensive which led to the end of the war.  Most of the major battles on the Western Front had been fought by the time my grandfather arrived, so I’m not sure how much action he saw. The German armies continued to retreat as the Allied Forces recaptured villages one by one, so he must have been involved in this effort in some way. Between October 17 and November 11, the British advanced to the Sambre and Schledt rivers, taking many German prisoners.  Britain and France held about 720,000 German POWs, mostly gained in the period just before the Armistice in 1918.  My grandfather's battalion may have had a role with these prisoners, as our family stories suggest.  According to his service records, Robert served a total of 204 days active duty, and was demobilized on 20 Feb 1919.  He received the British War Medal and Victory medal on 11 Aug 1921.

The next step in my research will be a visit to the National Archives next time I am in London, to view the war diaries of the 5th battalion. These records will probably not mention my grandfather by name, but should give me more clues as to what specific operations his battalion was involved in. I may never find out the details of where my grandfather served or what he may have seen, but I know that even for the brief time he was there, it must have been a life changing experience for him. This Remembrance Day, I am once again reminded of those brave souls who have sacrificed their lives to preserve our freedom and I am grateful for the part that my grandfather played, however small.  May we never forget!


  1. Was made aware of your site from a list that was sent to me via a news letter from Genealogy Canada.

    Superb bit of WW1 History, really enjoyed reading more of them left now...the last from this country died last year

    Happy Genealogy

  2. Very interesting - my G-Grandfather was also in the Tank Corps - I also have a picture of him in his uniform with TC insignia / hat etc.... who knows - perhaps he even knew your Grandfather....

  3. Wow judy this was lovely to read, I would love to read more about our families history & ancestry do you have any online sources you could direct me to please? Thanks Gemma (was Nelson) X

  4. A nice trubute to your grandfather, well done. As you say, although he attested in late 1915 he was not called up until the closing months of the war (which always seems stange as you would think they wanted to get on with it, but was the norm) and by the time he joined 5th Battalion there was very little tank action remaining. This link gives you a blow by blow account ofthe battalions war actions on the Western Front.
    These guys with the 300,000+ service numbers were being called up and trained for deployment in Haigs planned offensive (with mass tanks) in Spring 1919, but of course the Armistace happend, thank goodness.. Geoffrey Churcher

    1. Thank you for the link to the 5th Battalion's war action. It is great to be able to add another bit of data to the story.