Private 4757, 7th Battalion Manchester Regiment attached to 1st Battalion Loyal North Lancashire Regiment.
Killed in action 18th August 1916, age 19.
Remembered on the Thiepval Memorial, France.
Student of chemistry.
Robert was born in November 1896 in Douglas, Isle of Man, the eldest child of William and Mary Southward. He had a younger sister, Winnie, who was born four years later. Robert was educated at the Eastern District Secondary School in Douglas, where he proved to be a promising athlete, completing his studies in 1913.
Only 17 at the outbreak of war, Robert was too young to enlist with the Army, whose minimum age for fighting overseas at that time was 19 years. In October 1915, he arrived in Manchester to study chemistry at the University. Although he was to only stay in Hulme Hall for a short period, he quickly engaged in Hall life becoming a popular member of the community. In November, just as he turned 19, he joined the OTC.
On 20 January 1916, seven days before all voluntary enlistment was stopped under the Military Service Act 1916, Robert enlisted with the 7th Battalion Manchester Regiment; most likely under the Derby Scheme. He continued with his studies until March when he was called up and joined the reserve Battalion, or 2/7th Battalion, who were training in Witley Camp on Witley Common in Surrey.
There was a huge demand for manpower on the Western Front in 1916, particularly in the aftermath of the first month of the Somme offensive. Such was the demand that whilst some Hulme Hall students who signed up in 1914 were able to train for over a year before being sent to fight, Robert received only less than five months training, arriving in France in early August 1916. With the 1/7th Battalion serving in Sinai, he was attached to the 1st Battalion Loyal North Lancashire Regiment (LNLR) who were being reinforced after suffering heavy casualties during an offensive near Pozières, on the Somme, in mid-July.
Robert was to only serve with the LNLR for four days before he was killed during fighting on 18 August. His parents were informed of his death during the first week of September and the only information provided was that he had been killed whilst crossing no-man’s land. Investigation of the 1st Battalion LNLR War Diaries for 18 August 1916 revealed that the Battalion were ordered to attack a trench running along the north western edge of High Wood. In a report summarising the Battalion’s action of the day, Major Phillips noted that at the start of the attack at 2.45pm: “The right platoon, which was detailed to attack trench X and to form a strong point at NW corner of High Wood, left their trenches and was seen to advance into our intense bombardment, which was not timed to lift until [2.48pm]. Remainder of right appears to have followed on too quickly and suffered a similar fate.” The platoons attacking to the left delayed their advance and followed successfully behind the British bombardment and took their objective. Given the limited information passed on to Robert’s parents and the evidence provided in the diaries, it is considered highly likely that he was part of the right flank and was killed by a shell from British guns: a victim of ‘friendly fire’.
In a letter to the Hulme Hall Warden Reverend Nicklin in 1916 Robert’s sister wrote: “I cannot tell you how your letter of sympathy was appreciated by my parents and myself. Robert’s death has indeed been a terrible blow to us all and even yet it seems hard to realise it. Father wrote almost at once to the CO of Robert’s battalion for particulars. He received a reply stating that the CO was not with the company on that date but he had tried to collect a few facts. Robert was killed while crossing no-man’s land and he was buried on the spot where he died, which was near High Wood. That is all the information which we have at present.”