Sergeant Robert SLEE (20/476)
South African Constabulary (1901-3)
20th (1st Tyneside Scottish) Bn. and
25th (2nd Tyneside Irish) Bn., Northumberland Fusiliers
Born: March 1881, Skelwith, Lancashire
Died: 27 April 1917, Arras, France (Age 36)
Robert Slee was born in March 1881 in Skelwith, near Hawkshead, which at that time was part of Lancashire. He was the fourth child born to Robert Slee, a Labourer in a Quarry in the Coniston area, and his wife Margaret Jane (nee Young). His family moved to Rookings in Patterdale around 1884 . It appears that at least six of their children had not been baptised, so on the 10th of June 1888, Thomas, Margaret Anne, Robert, Fred, Harry and Ada were all baptised at St Patrick's Church. By 1891 the family were living in nearby Blowick, where their son William was born, then back to Rookings for while where John was born and finally to Blowick again where Arthur was born around September 1899. The family left the dale soon after this, as a couple of months later in 1899, we discovered that John's father Robert had died in Newcastle. As Robert was 7 years old when the family arrived at Rookings and 18 when they left, he would have almost certainly attended school in Patterdale and then probably worked at the Greenside Mine for a few years. By 1901 the family were found living at Witton Park just west of Bishop Auckland; Robert, now 20 years old and working as a Labourer in a Pipe Works, is recorded as the 'Head of the Household', along with his widowed mother and his six younger brothers and sisters. During 1901, after the census had been taken, Robert enlisted as a Trooper in the South African Constabulary and fought in a number of the Boer War battles. He was discharged from ''C' (Eastern) Division of the S.A.C. and returned to England on the 25th February 1903.
Towards the end of 1904, Robert married Mary Elizabeth Nicholson in the Auckland District of County Durham. In 1909, Robert received 2 further clasps to attach to the Queen's South African Medal that he had been awarded in the 2nd Boer War - the address these clasps were sent to was 'Leadgate Farm, Chopwell, Co. Durham', it is not known if he was working on the farm or just lodging there. However, by April 1911, they were living in Chopwell itself, where Robert was working as a Coalminer, and had two children, Joseph and Robert (a third child had died). The census also records that they had adopted a boy called John R Webster, who was 15 and worked as a Driver in the mine (could he have been a child by one of Robert's older sisters Ellen or Margaret Anne?). Robert's mother, Margaret Jane Slee, died in early 1907 at the age of 58.
Soon after war was declared, Robert enlisted in the 20th (Tyneside Scottish) Battalion of the Northumberland Fusiliers on the 31st October 1914. The Battalion was initially billeted in various parts of Newcastle and using the City Football Ground for training. However, a new camp was built at Alnwick and on the 29th January 1915, the 20th Battalion marched the 40 miles, over two days, to their new huts in Camp C. During their training, all Battalions of the Northumberland Fusiliers marched back to Newcastle in May, where a gathering of 18,000 troops on Town Moor on the 20th May were reviewed by H.M.King George V. On the 1st August all four Battalions of the Tyneside Scottish travelled south by train (ten trains were needed) to Salisbury Plain. After 6 weeks of intensive training, they moved again on 26th September to Sandhill Camp near Warminster. At some point, we do not know when, Robert was transferred to the 25th (Tyneside Irish) Battalion, this could have been on his promotion to Sergeant but there is another possible explanation. It is recorded that when the 34th Divisional Cyclist Company was formed, every Battalion sent men to join it's ranks but when the company disbanded in late 1916, those who had served in the Tyneside Scottish were re-transferred into the Tyneside Irish.
By the end of 1915, frustrations were building amongst the officers and men all of the Battalions of both the Tyneside Scottish and Irish at not being sent to France - they had been training for over a year. Orders finally came through on the 4th of January 1916 that they were to be mobilised. At 6.10pm on Sunday the 9th January, the 20th Tyneside Scottish left Southampton bound for Le Havre in France. One consequence of this delay was that none of the men in the Tyneside Scottish or Irish Battalions received the 1914/15 Star Medal. By the end of January they were in the front-line trenches in the Fleurbaix sector.
No records have been found which tell us exactly when Robert transferred from the 20th (1st Scottish Tyneside) to the 25th (2nd Tyneside Irish) Battalion but as they were both part of the 34th Division, they would have been fighting close to each other and in the same battles. It is well documented that all of the Tyneside Battalions of the Northumberland Fusiliers took part in the terrible offensive on the 1st July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme. The 20th Bn. were amongst those that led the advance across open ground to try and take the village of La Boisselle, whilst the 25th were behind in reserve. The bravery of the men, who continued their slow advance, even though their comrades were being killed and wounded all around them due to the heavy machine gun fire, is legendary. The 20th Battalion was almost wiped out, at least 350 killed and over 300 wounded, so either Robert was very lucky or had already transferred to the 25th Battalion (even so, they had at least 144 men killed and some 360 wounded). By the 3rd July, the survivors of the battle had been withdrawn for rest and when reinforcements arrived later in July, both Battalions were moved north to Armentieres, which was considered to be a 'quieter' area.
We can be sure that by early 1917 Robert was a Sergeant with the 25th Tyneside Irish Battalion, when they moved, at the beginning of March, from the Bois Grenier sector near Armentieres to Ecoivres near Arras. He would have taken part in the Battle of Arras which began at 5am on the 9th April, when the 24th and 25th (Tyneside Irish) Battalions advanced into No-Man's Land whilst the Artillery laid down a barrage on the German front lines. They succeeded in taking the German front line and reserve trenches but as they advanced further they came under heavy and accurate machine-gun fire. Significant ground was gained but at a high price, the 25th alone recorded 24 dead, 143 wounded and 63 missing (quite likely dead). On the 14th April, the 25th Battalion were relieved and after marching back to Arras, travelled by motor bus to billets in Marquay for a rest and to rebuild the Battalion with a draft of reinforcements, many of whom had no front line experience and had to be trained - some had never even fired a rifle!
After only a week's rest and with very little training, the reformed 25th Battalion were back in the front line trenches near Roeux. The Germans still held Roeux and had machine guns and snipers in and about the Chemical Works and the Chateau. In preparation for an attack that was planned for the morning of the 27th April, the Battalion were employed in deepening their trenches. This work was done under heavy shellfire and the war diary records that three men were killed during those preparations. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission, records that Sergeant Robert Slee died on the 26th April and is commemorated on the Arras Memorial for the missing. It is possible that Robert was one of those three but if he was killed in his Battalion's trenches, surely his body would have been recovered for burial in a known grave. It therefore seems possible that he was killed the next day leading his company during the attack on the 27th April and that his body was not found or identified3.
Robert served in the South African Constabulary for around 18 months and was awarded the Silver Queen's South Africa Medal with five clasps. In WW1, he completed about two and a half years service with the Northumberland Fusiliers, of which almost fifteen months were spent in France. His medal card1 shows that he was posthumously awarded the Victory Medal and British War Medal.
He is remembered and commemorated on:
The Patterdale War Memorial
Glenridding Public Hall – Roll of Honour (alongside his brothers John and Harry) although he is incorrectly listed as a Private
Church of St John the Evangelist, Chopwell - Roll of Honour
The Arras Memorial to the Missing2 (Bay Number 2)
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission Memorial Certificate
What became of his family?
There are still relatives living in Chopwell.
Wife and Children
We do not know what became of his wife Mary Elizabeth or his son Robert, except that Mary was still living at 12, Clyde Street, Chopwell, when her husband Robert died in 1917. She received a War Gratuity from the Government in November 1919 of £14.
Gail Whitmore, a grandaughter of Robert's eldest son Joseph William Slee, contacted us in August 2014 to say that Joseph moved down to the Midlands with his wife Kathleen (Katie) and his daughter Violet (Gail's mother) sometime during the 1930's she believed. They lived in the mining village of New Arley in North Warwickshire where he continued to mine coal for a living until the pit closed down in the 1960's.
Gail asked her grandfather about Robert but he would never talk about him only to say that he was killed in the war (Joseph would only have been 12 years old when his father died). She is in possession of the bronze plaque that was given to Robert's widow Mary. His son Joseph later produced this fretwork frame in which to mount the plaque.
She also told us that Robert served as a Trooper with the South African Constabulary from 1901 to 1903, and was awarded the Silver Queen's South Africa Medal4 (with five clasps for battles in the Transvaal, Orange Free State and Cape Colony). Gail provided this photograph of his QSA Medal which is engraved on the edge with Robert's name.
This is what we know at present about his brothers and sisters:
Ellen was born about 1875 in Headley Hill, Durham
Thomas was born about 1877 in Hutton, Westmorland. In 1911 he is working as a Carter for a Grocer and living in Hope Yard, Friar St, Penrith, with his wife Margaret and four children. In the CWGC records concerning John's military style gravestone, Mr T Slee of 1, Friar Building, Friar St, Penrith, was recorded as the next of kin - being the eldest of his brothers.
Margaret Anne was born about 1879 in Skelwith, Lancashire. She married Joshua Johnston in the Wigton registration district around February 1898, where they continued to live and had at least 8 children by 1911.
Fred was born about 1884 in in Skelwith, Lancashire. In 1911 he was working as a Coal Miner, living in Witton, near Bishop Auckland with his wife Mary Elizabeth, four children and younger brother William.
Harry was born on the 12th September 1885 in Patterdale. In 1901 he was working as a Putter in a coal mine and living at home with his mother, brothers and sister in Witton, near Bishop Auckland. He served in the Royal Navy during WW1 and appears on the Roll of Honour in Glenridding Public Hall. Click here for more details.
Ada was born about 1889 in Patterdale. In April 1911, Ada was still single and working as a General Domestic Servant at Witton Holmes Farm, Witton Park. She married ?? Elsworth before June 1918.
William was born on the 6th June 1892 in Patterdale. In 1911 he was working as a Labourer at a Colliery and living in the same house as his older brother Fred in Witton, near Bishop Auckland.
John was born on the 31st July 1895 in Patterdale and died as a result of wounds in WW1 on the 2nd June 1917. Click here for more details.
Arthur was born about October 1899 in Patterdale.
1. Medal Card for Sergeant Robert Slee (20/476) 25th (Tyneside Irish) Bn. Northumberland Fusiliers.
The Victory Medal
To qualify for the Victory medal one had to be mobilised in any service and have entered a theatre of war between 5 August 1914 and 11 November 1918).
The British War Medal
To qualify for the British War Medal a member of the fighting forces had to leave his native shore in any part of the British Empire while on service. It did not matter whether he/she entered a theatre of war or not.
2. The Arras Memorial, France
The Arras Memorial, designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, commemorates 34,795 servicemen from the United Kingdom, South Africa and New Zealand who died from the spring of 1916 until the 7th August 1918, and who have no known grave. Most of the casualties commemorated here were killed during the Allied offensive during the Battles of Arras in April and May 1917 and during the German attack on the Allied Front from the 21st March 1918. More Details
3. Unidentified or Missing
Even though the Tyneside Battalions took part in some of the bloodiest battles of the war, it puzzled historians why there were a significantly higher proportion of unidentified or missing soldiers amongst their casualties. Many of the men were miners before the war and would be filling barrels with coal; to identify which barrels he had filled, each miner had tags (tokens) which he fastened to the barrel. It was the custom for the miners to keep their tags clipped to their braces. Of course, when they were given their identity tags as soldiers, it seemed natural to fasten these to their braces instead of around their neck. Consequently, when recovery parties were collecting dead from the battlefield, they would just open the tunic to look for the tag around the neck, if it wasn't there the soldier would be listed as unidentified.
4. Silver Queen's South Africa Medal
His Majesty, the King, has been graciously pleased to confirm the order given by her late Majesty Queen Victoria that a Medal be struck to commemorate the military operations in South Africa. The Medal in silver, will, provided the claims are approved by the Commander-in-Chief, be granted to all officers, warrant officers, non-commissioned officers and men of the British, Indian, and Colonial Forces, and to all nurses and nursing sisters who actually served in South Africa between 11 October 1899 and 31 May 1902; to all troops stationed in Cape Colony and Natal at the outbreak of hostilities; and to troops stationed in St Helena between 14 April 1900 and 31 May 1902.
The Criteria for the Award of Clasps was:
SOUTH AFRICA 1902 - Awarded to those not eligible for the King's Medal although they had served at the front between 1 January and 31 May 1902.
SOUTH AFRICA 1901 - Awarded to those not eligible for the King's Medal although they had served at the front between 1 January and 31 December 1901.
CAPE COLONY - A clasp inscribed "Cape Colony" will be granted to all troops in Cape Colony at any time between 11 October 1899 and 31 May 1902, who received no clasp for an action already specified in the Cape Colony nor Natal clasps.
ORANGE FREE STATE - A clasp inscribed "Orange Free State" will be granted to all troops in Orange River Colony at any time between 28 February 1900 and 31 May 1902, who received no clasp which has been already specified for an action in the Orange River Colony.
TRANSVAAL - A clasp inscribed "Transvaal" will be granted to all troops in the Transvaal at any time between 24 May 1900 and 31 May 1902, who received no clasp for an action in the Transvaal which has already been specified.
The Tyneside Scottish by Graham Stewart and John Sheen
The Tyneside Irish by John Sheen
Newcastle Illustrated Chronicle - 25 May 1917, Page 4
Page Editor: Norman Jackson
Page Last Reviewed: 24 Feb 2021