When war was declared in 1914 Britain mobilised its troops. At that time it was envisaged that it would be a war of movement and an entire cavalry division was sent to France, writes John Duncan.
Part of that Division was the famous Royal Scots Greys, who won fame at the Battle of Waterloo when Ensign Ewart captured a French Imperial Eagle, which now sits in Edinburgh Castle.
Among their ranks was Robert Johnman Dewar, an architect’s apprentice from Roslin. His parents owned the Original Hotel there. He enlisted in the Royal Scots Greys in September 1914 and was sent to France early in 1915.
The war, however, took an entirely different turn. To their horror the proud cavalrymen found they had to abandon their chargers and take stints in the frontline trenches serving as infantrymen.
This was how Robert came to be sitting in an isolated and dangerous sap near Loos in February 1916. Known as the “Hairpin”, it was not a nice place to be; pockmarked with craters from mine explosions and only 30 yards from the German lines.
On February 13, Robert’s troop was out at the furthest point of the line when the Germans exploded a series of mines underneath them with devastating effect. A number of men were killed and others buried alive. What happened next is described by Robert Dewar in a letter home to a friend.
“Two bombing sections were holding a barricade at a sap head in front of our lines, and quite near the Germans – in fact, the night before it happened we were throwing bombs at each other.
“We had not been long in our dug-out when there was a great explosion behind us, and our dug-out collapsed on the top of us, the dug-out itself being buried in showers of chalk. Immediately after we could hear the bombs and grenades bursting all around us, and every second we were expecting one to come amongst us.
“There were seven of us – Vessir, Ramsay, Jameson, McLeish, Carter, Johnnie and I. The Germans had blown up a mine in our sap, having tunnelled from their trenches. Carter was killed by the shock of the first explosion.
“Just on the back of it there was a second explosion, and all the ground under Carter opened up and swallowed him and buried Johnnie up to the waist.
“Ramsay, who was nearest to where the door had been, started scraping away to make a hole for us to get out, and managed it, but only got his head and shoulders out when a bomb landed in front of his face and killed him instantaneously, and he lay blocking up the door.
“None of us could move, but I had my arms free. I was next to Ramsay, and wrestled all night to try and get his body out of the doorway, but could not move him.
“All night the others tried to disentangle themselves, and just before dawn Vessir, who was next to me, and on the top of my legs, managed to shift and left me a little bit freer.
“I had managed to keep a small hole over Ramsay’s body for air. I saw that the only thing to do was to dig under Ramsay, and let him down far enough to allow us to get out over the top of him, so I started digging with my hands under his face and shoulders.
“It was a terrible job, and I had occasionally to stop for a rest, as I could only work from my elbows, and with cramp and wrestling I was tired out.
“All this time Johnnie’s legs were buried, and nobody was able to help him, but he bore it very bravely and never complained. At last, in the forenoon, I had a hole big enough to squeeze through, and I saw the German trenches about 30 yards away.
“I dashed off in the direction where I knew our trenches lay, and came to a crater made by the explosion. I went back with a doctor and a corporal to get Johnnie out, and when he got back to the trenches he was dressed and taken to hospital.”
For his gallantry that day Robert Dewar was recommended for the Distinguished Conduct Medal which he duly received. However, his story does not end there. In October 1917 he was commissioned as an officer and posted to the Royal Field Artillery.
Almost exactly a year later as the war was nearing its end, Robert was in a command post near Potijze in Flanders attending a briefing. At 9pm just as the briefing had started, a shell struck the post, killing and wounding everyone inside.
Robert Dewar was taken to a nearby dressing station but sadly passed away the same night. He was 23 years old.
Cavalry did take to the field again. After August 1918 they saw action in the “green fields beyond the trenches”.