Robert Donald, Royal Navy

By June Parkin

WW1 must have broadened the horizons of many Teesdale men. One such was Robert Donald of Startforth, who signed up for 12 years’ service in the Royal Navy in September 1915.

Robert was born on July 6th 1894 and in the 1901 Census is living in High Startforth with his father Robert, a general labourer, his mother Margaret and his two older brothers, John George a Flax-spinner’s Clerk and Alfred a Draper’s Assistant. In the 1911 Census Robert is a  Draper’s Apprentice and is visiting John George, now a Grocer’s Clerk in Middlesbrough. (John George had recently married a Stockton girl, which may explain his move.)

Why Robert, at the age of 21, joined the navy rather than the army is unknown, but ‘Ancestry’ does provide a record of his naval service.

Robert Donald M15415, was first assigned to HMS Victory I, which was not a ship as such, but a training base in Gosport, Hampshire. Royal Navy personnel at all times have to be assigned to a ‘ship’ whether at sea or ashore. He became a Probationary Sick Berth Attendant training at the Haslar Hospital in Gosport.

Sick berth personnel did not wear the same uniforms as naval ratings because in 1891they were given a new style uniform, a double breasted jacket with a red cross badge on the sleeve.

Robert’s conduct was reported as ‘Very Good’, he passed his probationary period and his first posting at sea was to HMS Malaya from October 1916 to July 1921. The Malaya was a Queen Elizabeth-class fast battleship commissioned on February 1st1916. Robert was probably fortunate in joining the ship after the Battle of Jutland, because The Malaya was hit by seven 12″ shells, it received two holes below the water line and a 6″ battery was wrecked; 63 men were killed and 68 injured. After repair, her service during the First World War generally consisted of routine patrols and training in the North Sea.


                                                                                                Badge of  HMS Malay. The ship was paid for by the Malay government as a contribution to the war effort.

Robert returned to Haslar Hospital and then to HMS Fisgard, another shore-based facility in Gosport. In 1924 he was promoted to Leading Sick Berth Attendant and in September 1926 was posted to HMS Revenge. This was reported in the Teesdale Mercury on October 26th, mentioning that ‘the “Revenge” is the flagship to the Atlantic Fleet now on manoeuvres in the North Sea off the coast of Scotland’. Robert stayed with the Revenge until she went into retirement as flagship in January 1928. He had completed his 12 years service and received a war gratuity and Long Service and Good Conduct Medals.

Robert must have remained in the Portsmouth area as he married Edith Carter in 1932 at Alverstoke near Gosport.

‘We are making a new world’

By Judith Phillips

Tate Britain (London) is showing an exhibition of work by Paul Nash until 5th March.  I recently went to see it and was fascinated particularly by the sections showing his work as an official war artist in both world wars. 

Nash (1889-1946) joined the Artists’ rifles (part of the 28th London Regiment of Territorials) at the outbreak of war.  In august 1916 he began officer training and was sent to the Western Front in February 1917 as a second lieutenant in the Hampshire Regiment.  He was invalided back to England in mid-1917 after a bad fall.  While he was in England, most of the men in his previous unit were killed in the assault on Hill 60.  Nash returned to France as a war artist in late 1917.

I recognised some of the paintings from books but, of the First World War ones,  I had only seen ‘The Menin Road’ before.  The paintings are striking, partly because they are so quiet and calm on first sight.  But look more closely, and you see evidence of destruction everywhere, even though there is little action.  The sombre colours add to the general feeling of disquiet.

There’s now a reference copy of the exhibition catalogue, complete with colour plates of the paintings and a series of essays, in the museum’s Reading Room, along with several other books on many aspects of the war and its aftermath that you are welcome to come and look at when the Reading Room is open to the public (days and times on the museum’s website).

Another date for your diary – May 27

Hot press announcement – we are delighted the talk on Saturday 27th May will be about the work of the Red Cross Auxiliary Hospitals ‘at home’ by focusing on their work in North Yorkshire.  I believe the afternoon session may also involve coming into close contact with various pieces of equipment, which sounds fascinating.  We’ll circulate more details as soon as everything is confirmed.

Did you know that, during the war, the museum distributed tomatoes grown in its greenhouses to various convalescent hospitals in the region?  There’s a folder of correspondence and photographs in the Museum’s archive (ref. TBM/7/1/14).

More on spurs

One of the great things about sending out a newsletter is the information we get back.  Not only does it show that the newsletter is being read, it is fantastic to be able to tap into the wealth of knowledge that people interested in the First World War.

After our previous pieces about wearing spurs, a newsletter reader got in touch to remind us:

It wasn’t just Artillery Officers who wore spurs as any horse-mounted units’ officers and soldiers wore them. Some of the units would have included any Cavalry Regiment; the Royal Horse Artillery; and even the good old Army Service Corps (who became the Royal Army Service Corps in April 1918). In the early stages of WW1 the internal combustion engine was almost non existent, and horse transport and narrow gauge railways were the main means on land of moving food, ammo, engineer stores, medical stores and the like

 Spurs are still worn by the Royal Logistic Corps (successor Corps to the RASC) Officers when wearing Mess Kit at formal functions. However when dancing they are removed!

I’m very pleased to note the last point!

Please feel free to get in touch with us if you have any comments or suggestions – we’d love to hear from you: email