On October 9th 1884, Alfred Robin Martyn Lees (known as Robin) was born into a privileged lifestyle. He was baptised in the parish church of Tongue-cum-Alkrington on November22nd 1884 by the Rector of Melford, Suffolk.
His mother’s maiden name had been Martyn – hence its inclusion in his name.
Robin had two sisters, Grace Elinor and Lucy Doris. His father, James Arthur Lees was a Justice of the Peace and was able to provide Robin with a private education at Stubbington and Malvern Colleges.
In 1901, as a 16 year old boarder, he resided at Malvern College. Ten years later he was included in the census return of the Palace Hotel, Birkdale, Southport, Lancashire where he was described as a student of mining engineering. His sister Grace was also a guest at the hotel in 1911.
By 1914 the family resided at the Moor House and when war was declared, Robin quickly enlisted at Ashton-under-Lyme, joining the Army Service Corps. Before the end of the month, on August 29th, he landed in France. He initially served as a driver with the corps in the coastal areas of Le Havre and Rouen where the army had many Base Depots requiring motor transport. It is believed that in 1916 he then attached to the 2nd/1st North Midland Field Ambulance of the Royal Army Medical Corps.
No service records have been found which makes it difficult to establish his military history, however his father, James Arthur, shared many of Robin’s letters with the readers of the Chronicle and the Sentinel, providing a useful source of information. As a driver he would serve in front line areas – always in danger of enemy shelling. Robin’s unit as Field Ambulance to the 46th North Midlands Division found action from 1916 in the Battle of the Somme. The role of these units relied for their transport on both horse drawn and motor ambulances to take wounded and sick soldiers from the dressing stations in the front line areas, to casualty clearing stations in a safer back area. Many Biddulph soldiers would have served and fallen in this division.
The letters from Robin provide the reader with fascinating details of the conditions and of the events that he was experiencing: Staffordshire Weekly Sentinel (December 1914) “The following are extracts from a letter received by Mr. J.A. Lees, J.P., The Moor House, Biddulph, from his only son, Mr. Robin Lees, who joined the Army Service Corps at the outbreak of war, and was at once dispatched to France.
The letter details many incidents of the young soldier’s adventurous life at the front, and was dated from Havre, December 1st 1914. In it he thanked all for letters and for buns etc.; they were a great treat. Though the pastry obtainable there was extraordinarily good; such things as plum cakes or Sultana buns were unknown. At times Mr. Lees wrote the life savours of Alice in Wonderland. He had to drive his officer (Major Walker, R.E.) out to Etretat on the coast. This was a little sea-side place with several hotels, all shut up for the winter, very picturesque, with nice cliffs and golf links, which looked rather second-rate. They thought of taking the empty hotels for hospitals, but the car refused to start back again, and they stayed for two nights before they came with another car. He had a most beautiful bedroom in a partly closed hotel, which was a great treat, as he had not seen a bed for four months. They gave him awfully good food, and all free of charge. Recently he took an officer through Rouen to Forge-les-Gana, a rest camp for tired men and horses.
Mr. Lees took some officers to overtake a convoy of siege guns, 26 traction engines dragging enormous guns and accessories out to Yuetel, stayed the night at Bolbec, back to Yuetel same day and to Havre the next. He was now in better quarters, being able to sleep indoors.
It was very nice to see the troops arriving. Each batch with its own officers marches to its destination with a French interpreter, and a few French children hanging on. All the talk about so many foreigners being able to talk English certainly did not apply anywhere where he had been. They seemed to make not the slightest attempt to learn any English, and have only four words on which to ring the changes, namely: Biscuit, Penny, Souvenir, and Good Night. The latter they used in the middle of the morning, or any other time of day.”
In the Chronicle (February 1915) another Newsy Letter from Mr. R. Lees of Biddulph appeared: “A very interesting letter was received this week from Mr. Robin Lees, the only son of Mr. J.A. Lees, J.P., the Moor House, who has been in France on motor transport service duty, since the early days of the war. The letter, which was dated, Le Havre, February 19th, conveys thanks for buns etc, which, Mr. Lees says, are a great treat. They have had several cold, windy days, and the ground had dried nicely, but now the roads had relapsed into their former state of slush. The same journey was practically taken every day, and they visited most of the huts being erected. These seem to be dotted about on every bit of waste land, and there are numerous houses used as offices. An interpreter generally travels with the car, these men now being served out with English khaki, as they were too conspicuous at the front. Mr Lees mentions that some of the French regiments correspond well with those of the pictures of Napoleon’s time. On Thursday last, he saw an aeroplane sniping about, the first he had seen there. Driving about at night was very awkward, very few street lamps being lighted and headlights were not allowed. He says the French drive with the silencer cut out, and the resultant noise was appalling. The people seemed to listen for the cars rather than look for them.
It seemed, Mr. Lees wrote, difficult there to realise what was going on at the front, except for the train loads of troops always going away and the piles of clothing and rifles and things coming back, with sometimes gun carriages, etc. just riddled with holes.
A man at the remount camp told Mr. Lees that it was very awkward there, as they have got so many French and German horses, which do not understand the English language, and when told to do one thing those horses generally did something quite different. Mr. Lees concludes his letter with the following terse sentence: Please send me some carbolic soap – our sleeping room is not often turned out. Comment is needless!”
Robin must have been a very talented young man. Not only was he an engineer but he was also very musical, as the following article from The Chronicle of April 15th 1916 suggests: “A particular catchy song has just been added to the musical world, entitled ‘Coming’. Words are by Mr. J.A. Lees, JP, of the Moor House and the music by Mr. Robin M. Lees, BSc. (Tech), at present Private, Motor Transfer, ASC, serving in France since 1914.”
All the words were published in the Chronicle.
The 46th Division in 1917 were in action in the Ancre offensive fighting at Rehemoy Graban in a particularly bitter struggle, and again on the Hindenburg Line. Through the winter of 1917 into 1918 the conditions for transport were extremely hazardous for the drivers, none of whom carried arms. Subsequently the ambulance drivers of the RAMC suffered many losses and sadly at the age of 34 on March 22nd 1918, Private Alfred Robin Martyn Lees was to fall on the battlefield in the Somme district. He has no known grave and is commemorated on the Pozeries Memorial. Robin’s medal card indicates his 1914 Star was embellished with a clasp.
Robin left a will and probate was granted on January 20th 1919 at London to James Arthur Lees, Gentleman and John George Ritson, solicitor. Effects were valued at £1801 18s 4d.
Private Alfred Robin Martyn Lees is also remembered on the Biddulph memorials.
Elaine Heathcote and Michael Turnock.