Ralph Robinson was the first death Blandford Secondary School experienced. He died during the Second Battle of Ypres in April 1915. Yet Ralph finished the Summer Term of 1914 fully expecting to return in September to continue teaching English and History.
Ralph was born in Henley on Thames on the 18th November 1891, the son of Charles Robinson and his wife Agnes. Both Ralph’s parents were academic, and at a time when it was still relatively unusual for women to be allowed to study for a degree; his mother was one of the first women to have graduated from London University. Very soon after, the family moved to North London, initially to Wood Green, then Southgate and finally Palmer’s Green. All these are now part of the urban expanse of Greater London but at the time very much newly developing and still semi-rural suburbs.
Ralph attended Dame Alice Owen’s School which was then in Islington, from 1905 to July 1910. He gained the Cambridge Senior Local Honours Certificate (loosely equivalent to ‘A’ levels). This allowed him to begin to study at Goldsmith’s College (now part of the University of London). He studied with the ‘Elementary Training Department’ for a Board of Education Teacher’s Certificate which gave him a BA degree in July 1912.
Teaching at Blandford Secondary School was Ralph’s second job, from September 1913. He had taught for a year at Bowes Road Elementary School in Southgate, North London – presumably commuting to work from his parent’s house. The school was relatively new, it opened in 1901 and was much larger than Blandford Secondary school with nearly 800 boys, girls, and infants in 1906.
What little we know about Ralph comes from the Blandford Secondary School’s Register of Teachers now held by Blandford Museum. As each teacher joined the school, a one page summary of their education and experience was entered into the register.
This showed at the bottom where a teacher’s next job was when they left the school. For Ralph the entire box appears to have been filled out at the same time, perhaps suggesting that the school had assumed him to remain a member of its staff whilst he was away.
Unfortunately; as is the case with the majority of soldiers from the First World War, Ralph’s Army records have not survived. Thus much of his later story cannot be accurately verified. We do know that he joined 5th (City of London) Battalion, London Regiment (the London Rifle Brigade). This was a pre-war Territorial (i.e. part-time reservist) Battalion and so was more likely to be sent into action quickly then the – much slower to train – battalions of Kitchener recruits.
Ralph serving with the London Rifle Brigade could be for one of two possible reasons: either he had been a member of the Battalion whilst he lived in London pre-war, or that he joined the ‘Special Reserve’ almost immediately war was declared – an avenue quickly cut off when the scale of necessary recruitment was realised. In August 1914 the Battalion was at its annual Camp at Crowborough in Sussex and so were already together when they were mobilised. After an intensive period of training, they crossed to France in November 1914; indeed some members of the Battalion took part in the now famous ‘Christmas Truce’ of 1914.
They spent what was left of 1914 attempting to consolidate the British front line as the war moved from manoeuvre to static siege warfare, fighting at the Marne, the Aisne, and the first Battle of Messines.
Whilst it might seem odd that the British Army allowed someone with Ralph’s education to serve as an ordinary rifleman – and did not divert him to an Officer Training Battalion – the spring of 1915 was a desperate time. This was especially true around the Belgian town of Ypres as winter turned to spring. Any casual view of the road and rail map of Northern France/Belgium would show that to lose Ypres would mean that it would be very likely that the British Army would be cut off from their (at the time) much stronger allies, France.
Thus it was recognised that Ypres had to be held, despite being overlooked on three sides by higher ground in German occupation. This then was the situation that the 5th bn found itself in – every man was needed. The first Kitchener recruits would not be ready until the summer at the earliest; and so it was the pre-war territorials; the ex-regular reservists and troops from the Empire – most notably India, who were to hold the line.
Just in the process of ‘holding the line’ around Ypres in April-May 1915 the London Rifle Brigade lost 16 officers and 392 men. The extract from the battalion War Diary shows Ralph’s name amongst the casualties for the 27th April.
Ralph’s body was never identified amongst the casualties and he is commemorated on the Menin Gate memorial to the missing in Ypres. Over the course of the four years of war, Ypres would come to symbolise the desperate and static nature of the warfare of the First World War.
In total, there are 9 men from Blandford commemorated on the Menin Gate: 4 on the school memorial and a further 5 on the town memorial in the Cornmarket. Ralph was the first from Blandford to die at Ypres.
As Ralph did not come from Blandford, he is only commemorated on the school memorial. Indeed, all of the teachers and about a quarter of the ex-pupils on the school memorial were not from Blandford. This proportion repeated itself for the Second World War as well. Thus it is important that the school War Memorial is seen for what it is, a memorial to all those from the school who died, not just those from Blandford.
Ralph is commemorated not only on Blandford’s school memorial but also those of his old school, Dame Alice Owens, Bowes Road School where he first taught and Goldsmiths’ College as well as the Palmer’s Green memorial close to his parent’s house.