Robert was born on 14 May 1881 at 34 Hatley Rd, Islington, the eldest surviving child of the 12 (of which 5 died when young) born to Robert Melton Armitage (1846-1910) and Ellen Armitage nee Pinnuck (1855-1913). 34 Hatley Rd is a modest two storey terraced house, which still exists.
In 1885 the family was still living at 34 Hatley Road. This is the address given in the parish record of St Anne, Poole’s Park (a nearby church which was demolished in 1965) when Robert was baptized on 25 Mar 1885. His father’s occupation was given as milk carrier. Robert’s sister Emma (b 1883) and brother William Frederick (b 1884) were baptized on the same day. The family moved to 3 Shakespeare Road, Stoke Newington in about 1888, when Robert was seven. The 1891 census shows Robert Armitage senior (aged 45, a milk carrier), Ellen (35), Robert (9), Emma (7), William (6), Florence (3), Gertrude (2) and Percy (5 months) living at 3 Shakespeare Road, South Hornsey, Middlesex.
Robert joined the Royal Artillery on 10 April 1899, signing up for 7 years active service and 5 years in the reserve. He gave his age as 18 years 11 months (it was actually 17 years 11 months), his previous occupation as a cabinet maker and his religion as Church of England. Robert’s height was 5 foot 6½ inches, weight 127lbs, his eyes blue and hair red. He was awarded a Third Class Certificate of Education in 1900 and passed a Wheelwright’s Course with the grade “Fair” in 1901.
On 8 February 1903, Robert married Ann Maria Godfrey at St Matthias Church, Stoke Newington. Robert (occupation given as cabinet maker) was aged 22 and Ann was 25. The witnesses were Thomas Walter Godfrey (Ann’s brother), Edward Godfrey (Ann’s father, a decorator) and Emma Armitage (Robert’s sister and my grandmother).
Robert was transferred to the army reserve on 5 Aug 1903 after 4 years 118 days service, all of which was in the UK. It is not clear why he left early – his army record makes no mention of Robert having bought himself out. Perhaps the army had more soldiers than it needed and so allowed some to leave.
Ann and Robert’s children were Ellen Elizabeth (born 27 Feb 1904 in Stoke Newington) and Marjory (born 12 Dec 1915 in Edmonton). Robert’s daughter Ellen Elizabeth was baptized at St Matthias’s Church, Stoke Newington on 3 April 1904. The register gives Robert’s address as 85 Shakespeare Road. My grandmother Emma Armitage married in 1906. Robert signed the marriage register as a witness and is in the family group photo of the wedding with his wife and first child.
The GPO Staff Appointments Register shows that Robert was appointed as an assistant postman in 1907, based at the London North depot. Robert’s father committed suicide in 1910 by drinking poison. The 1911 census shows Robert (aged 29, a Postal Porter GPO), Ann (33) and Ellen Armitage (7) living at 30 Oldfield Rd, Stoke Newington. The census return says that the family was living in 3 rooms and that Robert and Ann had another child who died before 1911. Robert’s widowed mother (who died in 1913) and four of her children were living nearby at 4 Oldfield Rd. He left the army reserve on 9 April 1911 on completion of his 12 year term.
Robert was recruited for service in World War I on 24 July 1915. He gave his address as 119 Fair View Road, Tottenham, his age as 34 years 3 months and his occupation as wheelwright. His army papers include a Certificate of Trade Proficiency dated 27 July 1915 saying that he had been tested and found to be a “fair” wheelwright. His army record says that his initial rank was Pioneer. Robert became a Lance Corporal in the 226th Field Company, Royal Engineers on 18 Nov 1915, when his unit embarked for France.
The Imperial War Museum library has a book “Military Operations : France and Belgium 1916” that describes the action that resulted in Robert’s death. On May 21st 1916 the Germans mounted a heavy bombardment of a section of the line held by British troops near Vimy Ridge, north of Arras in Northern France. A German infantry assault followed which pushed the British line back. A counter attack was planned to re-establish a defensive line. The attack, to follow a short bombardment from hurriedly reinforced artillery, was to be made by 7th Brigade, 99th Brigade and 142nd Brigade. However, it seemed the enemy was expecting the attack, because at 8pm on 23rd May (25 minutes before the British infantry attack was due, and after the bombardment had begun) they began heavy shellfire. It fell on the assembly positions, particularly of 99th Brigade; the 1/Royal Berkshire lost 100 men before the assault should have begun. To make matters worse, German machine guns started firing exactly on time, too. Confusion reigned in 99th Brigade. The Berkshires signalled to the 22/Royal Fusiliers that they could not attack, and the latter sent runners to halt their own Companies. This message did not get to B Company, which advanced on its own and was wiped out, along with the attached section of 226 Field Company RE (Robert’s unit). The counter attack had to be abandoned.
The Commonwealth War Graves website records that Robert was killed in action on 24 May 1916 aged 35. He is buried in the Zouave Valley Cemetery, Souchez, Pas de Calais (Souchez is a village 12 kilometres north of Arras). The cemetery is about 2km SE of Souchez in a quiet position on a farm track and contains nearly 250 casualties from the 1914-18 war. There is a gravestone with the inscription “Known to be buried in this cemetery / 100318 Lance Cpl / R M Armitage / Royal Engineers / 24th May 1916 / Their glory shall not be blocked out”
After Robert’s death it was decided by the British high command that the artillery that would be required to support a major effort to regain the former position would be better deployed on the Somme. Vimy Ridge was later captured by Canadian troops in 1917.
Robert’s will was written on 12th November 1915 using a standard Army form. He left the whole of his estate and effects to his wife, Ann Maria. After his death, she wrote to the war office asking for the return of his watch but they were unable to locate it. She was awarded a pension of 21 shillings (equivalent to about £63 at current values) per week payable from 4th December 1916. The army later sent her Robert’s 1915 Star, British War and Victory Medals. In 1920 Ann married Frederick Francis Taylor in Edmonton. Electoral registers for 1922 and 1924 show them living at 119 Fairview Road, Tottenham. I haven’t found a record of Ann’s death.