LEE Robert 1889 – 1918

ROBERT LEE 1889 – 1918

30404 Private Robert Lee, 2nd Battalion, The East Lancashire Regiment was killed in action 2 September 1918, aged 28.  He is buried at Orchard Dump Cemetery, Arleux-en-Gohelle, France[1] and commemorated on the Escomb War Memorial.

Family Details

Robert Lee was born in 1889,[2]at Escomb, the son of Robert and Mary Ellen Lee.  There were 3 children, all born at Escomb: [3]

  • Kate bc.1888
  • Robert born 1889
  • Priscilla bc.1894

In 1891 and 1901, the family lived at Escomb Village and Robert worked as a coal miner.[4] In 1911, Robert Lee married Matilda Simpson [5]and they boarded with widowed Ann Simpson at Bridge Street, Bishop Auckland.  Robert, now 21 worked as a coal miner, hewer.[6] Robert and Matilda had 4 children:[7]

  • Stanley born 24 August 1911
  • Wilfred born 2 September 1912
  • Fred born 1 December 1913
  • Robert born 17 August 1915

By 1918, Matilda lived at 66 Bridge Street, Bishop Auckland and later at 70 Bridge Street.[8]

Military Details

The service details of Robert Lee have not been traced.  He enlisted at Bishop Auckland and joined the Army Service Corps (ASC) being given the service number 4/064057.[9] He was transferred to the East Lancashire Regiment (ELR) initially 2/5th Battalion then 2nd Battalion and given the service number 30404.[10]

14 May 1915: Private R. Lee entered France.[11]

The 2/5th ELR did not enter France until March 1917 thus it is assumed that Private R. Lee came to France with the ASC and was transferred to 2/5 ELR sometime after March 1917 then was posted to 2/ELR thereafter.  Since the exact dates are unknown, this research will only consider the later months of Private R. Lee’s service when it is likely that he served with the 2nd Battalion, the East Lancashire Regiment.  

By February 1918, 2/ELR had joined the 25th Infantry Brigade, 8th Division.  Other units in the 25th Brigade were:[12]

  • 2nd Bn., the Royal Berkshire Regiment
  • 2nd Bn., the Rifle Brigade
  • 25th Trench Mortar Battery

The German Offensive, Spring 1918: an overview [13]

3 March, Soviet Russia made peace with Germany and her allies by virtue of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.  As a result, Germany could now transfer troops from the Eastern Front to the Western Front.  More importantly, these Divisions included the original elite of the German Army – the Guards, Jagers, Prussians, Swabians and the best of the Bavarians. In all, 192 Divisions could be deployed in the West.  The Allies could field 178 Divisions.  A single division numbered about 19,000 men.  Ludendorff could call upon about 3,650,000 men as opposed to the Allies 3,380,000.  Thus, the Germans now held superiority in numbers.  

The German High Command needed victory to be gained before the American Forces arrived in Europe in huge numbers.  America entered the war 6 April 1917 and in the July, Pershing General of the Armies of the United States asked for an army of 3 million men.  The first of her troops arrived in France 26 June 1917.  The training and build-up of troops obviously took time but eventually by June 1918, the Americans were receiving about 250,000 men a month in France.  This amounted to 25 divisions in or behind the battle zone and another 55 in the United States ready to join the action.

Elsewhere in the Alliance, the French were able to draw on a new annual class of conscripts after a year of inactivity but the British were worn down by continuous fighting during the summer of 1917 with major offensives at Arras, Messines, Passchendaele and Cambrai.  The strength of the British infantry had fallen from 754,000 in July 1917 to 543,000 in June 1918 producing a manpower crisis.

21 March 1918:  the German Offensive was launched.  There were 5 phases:

  • 21 March – 5 April: Operation Michael, against the British Third and Fifth Armies, the Battle of Picardy (otherwise known as the First Battle of the Somme 1918)
  • 9 – 11 April: Operation Georgette, against the British, the Battle of Lys sector near Armentieres
  • 27 April: Operation Blucher-Yorck, against the French sector along Chemin des Dames, the Third Battle of Aisne
  • 9 June: Operation Gneisenau, against the French sector between Noyan and Montdider, the Battle of the Matz
  • 15 – 17 July: Operation Marne-Rheims, the final phase known as the Second Battle of the Marne.

The Germans enjoyed spectacular territorial gains particularly during the initial phases of the offensive.  23 March, the Kaiser declared a “victory holiday” for German schoolchildren.  The cost in manpower was enormous:

  • Between 21 March and 10 April the 3 main assaulting armies had lost 303,450 men – 1/5th of their original strength.
  • The April offensive against the British in Flanders was eventually computed to have cost 120,000 men out of a total of 800,000.

The German High Command calculated that it required 200,000 replacements each month but only 300,000 recruits stood available taking into account the next annual class of 18-year olds.  There were 70,000 convalescents available from hospitals each month but even counting them, the strength of the German Army had fallen from 5.1 million to 4.2 million men in the 6 months of the offensive.  It could not be increased on the estimated scale required. To add to this dilemma, in June 1918, the first outbreak of “Spanish Flu” laid low nearly 500,000 German soldiers.  This epidemic was to reoccur in the autumn and wreak havoc throughout Europe and the wider world.

German troops suffered from poor diet, battle fatigue, discontentment with the military leadership, social unrest at home and a general realisation that their great effort was beginning to wane.  As a result, the Allies counter attack in mid-July began to seize the initiative.  Sweeping victories over demoralised German forces eventually led to the resignation of Ludendorff 27 October, the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II 9 November, and the signing of the Armistice 11 November 1918.

The 8th Division

The Division was involved in five major battles of the German Spring Offensive 1918 including:

  • 21 – 23 March, the Battle of St. Quentin
  • 24 – 25 March, the actions at the Somme crossings
  • 26 – 27 March, the Battle of Rosieres
  • 24 – 25 April, the actions at Villers-Bretonneux
  • 26 – 30 August, the Battle of the Scarpe

Private R. Lee was killed in action 2 September 1918 before the next major action, 2 October to 11 November, the Final Advance in Artois. 

The 2/ELR War Diary [14] for August 1918 reports that the battalion was in the Mt. St. Eloi area at Lancaster Camp and Ottowa Camp.  When at the front, it was in trenches near Acheville.  It had suffered relatively light casualties – 9 Other Ranks killed, 1 Officer and 26 ORs wounded, 1 Officer and 8 ORs missing, 62 ORs gassed and 1 OR died of wounds.  The enemy sent over mustard gas, 20 August inflicting most of the casualties.

The War Diary, 1 and 2 September reports as follows:

“In the field: 1.9.18: “C” Coy was detailed at 11am to occupy trenches in front of our outpost line, occupied by enemy M.G. posts, 2nd Lt. Thompson, 2nd Lt. Wilkinson with no.10 and no.11 Platoons assisted by 2/Lt Ridyard, no. 14 Platoon and 1 Lewis Gun Section of his No.13 Platoon.  The operation was successful and trenches completely occupied by 11.30am.  3 enemy M.G. were captured.  The enemy efforts at counter-attacking were frustrated.  During the night 4 unwounded prisoners and one wounded were brought in.  We had some casualties, 2nd Lt. Thompson was killed.

2.9.18: The enemy’s whereabouts were located in GAVRELLE Support.  No further attempts were made by enemy to reoccupy their old front line.

3.9.18: Enemy quiet.  The German 20th Div. is opposite the battalion – these are “storm troops”.”

It is recorded that Private R. Lees was killed in action 2 September 1918 – there is no entry in the War Diary to suggest this.  It is more likely that he was involved in the action on the previous day when Second Lieutenant Thompson was killed.  The War Diary reports that during the month of September, 2/ELR lost 2 Officers and 17 Other Ranks killed, 1 Officer and 65 ORs wounded. 

Later research records that during September 1918, 2/ELR lost 23 Other Ranks killed in action or died of wounds, including 2 ORs, Private R. Lee and 32393 Private E.H.N. George on 2 September.[15]   

Awards and Medals

Private R. Lee was awarded the 1914-15 Star, the Victory and British War medals.[16]

Medal Roll card index

Burial [17]

Private R. Lee is buried at grave reference IX.J. 23, Orchard Dump Cemetery, Arleux-en-Gohelle alongside 32393 Private E.H.N. George who is buried at grave reference IX.D.24.

Effects and Pension

Private R. Lee’s widow Matilda received his pension[18] and effects.[19]


ROBERT LEE 1889 – 1918

30404 Private Robert Lee, 2nd Battalion, The East Lancashire Regiment was killed in action 2 September 1918, aged 28.  He is buried at Orchard Dump Cemetery, Arleux-en-Gohelle, France.  Robert was born 1889 at Escomb and worked as a coal miner.  He married in 1911.  He enlisted into the Army Service Corps and entered France in May 1915.  Private R. Lee was transferred to the East Lancashire Regiment and was killed in action as the Allies consolidated positions in late August and September before the final push for victory.  He left a widow and 4 children. 


[1] Commonwealth War Graves Commission

[2] England & Wales Birth Index 1837-1915 Vol.10a p.203 Auckland 1889 Q4

[3] 1891 & 1901 census

[4] 1891 census

[5] England & Wales Marriage Index 1837-1915 Vol.10a p.220a Auckland 1911 Q1

[6] 1911 census

[7] Dependant’s Pension card index

[8] CWGC

[9] Soldiers Died in the Great War

[10] Roll of Individuals entitled to the Victory and British War medals dated 9 January 1920

[11] Medal Roll card index

[12] https://www.longlongtrail.co.uk/army/regiments-and-corps/the-british-infantry-regiments-of-1914-1918/east-lancashire-regiment/ & http://www.longlongtrail.co.uk/army/order-of-battle-of-divisions/8th-division/

[13] Various sources including www.firstworldwar.net/timeline, www.1914-1918.net/batt22.htm, “The First World War” Keegan J. 1999, “First World War” Gilbert M. 1994, “The IWM Book of 1918 Year of Victory” Brown M. 1998.

[14] The War Diary is held by the Lancashire Infantry Museum reference 846/1.3.21 and Ancestry

[15] Soldiers Died in the Great War

[16] Medal Roll card index and Rolls dated 9 January and 26 April 1920

[17] CWGC

[18] Dependant’s Pension card index

[19] UK Army Register of Soldiers’ Register of Effects 1901-1929 Record No.782786