MAWSON Robert 1887 – 1917

ROBERT MAWSON 1887 – 1917

Private  20998 Robert Mawson, 12th Battalion, The Durham Light Infantry was killed in action 7 June 1917, aged 30.  He is commemorated on the Ypres (Menin Gate) Memorial[1] and the Iveston war memorials.     

Family Details

Robert Mawson was born in 1887[2] at Leadgate, County Durham, the son of Thomas and Rachel Mawson.  There were at least 9 children:[3]

  • William bc.1871 at Stanhope
  • George bc.1873 at Stanhope
  • Mathew bc1875 at Stanhope
  • Mary bc.1878 at Stanhope
  • Hannah born 1880 at Stanhope
  • Thomas bc.1884 at Stanhope
  • John bc.1887 at Leadgate
  • Robert bc.1887 at Leadgate
  • Rachel bc.1890 at Leadgate

In 1891, the family lived at Consett Iron Company Cottages at Leadgate where 57 years old Thomas (senior) was employed as a coal miner, labourer.[4] In 1901, the family still lived at Leadgate, Thomas, and his sons 18 years old Thomas, 13 years old John and Robert all worked as coal miners.[5]

In 1909, Robert Mawson married Frances Smailes.[6]  By 1911, 23 years old Robert and Frances lived at Witton Gilbert with Sylvia aged 3 and Hannah aged 1.  Robert worked as a coal  miner.[7]  Robert and Frances had 3 children:

  • Sylvia Smailes born 24 April 1908
  • Hannah Mawson born 19 April 1910
  • Thomas Smailes Mawson born 23 April 1912

The family lived at 244 Nelson Street, Leadgate.  In 1918, Frances Mawson married Thomas W. Gillett[8] (from Cornsay Colliery)[9] and by the early 1920’s they were living at Low King Street, Witton Park.[10]  It remains unknown whether Robert Mawson ever lived at Witton Park.  The 1939 Register records a Mawson family but insufficient research has been undertaken to confirm any relationship.

Military Details

The service records of Private Robert Mawson have not been traced and the exact details of his war service are unknown.  He enlisted at Consett, County Durham and joined the Durham Light Infantry, 12th Battalion and was allocated the service number 20998.[11]

DLI Cap Badge

The 12th (Service) Battalion, the Durham Light Infantry was at Newcastle in September 1914 as part of K3, Kitchener’s New Army and was under the orders of 68th Brigade, 23rd Division.[12] The 68th Brigade original battalions were:[13]

  • 10th (Service) Bn., Northumberland Fusiliers
  • 11th (Service) Bn., Northumberland Fusiliers
  • 12th (Service) Bn., Durham Light Infantry
  • 68th Machine Gun Company joined 4 March 1916 and moved to the MG Battalion, 1 April 1918
  • 68th Trench Mortar Battery formed 13 June 1916

Between 21 and 26 August 1915, the 23rd Division landed in Boulogne, France and thereafter served on the Western Front until late 1917 when it moved to Italy.  Private R. Mawson landed in France 25 August 1915 thus went with his unit.  The Division spent a considerable period holding the front at Bois Grenier that year. 

In March 1916, the Division was posted to the Carency sector and the front was held between the Boyau de L’Ersatz and the Souchez River, including posts on the Notre Dame de Lorette hill.  In early March, many miners were withdrawn from the ranks to establish a Tunnelling Company of the Royal Engineers – presumably Private R. Mawson did not leave the battalion.  The 68th Brigade took over the Calonne front and many parties were attached to the 176 Tunnelling Company for work in the Noulette sector.  It is known that Private R. Mawson was attached to the 68th MGC[14] so this must have been post March 1916.  Exact details are unknown.  The Brigade was relieved between 12 and 19 April but moved back to the Souchez – Angres front, 10 – 13 May.  Thereafter, the Division took part in the Battle of the Somme and the following offensive operations:

  • Albert: 1 – 13 July in which the Division played a part in the capture of Contalmaison
  • Bazantin Ridge: 14 – 17 July
  • Pozieres Ridge: 15 July – 3 September
  • Flers-Courcelette: 15 – 22 September
  • Morval: 25 – 28 September
  • Le Transloy: 1 – 18 October

In 1917, the 23rd Division saw action, 7 – 14 June during the Battle of Messines.

The Battle of Messines 7 – 14 June 1917

“I do not know whether or not we shall change history tomorrow but we shall certainly alter geography.”  Major-General Charles Hartington, Chief of Staff of the British Second Army

The main feature was the success of mine warfare.  The German defences were totally shattered with several thousand troops obliterated by the explosions.  One of the most strongly fortified positions on the Western Front was taken within an hour or so, with few casualties to the attacking divisions.  Messines was regarded as a major success, even though early gains were not capitalised upon and later German counter-attacks regained much lost ground. 

A brief account of the mining is given below:   

“The culmination of mine warfare on the Western Front was the Second Army attack on the Messines Ridge on 7 June 1917.  In conjunction with the most powerfully concentrated artillery barrage to that date, 19 deep mines with a total of 937,450 lb of explosive were fired along the 10 km front at zero hour, all within 30 seconds of each other.  The explosions were clearly heard in London and registered on a seismograph in Switzerland. 

The concept of a deep mining attack against the Messines Ridge was first proposed in early 1915 by Major Norton Griffiths.  The first of the tunnels was initiated in July 1915.  In January 1916 General Sir Herbert Plumer (Daddy Plumer) approved an all-out effort.  At peak 9 Tunnelling Companies were employed on the preparations, including all three Canadian Companies.  Many of the mines were in position by mid-1916 and had to be preserved and defended for a year or more.

25 mines totalling 1,149,450 lb (522,500 kg) were laid.   One was lost to German counter mining, one abandoned due to tunnel collapse, and four at the southern end of the Ridge (Birdcage Sector) not employed for tactical reasons.  19 totalling 937,450 lb (426,110 kg) were fired.  The largest single charge was the St Eloi mine at 96,500 lb (43,600 kg). One of the four Birdcage mines exploded in a thunderstorm in July 1955.  Five fully charged mines containing 166,000 lb (75,500 kg) remain today.

After the carnage of the exploding mines, the 23rd, 47th, 41st, 19th, 16th (Irish), 36th (Ulster), 25th, New Zealand and 3rd Australian Divisions [15] attacked over the devastated landscape.  The 23rd Division was at the northern flank opposite Zwarteleen, Hill 60 and advanced towards Mount Sorrel.  A German force at Zwarteleen held out until the evening, causing many casualties by machine gun fire. [16]

12th Bn., DLI in action at Messines[17]

The 23rd Division formed the extreme left of the attack.  The 69th Brigade had to advance from Hill 60 on both sides of the Ypres-Commines railway and 12/DLI (attached to 69th Brigade) were to take Imperial Trench which represented the left portion of the final objective. 

7 June by 1.00am, 12/DLI was in position, in the open by Larch Wood.  At 3.00am the British bombardment ceased.  At 3.10am, the mines exploded – “Hill 60 and the Caterpillar were seen as one great fiery furnace”.[18]  The British guns opened up again, and a machine gun barrage added to the clamour.  The leading waved of infantry went forward to the assault.  12/DLI had to wait 2 hours before they followed in the wake of the advance over the remains of German trenches where the Yorkshiremen of the 69th Brigade and were then consolidating.  At 6.50am, 12/DLI passed through the second objective and attacked Impartial Trench.  It was taken with the loss of 15 men killed and wounded.  Klein Zillebeke was reached but British guns were ranged on the village so the party withdrew to Impartial Trench.[19] About noon, an enemy aeroplane located the position and German guns were soon targeted on the trench together with enfilade firing from the north, caused heavy casualties – over 200 men had been killed or wounded including 50 missing.[20]  The threat of a counter attack led to 13/DLI called upon to take over the line by about 6pm.  Relief was accomplished by dawn and 12/DLI was withdrawn to Montreal Camp for rest.  The final position was about 120 yards short of the desired objective owing to troop so n the right being held up by a machine gun post SE of Battle Wood.[21] 

Later research records that 7 June, 12/DLI lost 62 other ranks killed in action or died of wounds including Private R. Mawson.[22]

Awards and Medals

Private R. Mawson was awarded the 1914-15 Star, the Victory and British War medals.[23]

Medal Roll card index


Robert Mawson’s widow Frances received his effects[24] and pension.[25]


Private R. Mawson was killed in action 7 June, aged 30.  He has no known grave and is commemorated at panel 36, Ypres (Menin Gate) Memorial, Belgium along with another 54,595 casualties.[26]

The Ypres (Menin Gate) Memorial


ROBERT MAWSON 1887 – 1917

Private  20998 Robert Mawson, 12th Battalion, The Durham Light Infantry was killed in action 7 June 1917, aged 30.  He has no known grave and is commemorated on the Ypres (Menin Gate) Memorial, Belgium.  Robert was born at Leadgate where his family lived for much of their lives. He worked as a coal miner.  In 1909, he married Frances Smailes and they lived at Witton Gilbert.  It is not known whether Robert ever lived in Witton Park but his next of kin was his wife Frances.  She re-married and all communications after his death was to Low King Street, Witton Park. 

Robert enlisted into the 12th Battalion, the Durham light Infantry and entered France 25 August 1915.  He saw action around the Souchez area in France in 1915, the Battle of the Somme in 1916 and the Battle of Messines on the Ypres Salient in 1917.  He was killed in action on the opening day of “Messines”.  Private R. Mawson left a widow and 3 children.


[1] Commonwealth War Graves Commission

[2] England & Wales Birth Index 1837-1915 Vol.10a p.312a Lanchester 1887 Q3

[3] 1811, 1891 & 1901 census

[4] 1891 census

[5] 1901 census

[6] England & Wales Marriage Index 1837-1915 Vol.10a p.581 Lanchester 1901 Q3

[7] 1911 census

[8] England & Wales Marriage Index 1916-2005 Vol.10 p.595 Lanchester 1918 Q3

[9] 1911 census

[10] CWGC and

[11] Soldiers Died in the Great War



[14] Roll of Individuals entitled to the Victory and British War medals dated 16 April 1920

[15] “A Military Atlas of the First World War” 197r Arthur Banks p.171


[17] “The Durham Forces in the Field 1914-1918: The Service Battalions of the Durham Light Infantry” 1920 Capt. W. Miles p.161-164 and “With Bayonets Fixed: The 12th & 13th Battalions f the Durham Light Infantry in the Great War”2013 John Sheen p.226-231

[18] Miles p.161

[19] Miles p.162

[20] Sheen p.228

[21] Miles p.163

[22] Officers and Soldiers Died in the Great War

[23] Medal Roll card index and Rolls dated 17 October 1919 & 16 April 1920

[24] UK Army Register of Soldiers’ Effects 1901-1929 Record No.511312 

[25] Pension Claimant card index

[26] CWGC