The Friends of the Tank Memorial Ypres (TYMS) organised two wonderful days on Wednesday 29th and Thursday 30th April when a commemorative plaque was unveiled at the Restaurant Merlijn to Captain Clement Robertson, VC and Gunner Cyril Allen, DCM. Everyone gathered together at 11.00am on Wednesday 29th at the Tank Memorial on Guynemerplein, Poelkapelle, where the moving Annual Ceremony was held. Milena Kolarikova-Lock was the Master of Ceremonies who gave fascinating and interesting introduction to proceedings. The private ceremony attracted a large number of attendees and it was the most perfect commemoration for the officers and men from the Tank Corps who gave their lives on The Salient during World War One. The Honorary President, Lieutenant General David Leakey, CMG, CBE, (better known to many of us as Black Rod in the Palace of Westminster) gave an excellent address, followed by the Last Post, Laurence Binyon’s famous words, a blessing by Father Terry Llewellyn, then wreathes were laid by many (including the British Embassy, the British Legion, Belgian authorities and army) that concluded with the two families of Clement Robertson and Cyril Allen wreathes. With the ceremonies complete we were invited to enjoy an excellent, and most generous, reception in the Town Hall in Langemarck.
In the early afternoon we assembled at the Restaurant Merlijn, Reutel. It was the object of the mission undertaken by Clement Robertson and his tanks. From Sunday 30th September to Thursday 4th October 1917 Clement worked without a break under heavy fire preparing a route for his tanks to go into action against Reutel. Clement finished late on the night of 3rd October and at once led his tanks up to the starting point for the attack. He brought them safely up by 3.00am on 4th October and at 6.00am led them into action. The ground was very bad, heavily broken by shell fire and the road was completely demolished for five hundred yards, from here he led them on foot. Clement was killed, his Commanding Officer wrote: “It is impossible for me to attempt to express to you what a splendid example he has set us all. I feel his loss very deeply myself, as he was such a splendid officer, and so popular with us all, officers and men alike.” Private Cyril Allen who accompanied Clement and was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal. He was killed on Tuesday 20th November 1917 and is commemorated on Cambrai Memorial. Cyril had written a letter to Clement’s parents but it had not been posted. The Robertson and Allen families met at the ceremonies in Poelkapelle to unveil the Tank Memorial and the contents of the letters were shared for the first time in over ninety years.
Ian Robertson, great-nephew of Clement, gave a moving address that told the tale of Clement and his comrade Cyril Allen and how by their bravery they did such good work and were rewarded for their bravery. Chaplain, Father Brian Llewellyn of The St George’s Memorial Church, blessed the Memorial before General David Leakey unveiled it. A number of wreathes were laid by Her Excellency Alison Rose, British Ambassador to Belgium; General David Leakey; Terry Whittles, the National Vice Chairman of The Royal British Legion and by the families led by Ian Robertson and John Allen (both great nephews of the brave men). With the beautiful memorial unveiled we moved to the garden of the restaurant where a flagpole had been placed at the object of the attack. Ian Robertson and John Allen jointly raised the flag of the Tank Regiment that too will remain as a beacon to all those who visit the area.
The ceremonies at Poelkapelle and Reutel were poignant and deeply moving. To be there with the families of the men, together with their original medals, was an experience of a life time. The restaurant then provided the most excellent buffet reception when we had the opportunity to over indulge and enjoy the company of the many family and friends attending the ceremonies.
The excellent day was capped by the 8.00pm ceremony at the Menin Gate where, thankfully, I was ‘on duty’ to read the story of 16 year old Private William Allen who had died 100 years ago to that day whilst serving with the 1st Battalion Hampshire Regiment and is commemorated on Panel 35 of the Menin Gate. It was a particularly moving ceremony with David Leakey leading the wreath layers, Chris Lock as Standard Bearer in the centre of the Menin Gate and Ian Robertson with Cryil Allen representing their illustrious forebears.
The day would have been complete as it was, however, it was to continue the next day. We met at ‘Joist Farm’, Oude Kortijkstraat, just along to the road from the Black Watch Memorial at Polygon Wood, and opposite the Memorial to Sergeant Henry James Nicholas, VC. Here we met Chris Lock, Founder of the TMYS, and Honorary Chairman of The Friends of The TMYS, an expert guide who gave us the most wonderful on the spot running commentary walk covering the ground that Clement Robertson and Cyril Allen had trod in 1917. The road was there in 1917, but submerged by mud but if the tanks kept to the tape and followed the road it was good enough for them to trundle over. The tanks came from the area near ‘Stirling Castle’ on the Menin Road and began their attack from ‘Joist Farm’. In Clement and Cyril’s footsteps we walked along the road and to the spot where Clement was killed and Cyril badly wounded. Here, on the ground, the actual place, where the Victoria Cross was awarded to Clement the Distinguish Conduct Medal to Cyril. Ian took out the Victoria Cross that was presented to Clement’s family that he proudly owns. As we looked about us we were reminded of the two other Victoria Crosses awarded within yards of where we stood, Sergeant Henry Nicholas and Brigadier Lewis Pugh Evans VC, CB, CMG, DSO & Bar, DL (then a Lieutenant Colonel) in two different actions.
We completed the walk along the road back to the Restaurant Merlijn and after some refreshment left for Oxford Road Cemetery. Clement was killed in the action and is buried in the cemetery, but Cyril survived only to be killed in action at The Battle of Cambrai on Tuesday 20th November 1917 and is commemorated on Cambrai Memorial, Louveral. In the most brilliant sunshine a moving ceremony was held at Clement’s grave and for the first time since the award of the Victoria Cross it was laid on his grave thus reuniting the recipient with his medal, in addition, Cyril’s DCM was laid on the grave too. This unique ceremony was so moving, not only to the families of the men but to all of us lucky enough to witness the event. It was an event that should, in my opinion, have been shared by so many more if it had only been possible.
Without Chris and Milena Lock, Ian Robertson, John Allen, David Leakey and many others, none of this would have been possible. I cannot thank them so much for inviting me to the event, two of the most moving days of my life.