Robert Thwaites was born 6 March 1894 to William and Maria Thwaites of Crackenthorpe, Cumbria. On completing his formal education at Appleby Grammar School he entered Bede College in 1912. He played rugby for the College and appears in a team photograph for the 1913-14 season in The Bede magazine (April 1914).
Thwaites is recorded in the magazine’s roll of honour in December 1914 as a Lance Sergeant with B Company, 1st Division of 8th Battalion D.L.I. This unit was completing training at Sunderland Road Barracks in Gateshead at this time. The 1/8th D.L.I. embarked for France from Newcastle on 19th April 1915, landing at Boulogne on the 20th and moved up to billet in farms around Cassel. On the afternoon of 23rd they took “buses” to Vlamertinghe where they spent the night and next day they marched through Ypres to front line trenches at Gravenstafel Ridge receiving their “baptism of fire” by sporadic shelling on the way, arriving without casualties. The heavy fighting in this area was the beginning of what was later to be known as the Second Battle of Ypres, and the events of the costly struggle at Gravenstafel Ridge is recorded above in the biographies of those D.L.I. men who were killed there. This battle witnessed the first use of a new German weapon on the Western Front: a cloud of poisonous gas. Its deadly effect was carried on a gentle breeze towards French troops and as a result of its devastating effect on the French the German infantry made a significant advance into Allied territory within a few hours. For the next four weeks the 1/8th were engaged in bitter fighting to regain this lost ground.
The Bede magazine (December 1917) contains an eyewitness account of the Battalion’s first two days in combat, and records that after heavy fighting and work re-supplying the front line with rations and ammunition the remainder of “A” and “B” companies themselves were in need of food:
Bob Thwaites, myself and two others, set off in search and returned at length with a big box of bully beef and a tin of biscuits. The remainder had meanwhile collected some emergency rations of tea and sugar. We soon had a fire going and boiling some water procured from the slimiest and dirtiest pond I ever remember seeing we soon had a supply of the finest nectar, as we thought it, in our present state of hunger and thirst. This was our first meal for well over 48 hours and we wouldn’t have changed it for all the wealth in France just then.
The Bede magazine, v.14, no. 1, December 1917, p.23.
During this time Robert was promoted in the field to Sergeant. Very early on 22 May Robert’s company was ordered to “Stand to” in their trench and endured a severe gas attack lasting several hours. An eyewitness account of the ensuing action appears in The Bede magazine of June 1915.
Later that morning the 8th defiled from those trenches further to the right and under heavy shell fire went forward to reinforce the Buffs and Fusiliers. Fifty of the battalion then made a magnificent dash to reinforce a party of Fusiliers. Sergts. Thwaites and Booth, under Capt. Ritson, led this fearless advance. First over the parapets to a trench forty yards in front then a fierce dash under heavy rifle fire, over open ground, to reach the communication trench. Too much praise cannot be given to the men who carried out this wonderful attack. Yet little they thought of it. They were only doing their “little bit.”
The Bede magazine, v.11, no.3, June 1915 p.9.
Thwaites was wounded on the 25 May and is recorded as such in the “State of the Battalion” on 31 May. The Cumberland News reported that Robert was in fact hit by a bullet in the head and after emergency treatment in France he was evacuated to Torquay to fully recover. The Bede magazine of March 1916 reported that he had taken a discharge from the 1/8th at the end of 1915 with the intention of re-enlisting in another corps to seek a commission. He was reported in the London Gazette on 6 January 1916 as probationary second lieutenant with the D.L.I. and The Bede further reports that this was a commission into the 22nd Battalion. He was further promoted to full lieutenant in May 1916.
It was during this convalescence from his wound that Robert was married. County records for the quarter Apr-May-June 1916 record his marriage to Elsie Graham. He returned to France in June that year and his unit was involved in the Battle of the Somme which began on 1 July. Robert was reported in The Bede (December 1916) as being “wounded, severly”. The Cumberland News reported that this wound was received on the Somme in October and was a result of shrapnel wounds to the head (again). He was once again sent back to England for treatment, this time to a hospital in Leicester. John Sheen’s Durham pals : 18th, 19th, & 22nd (Service) Battalions of the Durham Light Infantry : a history of three battalions raised by local committee in County Durham (2007), records:
“A” company who had been detailed off to work as stretcher bearers had lost Capt. Knight, killed 26 Oct and Lieutenant Robert Thwaites wounded the following day, but they earned a mention from the ADMS, and probably from every wounded man they carried out.
Durham pals: 18th, 19th, & 22nd (Service) Battalions of the Durham Light Infantry: a history of three battalions raised by local committee in County Durham (2007), by John Sheen.
This action took place around Waterlot Farm.
In March 1917 Robert Thwaites was once more back in France and in June he received his captaincy. In September 1917 his company was involved in more heavy fighting in the action known as “The Cherisy Raid”. An account of this raid is recorded by Capt. Ralph (Chopper) Curry in The Bede of April 1918. A further reference within this issue of the magazine states that both Capts. R. Curry and R. Thwaites were mentioned in despatches in connection with this action.
Captain Robert Thwaites was killed in action on the night of the 24 March 1918. Reports on his death in the Cumberland and Westmorland Herald appeared on the 13 and 20 April and the following letters were published in that newspaper on 4 May 1918.
Mrs. Thwaites, Asby, has received further information regarding the death of her husband, Capt. Thwaites. Major Cecil Hall, of the deceased officer’s battalion writes:¬¬–
I am sorry it has not been possible for me to write to you sooner but unfortunately both the Colonel and the second-in-command were also casualties, and we have consequently been very busy in clearing things up. Poor Capt. Thwaites was killed by a machine gun bullet on the night of the 24th and died almost at once I believe. I cannot say how much we miss him. He was a splendid fellow in every way—fearless and capable as an officer, a gentleman and a comrade to all who knew him and have had the privilege of coming into contact with him. He is a great loss to the battalion in every way, and on behalf of all the officers and men I beg to assure you of our very real sympathy in your great trial.
The Chaplain to the Battalion writing to Mr. Thwaites, Kirkbythore, the father of Capt. Thwaites, gives some further particulars. He says:–
I am afraid we suffered badly from the murderous German machine gun fire, and your son was one of the first to be hit. I understand that he was first slightly wounded but carried on and then he was shot through the heart and died almost instantaneously. He is a tremendous loss to us all. It is some consolation to know that he died so gloriously while leading his men in the thick of battle.
Cumberland and Westmorland Herald, 4 May 1918.
Captain Thwaites is buried at Pozières Memorial, in the Somme district of France, and is commemorated on the Bede College 1914-1918 cross, plaque, and roll of honour, and on the war memorial cross in Appleby, Cumbria.