Sharing Stories of Service: Robert Salisbury WWI

When Robert Salisbury, from South Brisbane, enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) in October 1916 he was the sole breadwinner for his mother, brother and sister following the death of his father, who had been a distinguished public servant with the Queensland Post and Telegraph Department. Robert, a trained architect, was assigned to the 25th Battalion, AIF, and sailed for England on the troopship HMAT Demosthenes (A64) from Melbourne in December 1916. After some months training at Rollestone, a village on the Salisbury Plain, England, he proceeded with his unit to France in June 1917.

Studio portrait of Private Robert Salisbury, ca. 1916, 30015 Salisbury and Rowton Family Papers, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Image number: 30015-0002-0001.

The 25th Battalion had suffered huge losses during the battle of Pozières the previous year and had just been involved in the second battle of Bullecourt (9 April – 16 May 1917) by the time Robert (Bob) arrived to join his unit. The battalion’s next major offensive action was as part of the ‘first wave’ in the battle of Menin Road (20–25 September) in Belgium. It appears Bob was not part of this action, as his diary reports that on 12 September, some of the battalion were sent to a ‘reorganisation’ camp at Flêtre, while the rest were sent to the lines at Polygon Wood, the next major objective after the capture of Menin Road Ridge. On 25 September he writes that he marched to Reninghelst to join up with the battalion.

Robert Salisbury's identity bracelet, 30015 Salisbury and Rowton Family Papers, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, item 21.

The battalion’s next engagement was as part of the battle of Broodseinde Ridge which took place on 4 October 1917 near Ypres. It was part of the overall Ypres offensive conducted by the British and was a huge operation involving 12 divisions. The objectives for Australia’s 2nd Division, which included the 25th Battalion, involved making an advance of 1,600 metres from Zonnebeke and up on to Broodseinde Ridge. A period of fine weather was broken when it started raining at midnight on the day the offensive began. The 2nd Division moved up to the front line during the night, with orders to begin their advance at 6 am, timed to coincide with a British ‘hurricane’ bombardment, a new artillery technique employing quick and intense bursts of artillery fire. Bob’s battalion, part of the 7th Brigade, passed one side of Zonnebeke Lake, while the 6th Brigade passed on the other side. They saw German troops rising from shell-holes (the cavities left from exploding artillery shells) and opened fire while still moving forward, destroying the first German wave. They were so successful in fact, they pressed on beyond the first objective, capturing several field guns along the way, and reached their final objective east of Broodseinde village in good time. The battle was declared a ‘success’ despite heavy losses for the British and Australians.

Grave of Private Robert Salisbury at the Menin Road South Military Cemetery, Ypres, Belgium, ca. 1917, 30015 Salisbury and Rowton Family Papers, John Oxley Library State Library of Queensland, Image number: 30015-0004-0001

Bob Salisbury was one of the casualties that day. His last diary entry was made on 27 September 1917, a week before the operation began, but his service record reveals that he was severely wounded with ‘gun shot wounds’ to both legs – most likely inflicted by a machine-gun. Bob was evacuated to the 3rd Australian Field Ambulance, but died the same day. He was buried at the Menin Road South Military Cemetery near Ypres. 

Robert’s wartime service was short and tragic, spanning only one year. He was just one of 60,000 Australian who bravely made the ultimate sacrifice to protect our nation and the British empire. His death would have been keenly felt by his family, in particular his oldest sister, Evelyn, who he had sent souvenirs collected during the war. These gifts included a beautifully framed panorama of Table Mountain, Cape Town, bought for her while transiting to England in 1917. An everlasting silver leaf is attached to the image and bears the inscription “from Bob wishing Evie many happy returns of 1st April”. Evelyn would mourn the loss of her brother for the rest of her life.

Panorama of Table Mountain, Cape Town, ca. 1916, 30015 Salisbury and Rowton Family Papers, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, item five.

Robert Salisbury and his wartime experiences are featured at Anzac Square Memorial Galleries.

This year we will be featuring 15 stories of service personnel from WWI to present. We encourage you to share your stories of service with us. To learn more about this campaign and how you can contribute, visit our website.

Additional Resources:

  • 30015 Salisbury and Rowton Family Papers 1914-1970 
  • Anzac Square Memorial Galleries website 
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