Author: Linda Granfield
Publication Date: 2017
The soft, white batiste summer blouse, the delicate bar pin, the chignon hair-style, and the loving gaze, are compelling evidence that this is a copy of the same photograph of Muriel Robertson, 22, that her fiancée Lex Helmer took to war in 1914. Image courtesy of Ann Schlutter Spitzer.
On the morning of May 2, 1915, during the Second Battle of Ypres, Lt. Alexis Hannum Helmer of Ottawa was killed when an enemy shell exploded near him. Helmer's remains were gathered and buried in a nearby cemetery; the service was performed by Major John McCrae, his friend. Others, like Captain Lawrence Cosgrave, one of Helmers university class-mates, were also present. That same day, McCrae wrote in his diary:
The next day John McCrae wrote his most famous poem, "In Flanders Fields." As he sat writing the words "Loved, and were loved..." was the image of Helmer's "girl," a photograph placed into a grave just hours before he picked up his pen, on his mind? Pure conjecture but very possible at the same time.
Heavy gunfire again this morning. Lieut. Helmer was killed. . .His diary's last words were - 'It has quieted a little and I shall try to get a good sleep!' His girl's picture had a hole right through it-and we buried it with him. I said the Committal service over him, as well as I could from memory. A soldier's death!1
Who was Helmer's "girl," the young woman who came to represent all the beloved family members and friends who were left behind when a soldier died? It took more than 100 years to find a portrait of Muriel Robertson.
I searched for two years, and after taking many wrong turns in my research, I stopped looking. There were other deadlines I had to meet; this mystery was put aside but never forgotten. When I picked up the search again a year later, a chance contact with someone on Ancestry.com triggered a series of lucky and informative 'breaks' that in the end brought me face-to-face with the young woman beloved by Lex Helmer.
The Robertson Family, circa 1903: Muriel, age 12, Charles (l) sits in Martha's lap. William (3) stands in front of Lyall (14) and Dr. John Robertson sits on the right. Image courtesy of Ann Tumser/Ann Schlutter Spitzer.
Muriel Stuart Robertson was born December 1, 1891 in Ottawa. Her parents were John Robertson, a dentist practising on Sparks Street, and Martha Middleton, a daughter of mariner Lewis Middleton, a prominent figure in Kingston, Ontario. Big brother Lyall Ralston, born in 1889, welcomed his little sister, who would be the only Robertson daughter. Two more brothers, William Lewis (born 1900) and Charles Edwin (born 1902) completed the Robertson family.
Few details of Muriel's childhood in Ottawa are known. As the daughter of a prominent and successful member of the community, Muriel enjoyed a comfortable life in the family home at 295 Frank Street.2 The family's lack of need can be seen in the listing of Lyall and Muriel, aged 9 and 7, as donors to Ottawa's Santa Claus Fund for the Hospital for Sick Children (the "patron" of the Fund is listed as "Santa Claus"). Where most of the child- donors' gifts averaged ten cents, the Robertson children were able to contribute twenty-five cents each.3
The Robertson family home at 295 Frank Street, Ottawa, circa 1905. "The city plowed the sidewalks and roads with a horse and plow" Muriel recalled. Image courtesy of Ann Schlutter Spitzer.
Two years later, in 1900, Lyall and Muriel and fellow students at Elgin Street School took part in a massive subscription campaign to create a "monument to the volunteers from Ottawa and district who have fallen in South Africa."4 This campaign, conducted and publicized by The Ottawa Journal, was from the start a "people's fund." Rather than collecting large sums from a few wealthier contributors, the newspaper asked for no-higher than ten-cent subscriptions, "in order that people of EVERY WALK IN LIFE may become shareholders, so to speak in the monument: that even school children of to-day may be able twenty years from now to say, 'I helped to build that.'"5
Build it they did! Sculptor Hamilton MacCarthy's South African War Memorial was unveiled in 1902 on the grounds of the Ottawa City Hall which then stood on Elgin Street. The bronze figure of a soldier raising his helmet high into the air remained in place until 1931, when City Hall burned down; since 1969, the Memorial has been a feature in nearby Confederation Park. It is reported that 30,000 school children contributed pennies to the successful campaign.6 Contributing service and funds during wartime would become a recurring theme in the Robertson family's lives.
Throughout the early years of the twentieth century, Muriel Robertson's life beyond her public school classroom was documented by The Ottawa Journal. She performed piano solos in musical recitals in Orme's Recital Hall on Wellington Street and in entertainment programs at Knox Presbyterian Church where Sunday School "members of all grades, from the little tots in the infant class, who could scarcely lisp their lines, to the seniors in the bible class."7
In 1905, Muriel Robertson began her high school studies at Ottawa Collegiate Institute (now Lisgar Collegiate institute) where her brother Lyall was already enrolled. Both brother and sister were diligent scholars and were issued honour certificates at the completion of each school year. A fellow student at both Elgin Street School and Ottawa Collegiate Institute was Alexis Helmer.
Muriel's coursework included arithmetic, algebra, physics and botany. Her language and arts studies were grammar, composition, literature and art, reading, writing, and dictation. Both Latin and French composition, history, and geography rounded out her academic program over the four years of high school.8 Secretarial skills, such as book-keeping, stenography, and typewriting were not part of Muriel's studies; one can assume she was not supposed to graduate and move into a job in an executive office, unlike many young women of the time. She sat the rigorous Ontario Departmental Matriculation-Arts examinations, but she did not attend university after graduating from Ottawa Collegiate Institute in June 1909. As there were no yearbooks issued by the school during this time, we have none of the contemporary details such publications add to any young person's biography, i.e. photograph, nickname, school clubs, favourite quote, and plans for life.
The society pages of The Ottawa Journal, especially during the summer months, provide glimpses into Muriel's life after high school. In 1910, she visited her Middleton relatives in Kingston, Ontario and in New York, apparently travelling alone. At the Norway Bay Tennis Club, Muriel was named "Most Worthy Associate."9 Norway Bay in Quebec was a popular summer holiday spot located on the north shore of the Ottawa River, across from Arnprior, Ontario. In mid-August 1910, "a party composed of Misses Lillian Hutcheson, Muriel Robertson, Misses Ken, [sic] Neilson, Lex Helmer and Grant Shaw spent Monday in Arnprior, journeying down in Ken Neilson's launch."10 The teen-aged couples apparently did not need a chaperone, although there was an extra passenger!
In the 1911 Census of Canada, John Robertson, 54, was listed as a dentist. He shared a Sparks Street, Ottawa dental practice with Oliver Martin, Jr. Lyall and Muriel were in the workforce: Lyall as a book-keeper in an office and his sister, 19, in an unspecified Canadian government civil service job that annually paid her $500 for a forty-hour work week. No doubt, she was also excitedly preparing for her "debut" in November 1911.
Muriel Robertson's debut, at about age eighteen, was a formal announcement to Ottawa that she was coming out into society as a young adult. The debut also signalled that she was eligible to marry. Today debutantes continue to enjoy the white gowns, cotillions, and introductions of the past, but often philanthropic duties and more 'modern,' informal activities are also part of a young woman's debut. In the Edwardian period, however, whether a debutante was introduced to King George V in England or to the Governor General of Canada, the King's representative, young women, like Muriel Stuart Robertson, were presented in a very formal and traditional manner and clothed in white gowns.
On November 20, 1911, most of the twelve pages of The Ottawa Journal were filled with long, detailed lists of everyone present at "the Greatest Drawing Room Function Ever Held in Canada."11 Two thousand guests filled the drawing room at the Senate on Parliament Hill. The newspaper regaled its readers with the glut of cash coming into Ottawa during a ten-day period. There were huge expenditures for "costly bouquets for the ladies, dressmakers, costumers, [and] hairdressers."12 Hotel proprietors, livery and cab men, musicians and special guards of honour all benefited from the influx of guests. The newspaper's conservative estimate of the amount spent was $50,000 ($1.1 million in 2017). Amid all this furor, Miss Muriel Robertson was presented to Their Royal Highnesses, the Duke and Duchess of Connaught.
Prince Arthur, the Duke of Connaught, was the third son of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. He was the first member of the Royal Family to serve as Governor General of Canada and the Senate Drawing Room function was his first such event during his time (1911- 1916) in the position. From nine until nearly eleven-thirty on the evening of November 18th, the Governor General and his wife received representatives from the United States, Japan, China, and Argentina. Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden, the Lieutenant- Governor of Ontario Sir John Morison Gibson and his wife, Cabinet Ministers and their wives, Senate members- the room was aglitter with privilege, diamonds, and gowns of luminous cloth-of-gold.
Muriel Robertson, and her mother, were included in the lengthy lists that read like a fashion catalogue for the late Edwardian period. "Miss Muriel Robertson (debutante), white embroidered net over [white] satin, pearls [as jewelry], pink mums. /Mrs. John Robertson, King's blue satin with tunic of black beaded net, and jet [jewelry], yellow mums."13
William Robertson, Cadet in the Royal Air Force, standing on the porch of 118 Gilmour Street, Ottawa in August 1918. Notice the Canadian Service flag with a maple leaf for each family member active in the war. Image courtesy of Ann Schlutter Spitzer.
In June 1912, Muriel, and other young women, travelled from Ottawa to Kingston to attend the annual June Ball at the Royal Military College (RMC). In Kingston, she stayed with another accommodating (chaperoning?) aunt. Mid-June was commencement week at the College. Graduating cadets were awarded their diplomas; Sgt. Alexis H. Helmer, cadet #841, was one of those celebrating the end of his RMC studies in Kingston. The June Ball was an eagerly anticipated event; one can imagine the respectful sighs when it had been cancelled in June 1910 because the Commonwealth was in mourning for King Edward VII who had died that May.
Sergeant Alexis Hannum Helmer in 1912, as he graduated from the Royal Military College in Kingston. Image courtesy of the Royal Military College of Canada.
Lex Helmer's graduation photograph (RMC 1912) shows him resplendent in his red tunic. The three bars on the collar, and the sash, indicate that he holds the cadet rank of Sergeant.14 While there are no known surviving photographs of Lex and Muriel together, it is easy to suppose that the couple happily danced the night away at the ball, earlier described as a place where "choice refreshments were served after eleven o'clock and it was at an early hour in the morning the affair broke up."'15
An Ottawa city directory for 1912 more precisely identifies Muriel's civil service position; she is listed as a clerk in the records section of the Department of Naval Service. It appears that Muriel's first employment after her high school graduation could have also been for the Naval Services because the Canadian navy did not exist until the enactment of the Naval Service Act in May 1910. Civil service examinations were given that spring in various Canadian cities to fill 110 posts in the new department. "Five clerkships (for women), in grade III. B. Initial salary $500" 16 were advertised; Muriel's stated salary of $500 in the 1911 Canadian census matches the amount and a government position. In 1911, the name of her "employer" became the Royal Canadian Navy.17
Alexis "Lex" Helmer's portrait from his Class of 1914, McGill University yearbook. Image taken from Old McGill 1914.
While Muriel settled into her position with Naval Services, Lex Helmer continued his education in the Faculty of Applied Science at McGill University, Class of 1914. During his two years in Montreal, Lex and his friend Lawrence Cosgrave, a RMC classmate and a fellow-student at McGill, attended a luncheon at the New Russell House in Ottawa. There, ex-cadets entertained "the cadets now attending the R.M.C. and spending their [Christmas] vacation in the city of Ottawa."18 Lawrence V. M. Cosgrave is of note as he is the same "Lieutenant Cosgrave" who is a common denominator in the McCrae-Helmer friendship. In fact, after the First World War began in the summer of 1914, Lawrence Cosgrave enlisted on September 9th; the name of the witness on his attestation paper is John McCrae. Both Cosgrave and McCrae were at Valcartier Camp in Quebec when the Canadian Expeditionary Force was training for combat duty. Cosgrave's later first-hand account of witnessing McCrae penning the poem "In Flanders Fields" following Helmer's death linked the poem to its inspiration.
In January 1913, Lieutenant A. H. Helmer (R.M.C.), 2nd Battery Canadian Field Artillery was appointed Captain of "A" Company in McGill University's first-ever contingent of the Canadian Officers' Training Corps.19 (Cosgrave was named the captain of the other, "B" Company.) Parades and drills were held in a borrowed Armoury on Bleury Street, Montreal; the Canadian government supplied equipment that lent "itself to the making of a smart looking regiment, and consists of drab serge tunic, cap, great coat, puttees, Bedford cord breeches, Ross rifle, M.II, two stars, and belt, bayonet, etc., complete."20
Lex's graduation entry in the Old McGill 1914 yearbook mentions his captaincy and his membership in the Tennis Club. The literary quotation that accompanies his photo and personal information may have been selected by Lex himself, or perhaps by the yearbook committee. In either case, the lines from Alfred, Lord Tennyson's poem "Audley Court" (1842), strike an odd chord when one considers Lex and Muriel were most likely engaged well before his graduation date of May 1914. Did his classmates choose lines to tease him about his commitment to Muriel?
Oh! Who would love? I woo'd a woman once/ But she was sharper than an Eastern wind/ And all my heart turned from her.21
Having earned his Bachelor of Science degree, with Railway Transportation listed as his major fieid,22 Lex worked as an assistant agent for the Canadian Pacific Railway in his former hometown of Hull, Quebec.23 The summer of 1914 also brought him and the 8th Brigade of the Canadian Field Artillery to a training camp in Petawawa, Ontario. Lex having been permitted to "relinquish his rank of captain of the McGill University contingent,"24 he was Lieutenant A. H. Helmer by the end of June.
Throughout 1913, Muriel continued to work with the Department of Naval Service; her older brother Lyall was a teller with the Standard Bank of Canada. Her younger brothers William and Charles were young teens preparing for their return to the classroom as the summer of 1914 drew to a close. On August 4, 1914, Britain declared war on Germany and Canada's newspapers were filled with articles about military preparedness rather than society balls.
Ten days later, Lex Helmer's name appeared as the staff adjutant in an advertisement taken out in The Ottawa Journal: "2nd Battery, Canadian Field Artillery. Shoeing Smiths, Wheelers, Cooks wanted. Good opportunities for smart men to learn gun laying, fuse setting [sic], range taking, signalling and mounted work. Apply Drill Hall, 9 a.m. to 10 p.m."25 Within another fortnight, Lex was listed as one of the many officers about to leave for Valcartier Camp. As part of the first brigade, under the command of South African War hero Lt. Col. Edward G.W. Morrison, Lex Helmer was in the company of his former class-mate, Lt. [Lawrence] Moore Cosgrave, adjutant, and Major John McCrae, medical officer. Did Muriel step away from her Navy desk job to see Lex off on Friday August 28, as the field artillery brigades left Ottawa for Quebec training and later the ships to England and the war? That question remains unanswered. The Ottawa Collegiate students, however, "gathered on Metcalfe Street [Ottawa] and gave him a hearty send off."26
On his attestation paper, completed and sworn to on September 22, 1914, Lex word-painted a self-portrait; he was an unmarried 22-year-old engineer, Methodist, five feet, seven and one-half inches tall, 135 pounds in weight, with a fair complexion, blue eyes, and light hair. His father, Lt. Col. R. A. Helmer, was listed as his next-of-kin. On other official paperwork his mother, Elizabeth Isabella Helmer, was the contact person. The Helmers resided at 122 Gilmour Street, Ottawa, a brick four-plex apartment building within walking distance of Ottawa Collegiate Institute and the government buildings where Lt. Col. Helmer worked as the Director-General of Musketry for the Department of Militia and Defence.
When Canadian troops, including Lex, sailed to England in October 1914, Muriel was already taking part in war relief efforts on the home front. Members of The Women's Canadian Club in Ottawa collected funds and clothing to be sent to the Belgians, true victims of the German Army but also the subject of an increasing amount of anti-German propaganda that fuelled enlistment in Canada. Muriel contributed clothing to the cause; her Naval Service office job would have also kept her abreast of war-time causes in the city.
Lt.-Col. John Mccrae (far left) and Lt. Lawrence Cosgrave, friends of Lex Helmer. Image courtesy of Guelph Civic Museum/ McCrae House (M1996X.13.2).
Despite the war raging in Europe, there were still light-hearted times in Muriel's social circle. Newly-wed Mrs. F. Chase Capreol, formerly Miss Marjorie Blythe, received guests in her residence "for the first time since her marriage."27 Muriel was there assisting in the serving of ices, and no doubt looking forward to the day when she, too, would be welcoming friends to her marriage home. Letters exchanged between Muriel and Lex during his months in England and France have not survived; in fact, although their engagement was never a secret one, Muriel Robertson did not share the story of her attachment to Lex Helmer with any of her descendants. If not for the reporting of life-altering events in the rapidly approaching new year, future generations might never have known of their love.
Nineteen-fifteen was to be an annus horribilis for the Robertson family. With family Christmas celebrations at an end, ailing John Robertson and his wife left chilly Ottawa for the warmth of Bermuda. They planned to stay for the winter, however on February 4, Dr. Robertson, 58, died suddenly of heart failure. His funeral "was held privately [on February 9th] from the Central station [Ottawa] on the arrival of the remains. Internment took place at Beechwood Cemetery."28
Robertson's death was a blow not only to his family but also to his community. He was an active Brother of the Freemasons and was present when the new Masonic Hall on Albert Street was dedicated in 1898. Two years later, John Robertson was named a district grandmaster for the Ottawa District, No. 16 Lodge.29 He was a popular speaker at Masonic functions, and at the annual banquets of the Ottawa Dental Society: "Dr. John Robertson spoke in his usually humorous strain, taking the company on an imaginary automobile tour from east to west [of Canada] even as far as the north pole [sic], and describing what was to be seen with a considerable display of word painting."30
Professional organizations were not the only beneficiaries of John Robertson's commitment to work and community. He was a member of the Ottawa Auxiliary Bible Society and was named a "Life Member" in 1904; he served as a member of the Knox Church temporal committee and in 1908 was an officer of the newly-formed Knox Church Laymen's Missionary Association. By 1911, he had been elected to the Board of the Ontario Dental College and chosen as vice-president of the Royal College of Dental Surgeons. One can only imagine the stress these voluntary positions added to his daily work in his dental surgery.
Martha Robertson, suddenly a widow at 52, still had Muriel and two young teenage boys at home. Lyall had enlisted in the CEF at Valcartier in August 1914 and had already embarked for France when his father died. It appears that family finances were such that remaining in the large Frank Street house, with hired domestic help, was impossible; by the time the Ottawa City Directory for 1915 was published, the Robertson family had moved to a smaller house at 57 Delaware Ave. They had lost a husband and father and their family home in just a few months. (Prominent Ottawa jeweller Thomas J. "T.J" Seaton bought 295 Frank Street.) Dr. John Robertson's death, however, was just the first in a series of family shocks.
With the spring came terrible news from France: Lieutenant Alexis H. Helmer, 22, had been killed. [Lex] has been reported killed in action by a special cable to the Militia Department. His name has not so far been published in the casualty lists, but it is feared that the information is true.... General [Sam] Hughes called on Lt.-Col. and Mrs. Helmer this morning to express his grief at the loss of their son.31
Within the same article, Lex Helmer's "girl" was mentioned -"A sad feature of Lieut. Helmer's death is that his fiancée, Miss Muriel Robertson, Iost her father, the late Dr. John Robertson, who died recently in the Bermudas."32 The official War Diary for the 1st Canadian Artillery Brigade succinctly reports the events of May 2, 1915, along the "Canal Bank, Ypres" during the Second Battle of Ypres:
Composite battery arrived from St. Jean during night. Intense heavy shelling by enemy all night which increased towards morning. Lt. Helmer killed & Lt. Hague severely wounded while observing. Casualties to date 6 killed 50 wounded. Other Canadian Batteries being moved from St. Jean to West of Canal. Two guns of 4th Battery put out of action by direct hits. Only 12 available guns now.33
We can only imagine how Muriel learned of Lex's death; perhaps the Helmers telephoned her, or walked the four blocks to the Robertson's new house (barely time to be a home) to share the news in person, to share the grief.
Revelations about Lex's death, as shared by perhaps well-intentioned yet unthinking young soldiers like Lt. Arthur Hardie Bick, were riveting reading for newspapers to print but horrific for the family of those they described. Lt. Bick had received major muscle damage from a shrapnel wound in the leg at the Second Battle of Ypres. His long recuperation period meant he had time to return to Canada to recover and later return to France. Bick, another graduate of Ottawa Collegiate Institute, robustly told a reporter about Lex Helmer's death. One can only imagine the pain Lt. Bick's retelling caused the Helmers, the Robertsons, and other of Lex's friends:
Lieut. Helmer had just finished the operation of digging in [for observing] when a solitary 'Jack Johnson' shell fell almost at his feet and exploded. He was literally blown to pieces. A lieutenant from Montreal was standing some few yards away and had a leg and hand blown off, but lived.34
Bick didn't know that Lt. Owen Hague, the soldier with Lex, died of his massive injuries later in the day of the explosion. Helmer's father, and others in the military would have known exactly what a "Jack Johnson" was- and how much damage it could do. Upon exploding, the shell could make a crater about twenty feet deep and thirty-five feet across. It also emitted a dense cloud of greasy black smoke. This was not desirable or consoling information for anyone who had lost a soldier.
Further discomfort and pain were no doubt caused to Muriel and her family as well as the Helmers, now childless, as they were invited to, and sat through, services and ceremonies that were held in the Ottawa area and Kingston for Alexis Helmer and other young men who were not coming home from the war. The Royal Military College held a memorial service in June 1915 for ex-cadets. During the sermon, the newly graduated cadets were encouraged to give "of their very best for their country"35 even as they listened to a roll call of the dead. In August 1915, the Canadian Pacific Railroad ran a newspaper ad honouring "several thousand officers and employees of the [CPR]" who had enlisted and were currently serving in Europe. A partial list of employees wounded or killed, included assistant agent A.H. Helmer. At the annual meeting of the Zion Presbyterian Church in Hull (January 1916) tribute was paid to Lex, a former congregant.
Lex Helmer's grave was destroyed by the war's constant bombardment of the same fields. In lieu of a marked grave, his name appears on the walls of Menin Gate in Ypres, Belgium. Image courtesy of Linda Granfeld.
A memorial tablet for Alexis Hannum Helmer was unveiled by H,R.H. the Duke of Connaught (Governor General) and Lt.-Gen. Sir Sam Hughes "and practically the whole of the Militia Headquarters Staff"36 at the Dominion Methodist Church in Ottawa, the church where Lex had last been a congregant. These tributes were for Lex, but they were also demonstrative of the great respect held for his father, Col. R.A, Helmer, and his lengthy military career, still active as the war dragged on.
And what of Muriel? Comfort was found in visits with her mother to family in Kingston, particularly around Christmas 1915. The next year, the Department of Naval Service was relocated to the fifth floor of the Rea Building, above a downtown Ottawa department store; Muriel job listing had changed, too. She was now employed in the Library of the DNS. As a member of the Ottawa Women's Canadian Club she took part in the Patriotic Street Fair for the Soldiers' Comforts Fund in June 1916, "the first open-air philanthropic effort the Capital has known."37
The Club needed money for the maintenance of the Y.M.C.A. hut they supplied "somewhere in France." Three blocks of Ottawa were festooned with buntings, flags, signage, and props. For three days there were street amusements for children, bookstalls, dancing, speeches, fortune-tellers, nightly illuminations, and music provided by the band of the local 207th Battalion. Groceries, home-cooking, and "smokes for the comfort of Daddy" were for sale. The 'Camp of the Allies' was set up on the front lawn of Sifton House on Metcalfe Street, "where eight young ladies in khaki [represented] the British Empire"38 Muriel Robertson was "Miss New Zealand;" she wore a uniform and a slouch hat that had been used during the Second South African (Boer) War.39 As a member, Muriel would also have written some of the 61,000 letters of support that the Club sent to soldiers in Europe throughout the war years.40
Muriel hosted a luncheon in honour of Bessie Dewar, a Robertson cousin, prior to Bessie's marriage to Lt. Gordon S. Johnstone of the 207th Battalion in late 1916; one wonders what sadness accompanied her during her tasks that day and at the wedding. During 1917, Muriel may still have been working in the Naval Service library. Her younger brothers William and Charles had nearly completed their studies at Ottawa Collegiate and William, like many young Canadians, was anxious to join the war before it was over.
Of great significance that year was yet another move for the Robertson family this time to 118 Gilmour St, into the same four-plex where Lex Helmer's parents lived in No, 122. Apartment 118 had a different tenant in l9l6. Did the Helmers invite the widowed Martha Robertson and her sons, and Muriel, the young woman who had nearly become a member of their family, to find comfort in living near them?
Meanwhile, Lyall Robertson was transferred from France to a Canadian Training Division at Shorncliffe, England, with a view of obtaining a commission."41 He returned to France as a Lieutenant and joined his unit, the 50th Battalion, on September 9, 1917; the War Diary of the 50'h reported "a misty forenoon- Bright & clean afternoon... Nothing unusual occurred. A very quiet day..."42
The weather changed. The rain, the wind, the mud and the misery of the Second Battle of Passchendaele formed the vile landscape where Lt. Lyall Robertson, 28, died on October 26. "Killed by an enemy shell at about 2 p.m. ... while going forward with his Company in an attack South West of Passchendaele"43 states Lyall's casualty card. His mother had received a letter from him in which he "spoke cheerfully of the prospects of reaching home on furlough by Christmas"44 Two days later, the local newspaper shared Martha Robertson's new grief.
When Lyall Robertson was initially buried in a small cemetery while the war continued, he was listed as "U.B.Sl'-Unknown British Soldier. After the war, he and others from the battlefields of Passchendaele and Langemarck were exhumed, identified when possible, and reburied in Tyne Cot Cemetery, Belgium by the Imperial War Graves Commission.45 Lyall Robertson was one of the newly-identified soldiers and his brother Charles selected the epitaph for the new white headstone: "He fought a good fight, finished his course, kept the faith. His Family"46 back at Gilmour Street, two families mourned yet again and another young man, Muriel’s brother William, was eagerly waiting to be out of high school and able to enlist. Like so many young men of the time, he feared, despite his family's great loss, that the war would be over before he could take part. By the end of summer 1918, William was a cadet in the Royal Air Force. Muriel Robertson was overseas.
During the Great War, there were never enough trained nursing sisters to serve the needs of the unimaginably growing numbers of war wounded. Thousands of Voluntary Aid Detachment nurses who had been working only in Canada were sent overseas to complement the efforts of the sisters. Some upper and middle-class Canadian women, in the position to do the work for no pay, enlisted in the VAD organized through the Order of St. John. For Muriel, sitting behind a library desk in Ottawa, the call to join the VAD was a means to get more actively involved and to be of greater usefulness over there."
Muriel Robertson, 26, was posted as a VAD overseas from April l5 until November 3, 1918.47 Muriel's armband in photographs identified her as an Order of St. fohn VAD nurse; she wore the requisite grey gown with its shorter hem that allowed both freedom of movement and the chance to remain clear of any unsanitary debris on a field or a hospital floor. A white bib-apron and nurse's starched cap completed her basic uniform.
VAD nurses took their daily directions from the trained military nurses. Their primary duties included 'changing beds, feeding and cleaning the wounded or even driving ambulances."48 Other duties, ordinarily those of the military nurses, were assigned to VADs when hospitals were understaffed or inundated with wounded. Muriel worked at the Royal Navy Hospital in Stonehouse, Plymouth, England; her years of employment in the Naval Service Department and her eventual posting cannot be a mere coincidence. Within weeks of Muriel’s arrival in Plymouth, an announcement was published in The Ottawa Journal:
The marriage took place in Plymouth, Eng., on May 16 of Miss Muriel Robertson, daughter of the late Dr. John Robertson, and Mrs. Robertson, To Capt. S. D. Robinson, Kingston, Ont., of the 2nd Tunnelling Company. Mrs. Robinson, who is well known and popular in Ottawa, went overseas as a VA.D. last March [sic]. Capt. Robinson, who is an honour graduate of Queen's University and a mining expert, is also well known in the Capital having spent one winter here with the Topographical Survey. Mrs. Robinson will continue her work at the Royal Naval Hospital, Plymouth, when her husband returns to the front.49
Captain and Mrs, Samuel D. Robinson emerge from the church on their wedding day, May 16, 1918. Muriel wears a glinting wedding ring. Samuel's three pips and two rings on his sleeve identify his rank. Image courtesy of Ann Schlutter Spitzer
How Muriel Robertson and Samuel Douglas Robinson first met is unknown, although it is believed they were introduced by a mutual friend in Ottawa. They were married in St. Paul's Church, Stonehouse, rather than in the chapel within the walls of the Royal Navy Hospital.50 They enjoyed a short honeymoon as Sam was on "Special leave to U.K" from May 13 to May 27, 1918.51
The announcement mentions Sam's work with the Topographical Survey. In 1912 he was indeed a field assistant for the Department of Geological Survey of Canada whose offices, with those of the Department of Mines, were located in the Victoria Memorial Museum in Ottawa.52
Samuel Douglas Robinson was born in Kingston, Ontario in 1889, the son of boilermaker William Robinson and his wife Frances ("Fannie"). At Queen's College (it wasn't "Queen's University" until 1912) Sam was a member of the Engineering Society of the Faculty of Applied Science and was elected the "Chief of Police" on the Society's Vigilance Committee. The conduct of the Science students was regulated by the Committee; 'offenders against written or unwritten laws [of the Society] were dealt with' at least one sitting a year.53 In 1911, Sam graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree as a Mining Engineer. That summer, he upgraded his previous military training by attending the Royal School of Cavalry in Toronto where he qualified for the rank of Lieutenant.54
Six foot tall, fair-haired and blue-eyed, Sam Robinson sat for a formal portrait in a Folkestone studio. His flaming bomb collar dogs identify him as a member of the Canadian Engineers Corps. Image courtesy of Ann Schlutter Spitzer.
At some point before enlisting in the Canadian Expeditionary Force in 1914, Sam Robinson worked at the Deloro Smelting & Refining Co., Ltd. in Deloro, Ontario, near Marmora. The company began in 1908 and produced silver, cobalt oxide, and arsenic. Paint and glass manufacturers used the arsenic to make their products. The various plants were built along the Moira River and there was a street of small homes for refinery employees.55
For two years, Sam had been with the 14th Princess of Wales' Own Regiment in Kingston. In Ottawa, in February 1916, he was listed as with the Regimental List of Canadian Engineers and after qualifying was given the rank of Lieutenant in Military Engineering. Lt. S.D. Robinson left for England in March, with his father William named as next-of-kin.
That said, however, there is an interesting addition to one of Sam's military record cards. In red ink, with the date March 3, 1916, there is "Also Notify (Miss) M. S. Robertson (RNS), 118 Gilmour St, Ottawa, Can." Were they an engaged couple at that time? After their marriage in 1918, red ink on an applied sticker names her as "Mrs. Muriel S. Robinson (Wife)" at an address partially covered by yet another sticker. Their first address after marriage appears to have been a house called "Winter Villa" in Stonehouse, Plymouth; it was listed as Muriel's current address at the time of her marriage. A later move along the coast, to Hythe, put Muriel about four miles from Folkestone, the port from which soldiers went to France or came back to England. Being in Hythe meant Muriel and Sam had a better chance of seeing one another when he was on leave.
The Deloro Smelting & Refining Company Deloro, Ontario, where S. D. Robinson worked before the First World War. Image from marmorahistory.ca
Among the Robinson family descendants' mementos is Captain S. D. Robinson's Military Cross. On the edge of the medal is "Canal Du Nord Sept. 28, 1918. The crossing of the Canal Du Nord (France) in the autumn of 1918 has been called 'one of the most impressive Canadian tactical operations of the First World War" Sam Robinson, with a Company of the 3rd Battalion of the Canadian Engineers, was among the officers who oversaw the building of bridges across the canal, under the withering fire of German machine guns.
Within about ten hours, the men constructed footings and piers and the span, 104 feet-long, from shore to shore. They also repaired other bridges, again while under enemy fire. Construction changes had to be considered and quickly made while the building was ongoing; plans first thought to be viable weren't when actual construction began.57 It was an incredible engineering feat. Capt. (later Major) S.D. Robinson was given thirty days leave to the U.K. on October 11th and he presumably headed to Hythe and Muriel. The war would end a month later. In fact, "[Sam] was on leave in England when the armistice was signed, but returned to his company which formed part of the Army of Occupation in Germany"58
Canadian engineers building a bridge at Canal du Nord, France, 1918. Image courtesy of Library and Archives Canada, (PA-003456).
Muriel's VAD engagement concluded on November 3 and by December arrangements had been made for her mail to be re-directed to her mother's home on Gilmour Street, Ottawa. In March 1919, S. D. Robinson was awarded the Military Cross and Sam was back in Canada for demobilization in April. Muriel and Sam began their civilian life as a married couple with only a few months spent in Canada; that same year they moved to Saint Michael, Missouri, where Sam worked for the Missouri Cobalt Company and they lived in house No. 249 in the company village.59
In February 1920, news arrived that Brigadier-General Richard Alexis Helmer, 55, had died of pneumonia at 122 Gilmour Street. National newspapers reprinted the news and mentioned that "an only son fell in the great war [sic]."60 The funeral took place at the Helmer home after which a gun carriage conveyed his body through the streets of Ottawa to Beechwood Cemetery. 'A touching scene, indicative of the high esteem in which the deceased was held by his fellow citizens was witnessed along the route of the funeral, when hundreds of men stopped and bared their heads in reverence as the casket, draped with the Union Jack, passed by..."61 The two widows, Martha Robertson and Elizabeth Helmer, were alone in their apartments.
During the first decade of their marriage, Muriel, called "Monie" (pronounced Money) by Sam, gave birth to two daughters in Canada: Joan Stuart and Mary Lyall Robinson. There were trips back and forth across the border by brother Charles, a student at Springfield College in Massachusetts, and Martha Robertson, who moved to another house on Gilmour Street. By 1930, the Robinson family of four was living in East Chicago, Indiana where Sam was employed as an engineer with the U.S. Reduction Company until his retirement in 1955.62
While raising their daughters, Muriel was active in various clubs and church groups in East Chicago (Indiana) and participated in the Literature Department of the local Woman's Club. Of interest is one book chat the women had; there was a study of "Modern Fiction of the World War presented from the German viewpoint.”63 All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Marie Remarque was assigned to Mrs. Rutledge, assisted by Mrs. S.D. Robinsonl. In total, four German novels were discussed, and it is very likely all of the women discussing the titles had, like Muriel, lost family members or friends during the First World War.
Fashion-forward Muriel Robinson in the summer of 1931. Image courtesy of Ann Tumser.
The Robinson daughters were soon going off to college, Joan to the University of Arizoha in Tucson and the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and Mary to Saint Mary's College of Notre Dame, near South Bend, Indiana and St. Catherine School of Nursing in East Chicago. Sam became a naturalized American citizen in 1939, Muriel in 1941. And the world was at war again.
Once more, Muriel, 50, answered the call on the home front. She worked with members of the local chapter of The American Red Cross producing bandages and other surgical supplies. And she knitted: the East Chicago chapter had 200 workers giving 40,000 volunteer-hours in 1943. The chapter shipped nearly 2,000 knitted garments to the armed services in just one year; the only reason they stopped knitting was the need for a new shipment of yarn.65 Muriel was one of the assistants for the knitting drives, Even after the war ended, the women continued to produce children's clothing for refugees overseas.
Joan and Mary also served during the Second World War. Third Officer Joan Robinson of the Women's Royal Naval Service took training courses with the Canadian Cadet Wrens after serving in Washington DC with the British Naval Service. She continued her duties with the WRNS ("Wrens") in Washington. Mary was a member of the United States Cadet Nurse Corps.66
Muriel's daughters Joan (left) and Mary Robinson in uniform during the Second World War. Image courtesy of Ann Schlutter Spitzer.
After the Second World War ended, Muriel and Sam's family came to include two sons-in-law and five grandchildren, tragedy re-visited the family in 1950 when Muriel's brother William 'W.Ll' Robertson, 50, unsuccessful with the development of a socialist community based on co-operative principles, walked in front of a train at Melling Rail Station in New Zealand.67 It is unknown whether Muriel and her remaining brother Charles ever knew the truth of William’s suicide and his 162-page Final Statement that he mailed to colleagues the day he died.68
During their shared retirement years, "Monie" and Sam returned to Canada for family visits and continued volunteer service in their community. Sam was active with the East Chicago Rotary Club and his church; Muriel continued to dedicate herself to the American Red Cross and the United Fund efforts. Muriel nursing experience helped ease Sam's pain during the three years he suffered from cancer before he died at their home on March 16, 1971.69 The day after Samuel D. Robinson passed away his grandson First Lieutenant William Schlutter, 23, was killed in Vietnam when the helicopter he was piloting crashed and burned while on a military mission during the Vietnam War.70 The family was notified the day after Sam’s funeral, Once again, war-time tragedy threw a pall over the Robinson clan.
Muriel moved to Evergreen Manor in Oshkosh, Wisconsin to live closer to her daughter Joan Schlutter and her family. In 1975, Muriel, 83, travelled back to Ottawa to visit one of Sam’s nieces. As they drove past the Frank Street house:
We saw two ladies park their car and walk up the front walk, I said, 'I'm going to get out and speak to those ladies.” I hadn't been inside the house since 1916. My opening gambit was “perhaps you would be interested in knowing that my father built this house.”71
The gambit worked and Muriel toured the house, noting the apartments then inside and the missing front veranda. A reporter from The Centretown News interviewed Muriel about Frank Street at the turn of the century. She recalled livery stables, orchards, the lack of cars and buses, and her father riding his bicycle to his dental office.72 Her memories of Elgin Street School and Ottawa Collegiate Institute did not include any mention of fellow student Lex Helmer.
Muriel Robinson, Christmas 1979, in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. lmage courtesy of Ann Schlutter Spitzer.
While "In Flanders Fields" was a poem recited by members of the Robinson family nothing prompted Muriel to share her personal connection to the poem. She may not have known that the death of her fiancée Lex was the reason why John McCrae wrote the poem; rather surprisingly, Mrs. Helmer did not know of the friendship between McCrae and her son until Lt. Col. Lawrence Cosgrave told her in Ottawa in 1919.73
There are no photographs of the two young lovers together before the war altered their and so many others' futures. One would like to think that at certain times during the rest of her life, perhaps on a birth date or an event's anniversary a fleeting memory of Alexis Helmer brought a tea, perhaps a smile, even a bit of laughter to Muriel. She died, age 94, in Wisconsin on September 29, 1986 and was buried with Sam at the Cataraqui Cemetery in Kingston, Ontario, where Canada’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, is also interred.
Lt. Lex Helmer's grave at a cemetery near Essex Farm dressing station was destroyed by further bombardments during the remaining years of the Great War. His name is on Panel Ten of the Menin Gate in Ypres, Belgium, together with the names of nearly 55,000 other officers and men from Commonwealth countries who died on the Ypres Salient before August 16, 1917.74 His war medals were donated to the Guelph Civic Museum in Ontario.
Ann Schlutter Spitzer, one of Muriel's grandchildren, 'met' John McCrae during her first visit to Guelph, in April 2017. lmage courtesy of Linda Granfeld.
The whereabouts of his personal diary, quoted by John McCrae, are unknown. Mt. Helmer, a peak in the Canadian Rockies, gives long life to the names of a father and son who served Canada.
The damaged photo of Muriel, buried with Lex Helmer over one hundred years ago is long gone. However the recent revelation that their grandmother was part of the story of "In Flanders Fields" has given Robinson descendants another chapter in their family history, a new moment of pride and connection, and a renewed dedication to the remembrance of those who lost so much in war.
"Loved, and were loved, and now we lie in Flanders fields...."
- Dianne Graves. A Crown of Life: The World of John McCrae, p. 200. Note: the diary is in the collection at Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa, Ontario.
- The house still stands, but is no longer a family residence (2017).
- "Santa Claus' Fund Grows," The Ottawa Journal, December 19, 1898, p. 7.
- "For the Heroes Who Have Fallen," The Ottawa Journal, March 19, 1900, p. 7.
- "South African War Memorial' City of Ottawa information provided by Veterans Affairs Canada. www.veterans.gc.ca. (Accessed September 12, 2017).
- "scholars Entertain' The Ottawa Journal, February l, 1902, p. 15.
- My thanks to Ms. loy Heft, a volunteer archivist at Lisgar Collegiate Institute, for sharing information about Muriel's studies.
- Society column, The Ottawa Journal, August 13, 1910, p. 20.
- Society column, The Ottawa Journø\, August 20, 1910, p. 17.
- "Drawing Room Function Placed $50,000 in Circulation in City; Harvest Time for Merchants," The Ottawa Journal, November 20, I 9 I l, various pages. 12.
- Ibid. p. 1.
- Ibid. p. 12.
- Many thanks to Ross McKenzie, former curator of the Royal Military College Museum, who shared this information in 2008.
- "Ball at Royal Military College," The Ottawa Journal, lune 22, 1909, p. 8.
- "Candidates for Naval Service' The Ottawa Journal, March 21, l9 10, p. 5.
- "service Files of the Royaì Canadian Navy, 1910-1941 - Ledger Sheetsl'Library and Archives Canada online, September 2017.
- "R.M.C. Ex-Cadets Hold a Reunion" The Ottawa Journal, January 4,1913,p.24'
- "Appointments in the Militia' The Ottawa Journal, January 22, 1913, p. 7 .
- "Canadian Officers' Training Corps" Old McGill1914, Volume XVII, p. 195.
- Ibid. p. 155.
- "Ottawa Students at McGill University Obtained Degrees," The Ottawø Journal,May 8, 1914, p. l.
- "C.P.R. Roll of Honor in War"' The Manitoba Free Press, August 18, 1915, p. 10.
- "Officer Is Permitted to Resign from McGill University Contingent' The Ottawa journal, June It, 1914, p. 2.
- Advertisement, The Ottawa Journal, August 14, 1914, p. 11.
- "LietÍ. Alexis Helmer, Ottawa, Is Reported as Killed in Action," The Ottawa Journal, May 5, 19ts, p.2.
- "Bride's Reception" The Ottawa Journal, October 30, 1914, p. 8.
- "Obituary-Dr. John Robertson' The Ottøwa Journal, February 10, 1015, p. 8.
- "Masonic [sic] Grand Lodge," The Ottawa Journal, July 20, 1900, p. 6.
- 'A Good Time at Banquet," The Ottawa Journal, April 25, 1907, p. 5.
- "Lieut. Alexis Helmer, Ottawa, Is Reported as Killed in Action' The Ottawa Journal, May 5, t915, p.2.
- War Diary of the I'r Canadian Artillery Brigade, entry for May 2, 1915, Library and Archives Canada.
- "How Ottawa Officers Got Their Woundsl' The Ottawa Journal, June 10, 1915, p. 7. ("Jack John- sod' information from: "The Rum Jar, the Flying Pig, and the Ypres Express: WWI Slang for Germany Terrifying Munitionsl" by Rebecca Onion, Tåe Vaulthistoryblog,20l4.)
- Memorial Service for R.M.C. Heroes," The Ottawa Journal, June 21,1915.
"Memorial to Late Lieut. Alexis Helmer Unveiled" The Ottawa Journal, October 10, 1916, n.p. Note: the memorial plaque is now at the Dominion-Chalmers United Church at the corner of OConnor and Cooper streets, Ottawa.
37. "Street Fair to Aid in Comforts to Soldiers Opens This Afternoon," The Ottawa Journal, June 28, 1916, p. 7 .
40. Archives - The Ottawa Women's Canadian Club. www.owcc.calarchives.php (Accessed August 27, 2017)
41. Military files of Lyall R. Robertson, Library and Archives Canada (Accessed September 2017). 42. War Diar¡ 50'h Canadian Battalion, entry for September 9, 1917, Library and Archives Canada. 43. Circumstances ofCasualty card for Lyall R. Robertson, Library and Archives Canada.
44. "Lt. Lyall Robertson Falls in Battlej' The Ottawa lournal, Novemb er 5, 1917, p. 14.
45. The Imperial War Graves Commission is now known as the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
46. Comprehensive Report (B) Headstone Personal Inscriptions, Imperial War Graves Commission, n.d.
47. CEF Soldier Detail-VA.D. Nurse Muriel Stuart Robertson, wwwcanadiangreatwarproject.com (Accessed March 18, 2016).
48. Maxime Chouinard. "Voluntary Veil: The Canadian Voluntary Aid Detachment in the First World War," blog post of Curator, Museum of Health Care, https://museumofhealthcare.word-
49. Marriage announcements, The Ottawø Journal, May 20, l9 I 8, p. 5.
50. A search for photographs of all the churches in the Plymouth area led to a match - St. Paul's Church, East Stonehouse.
51. Military Record, Samuel Douglas Robinson, Library and Archives Canada (Accessed September 2017).
52. The Victoria Memorial Museum is now the Canadian Museum of Nature.
53. Queen's Calendar, Applied Science, 1911, p. 96.
54. Canada, Certificates of Military Instruction, 1867 -1932, www.ancestry.ca (Accessed September 2or7).
55. Drawn from notes at www.marmorahistor)'.ca (Accessed August 2017). Note: the DS&RCo. closed in 1961.
56, David Borys, "Crossing the Canal: Combined Arms Operations at the Canal du Nord, September-October 1918, Canadian Military History, Vol. 20, No. 4, Autumn 20ll,pp.23-38.
57. Additional materials in the War Diary pages, 3'd Battalion Canadian Engineers, September 23- 28, 1918, Library and Archives Canada.
58. "Major Robinson Homel' The Ottawø Journal, April 25, 1919, p. 17.
59. 1920 United States Federal Census (Accessed October 2013 and September 2017).
60. "Gen. Helmer, Chief of Musketry Dept. Dies of Pneumonia' The Winnipeg Tribune, February 2, 1920, p, 11.
61. "Street Crowds Bare Heads as Body Passes' The Ottawa Journal, February 5, 1920, p. l.
62. Obituary "Robinson' The Times, Munster Indiana, March 18, 1971, p. 20.
63. Society page, The Times, Munster, Indiana, March 8, 1930, p. 6.
64. "Red Cross Made 2,073 Garments in Work of 19431' The Times, Munster, Indiana, January 14, 1944, p.25.
65. Announcements, , March 6, 1944, p. 8.
66. U.S. World War II Cadet Nursing Corps Card Files, 1942-1948, Ancestry.com (Accessed October 2013).
67. Amelia Hoult & Peter wood, "Golden Bay to Golden Age: cooperative Architecture in New Zealandofthe l940si' SAHANZ 2016 Conference Proceedings' pp' 298-305 (Accessed online August 2017)' Ibid' P. 298.08, Obituary, Robinson, The Times, Munster, Indiana, March l8' l97l'p' 20'
69. "Local úelicopter pilot Killed on Vietnam Mission' The Sheboygan Press, March 22' l97l' p' I'Note: First Lieutenant William David Schlutter was buried in Menominee, Michigan; his name is on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC'
70. Letter to Mary lane "Midge" Forster from Muriel Robins on, 1977. courtesy of Ann Tumser'
71. Jane Wilson, "Growing U"p on Frank St. at the Turn of the Century," The Centretown News' July 27, 1975, p. 9.
73. ,.Men & Women of the World-What Inspired "In Flanders Fields' Vancouver Daily World, June 4, r9t9, p. 4,
74. Menin Gate Memorial-Engraved names, www.greatwar.co.uk (Accessed January 2009)'
Muriel's story could not have been told without the help of many met along the research trail. Muriel and Sam's two daughters have passed away, Mary in 2011 and Joan in 2016. I'm glad Joan was told of her mother's friendship with Lex Helmer; I'm sorry she was unable to draw upon any memories perhaps shared by her mother. My gratitude is offered to Mary Harrison, Doug Rohner, Ann Tumser, and Ann Schlutter Spitzer for their generosity. Thanks as well to Joy Heft, Dr. Sandra Campbell, and Ashley Mendes of the Royal Military College of Canada' Grateful acknowledgement is made to all those who have granted permission to reprint copyrighted and personal material. Every reasonable effort has been made to locate the copyright holders for these images. The author and publisher would be pleased to receive information that would allow them to rectify any omissions in future printings of this article.