Captain Robert Sterling

 

 

Robert Sterling was born on 11 September 1891 at Tandragee, Banbridge,  County Armagh, the first of three children of rent office clerk (later town clerk and estate agent) Samuel Sterling and his wife Ann Jane (nee McLoughlin). He was educated at Tandragee National School. His mother died when Robert was just six years old and nine months later his father married Sarah Atkinson. By 1911 he was living at Tandragee with his father and step-mother, a brother, half brother, three half sisters and his grandfather, and working as a newspaper reporter.

Sterling enlisted in the North Irish Horse at Newry on 30 April 1913 (No.844 – later Corps of Hussars No.71129). He embarked for France with C Squadron on 20 August 1914, seeing action in the retreat from Mons and advance to the Aisne. He was promoted to lance corporal on 4 October and corporal on 16 December.

Sterling wrote a number of letters home from France which were published in local newspapers. Some are shown below: 

OCTOBER 1914

I am in the best of health and still at the front.  We have been under fire on several occasions but have come out lucky.  We have only lost a few men.

OCTOBER 1914

Until recently we have been hard at it, but now (15th October) we are having a comparatively easy and comfortable time, doing General’s mounted escort.

The North Irish Horse have not been out here just to see the country. We landed at Le Havre over two months ago, and after a couple of days rest entrained to St. Quentin, arriving just in time to join the great retirement of the British forces after the terrible battle at Mons. We came right back almost to Paris, and I can tell you we got it tight. We were on the move continually – sometimes night and day, and there were times we could hardly get out of the saddle. We were mostly engaged on flanking patrols and outposts, and we had several brushes with Uhlan scouting parties. On one occasion we had our Cossack posts put out near a small deserted village, whilst the remainder of the troop, with our Officer (Captain Richardson) were in a yard in the village feeding our horses. Whilst there, the sentry informed us that he had seen a German looking round the corner at the bottom of the village street.

It was not long until we had the saddles tightened up, and out we dashed in the direction the German had been seen. When we got round the corner we saw seven or eight Germans galloping away as fast as they could. We gave hot chase, firing after them, but as it is impossible to take aim sitting on a galloping horse, we only succeeded in killing one of them. The others had too much of a start, and scattered in different directions. There were six of us, and had they turned on us with their lances they might have done damage. However, it is characteristic of the Uhlans to run when fired upon; they are the greatest cowards I have ever come across. The hottest time we have had yet was during the Germans’ retirement from the Marne; they almost pinned us and a crowd of the Lancers at a small village, and we had to gallop out of it as hard as we could along a road bordered with trees.

The bullets were cutting the leaves of the trees all around us, and several of our horses were hit. A chap who was in front of me had his horse shot dead under him, but he succeeded in catching a horse belonging to a Lancer who was killed, and on it he got clear. When we got off the road into the open fields they got the big guns to play upon us, and the shells tore up the earth all around. However, we got safely to cover; but it was a terrible experience and one I never wish to have again. It was a miracle we did not lose a lot of men. I don’t know whether it has been mentioned in the papers or not about the gallant action of one of our men – a corporal named James White, from Lisbellaw, Co. Fermanagh.

He and a trooper, also named White (from Co. Monaghan) were out on a reconnoitring patrol one afternoon when they were fired on by a party of Germans secreted in the fringe of a small plantation. Both men were wounded and Trooper White’s horse was shot dead. Although suffering great agony, and whilst still under fire, Corporal White succeeded in getting his comrade up behind him on his own horse, and both got away from further danger. White deserves every credit for his heroic action. We have been at the battle of the Marne and the Aisne, in fact we have been quite close to all the big fighting, and we have seen sights we will never forget. I came across the Cornwalls, and I was speaking to some of the fellows who were stationed in Newry.

The D.C.L.I. have suffered heavily. I saw a good many of the regiment lying dead and wounded, and I also saw Colonel Turner brought down to hospital wounded. We lost one of our own officers a few days ago – Lieut. S.B. Combe. He was out reconnoitring, and never returned. He is now posted amongst the missing. We all hope the worst has not happened, as Mr. Combe was very popular throughout the whole squadron.

NOVEMBER 1914

I am still well, and, to a certain extent, contented and happy. We are having a fairly easy time now, and have not much dangerous work to do. The weather, however, is very severe. We have had a heavy fall of snow, accompanied by frost, and the ground is white and hard. Exercise with our horses is pleasant and exhilarating these mornings, especially when we have some good cross-country rund over ditches and hedges. It is just like hunting on a frosty day at home. I have not seen a German - except prisoners - for quite a long time, and I don't care if I never see any more. We got enough after we came out here to do us for the remainder of our lives. An ambulance train leaves here every day with wounded, and on it there are a lot of lady nurses. There are also several hospitals in this town to which English nurses are attached. I came across a number of the Royal Irish Rifles the other day, and I was speaking to several fellows belonging to Newry. They are going up to the trenches in the course of a short time.

FEBRUARY 1915

Just a line to let you know I am still on the active list – well and fit. I got back safely after a rough bit of tossing about, and have quite settled down again to this rough and tumble existence. The war seems as far off a termination as ever, and I notice that the Germans are now giving a bit of trouble on the sea. However, they are bound to get a thorough whipping sooner or later, and I for one hope it will be soon.

MARCH 1915

The fellows out here are as eager to know all that is going on in the sporting world as if there was no such thing as a war on at all, and football and racing results are looked up with keen interest when the papers come in. Some of us are having a franc or two on the Lincoln, and what we want to know is not when the war will be over, but what will win!

Yesterday we celebrated St. Patrick’s Day in an enthusiastic manner. We have a lot of the Leinsters and Irish Rifles here at present, and the little trefoil plant was much in evidence, stuck jauntily in the “bhoys” caps. It was quite amusing to see several Belgium and French soldiers sporting it as well. At night we had an excellent concert, at which songs of the Green Isle were the chief items on the bill. A Belgium soldier also favoured us with a couple of tunes with characteristic vivacity, and although we did not quite understand what it was all about, we enjoyed his singing immensely. The hearty singing of “Auld Lang Syne” and the National Anthem concluded a good night’s entertainment.

This was in happy contrast to the events of a couple of days previously, when I witnessed a dastardly out rage in the town in which I am presently located by two German airmen, who, taking advantage of the cloudy nature of the sky, successfully accomplished a bomb-dropping expedition, as the result of which ten people – nearly all civilians – were killed and many seriously wounded. It was market day, and the town was full of people. There was also the usual bustle and activity connected with the military occupation of the place, and it is rather remarkable, considering the number of bombs which were dropped, that the loss of life and damage to property was not much greater.

The Taubes made their first appearance early in the afternoon, and dropped several bombs in quick succession, but only one caused loss of life. This one fell in the market place, killing seven civilians, two Belgium soldiers, and one English soldier. Several of the victims were literally blown to pieces, and the mangled bodies presented indeed a horrible sight. The other bombs injured a number of people, and did considerable damage to the houses within the areas where they fell. Later in the afternoon a second bombardment from the air took place, but fortunately this time without loss of life. However, a vast amount of damage – including the shattering of some of the beautiful stained windows of the magnificent Cathedral and the blowing up of a couple of motor ambulances - was accomplished. At least two of the bombs dropped on this occasion did not explode; they were subsequently dug out and carried off as unique, though dangerous, “souvenirs”.

Needless to say, the bombardment caused considerable excitement whilst it lasted, but it was not long until things quietened down again and the life of the town resumed its normal aspect. The people out here are so accustomed to the horrors of warfare now, that an occurrence such as this has but only a passing effect. Despite the efforts of our aircraft and machine guns, it was quite an easy matter, owing to the cloudy sky, for the enemy’s machines to safely regain their own lines.

Two days later the remains of the ten victims were interred in the public cemetery amidst scenes of a very impressive character. The funeral procession was certainly a most imposing and unique one, and many thousands of people – civilians and soldiers – thronged the streets along which it passed. The town band – every member of which was attired in a magnificent uniform of scarlet and blue, and wearing a plumed helmet – a party of Gendarmes with drawn sabres, and a standard bearer with the Belgian flag heavily draped headed the cortege.

Just in front of the long succession of coffins walked a high prelate of the Roman Catholic Church, accompanied by several priests and alter boys. The coffin containing the remains of the British soldier was covered with the Union Jack, the emblem of the country for which he had died. Six lads in khaki reverently bore the body of their late comrade-in-arms to their last resting place in a foreign land, whilst Belgian and French soldiers carried the other coffins, which were covered with the national colours.

On each side of the long procession marched detachments of British, French and Belgian troops – the English carrying their arms reversed – and as the vast cortege passed along the streets of the little Belgian town, the scene was one which will not soon be forgotten by those who witnessed it. The mournful funeral march played by the band, the solemn chanting of the clergy, the slow, measured tread of the soldiers to the beat of the muffled drums, and the deep booming of the big guns in the distance made a lasting impression upon my mind.

The entire proceedings were of a truly cosmopolitan nature, three nations being represented in this demonstration in honour of those who had fallen victims to the aerial exponents of German “Kulture”. In the procession there marched side by side high placed military authorities from the three armies, the Maire of the town, important civic dignitaries, soldiers and Gendarmes of various ranks, and a big representation of the local population.

Weeping and broken-hearted, the relatives of the deceased followed the remains of their dear ones to the cemetery, and they presented a picture pitiable in the extreme. Several of those who had been injured by the bombs were present, their bandages indicating how narrow their escapes had been. In the Cathedral and in the cemetery the scenes were equally impressive, and as the brown earth was filled in over the coffins many of us came away with a deeper realisation of the awful tragedy of warfare than probably we ever had before. Whilst the procession and interment was in progress two British aeroplanes kept sentinel overhead to prevent any possibility of a repetition of the outrage which had hurried so many innocent people into eternity.

JANUARY 1916

To begin with, we had an excellent time, and we enjoyed ourselves immensely. C Squadron is very fortunate in having as its commanding officer a well-known Ulsterman —Major Holt Waring, of Waringstown—and no officer was ever more beloved by his men than he. With characteristic thoughtfulness and kindness he and the other officers of the squadron arranged that we should have a real jolly Christmas, and no effort was spared to the accomplishment of that end. It was an open secret amongst the men that a number of interesting fowl had been secured after an industrious reconnaissance of the country for miles around, and other luxuries —rarely to be found on active service—were known to have arrived, and consequently for days before the big event we were all on the tip-toe of expectation. We had just come back from a visit to the trenches, where we had been putting up barbed wire entanglements outside the front line—a rather difficult and dangerous task and, like the village blacksmith, we were happy in the knowledge of having 'something attempted, something done,' and were determined to have a good time. Late on Christmas Eve a small party--all good vocalists--assembled outside the chateau where the officers were quartered and sang some of the good old carols learnt in childhood. The voices floated very sweetly through the still night air, and brought back pleasant memories of Christmases spent under very different circumstances. The C.O. made a short speech from the steps of the chateau, and wished all the boys as happy a time as possible under the conditions. The reveille comes very early these dark mornings. It is not a nice call, and I never came across a soldier yet who welcomed it, particularly in the winter time, but on Saturday morning it was not so annoying. It was Christmas, and we were going to have a free day and a good time. The necessary duties of the morning over, we assembled in a large hut beside our billet, where divine service was conducted by the headquarters chaplain, who, by the way, is an Irishman. The service was very impressive, and the appropriate hymns were sung with that zest and enthusiasm which always characterises an assembly of soldiers the world over. Our horses having been attended to, we waited with ill-concealed impatience for dinner time, and, any, what a cheer went up when the 'cook-house' call sounded! It certainly was a spread worthy of the occasion, and it goes without saying that 'ample justice was done to the good things provided,' to quote a phrase dear to the heart of the juvenile reporter. In fact, although fairly comprehensive, it hardly conveys a correct idea to the average civilian as to the rate at which the turkeys, geese, and plum pudding vanished. The smile of satisfaction and contentment which gradually stole over the features of the Ulster troopers was a testimonial to the excellence of the fare. While dinner was in progress Major Waring looked in to see that the boys were enjoying themselves, and he was greeted with vociferous cheers. His health was drunk with all heartiness, and he responded in a neat speech, expressing the hope that that would be the last Christmas they would have to spend amid the mud and misery of Flanders. Every one of us endorses that sentiment, and we often hum that popular song which every Tommy out here has got the I’lt of, 'I want to go home.' Indeed, the other night when we were out wiring and when the bullets and 'whiz-bangs' were coming across, I heard one fellow beside me whispering quietly, 'Oh, my, I don't wane to die. I want to go home.' The dinner was an all-round success, and we expressed our thanks and appreciation to our officer in loud cheers. At night we had a splendid concert, at which such a collection of songs as I never heard at one sitting was rattled off in great style. We all seemed to have succeeded in forgetting for the time being the discomforts and perils of a soldier's life, and we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. The Christmas of 1915 will be a red-letter day in the history of our squadron, and I shall always look back on it with pleasure.

On 3 March 1917 Sterling applied for a commission in the cavalry. He left France on 23 April and after a period of leave reported for duty at No.2 Cavalry Cadet Squadron, Kildare, on 13 July. He was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant on 15 December 1917 and posted to the 2nd Reserve Cavalry Regiment.

Soon after, Sterling was posted to the 7th (Queen's Own) Hussars, which was then based in Mesopotamia. He embarked at Southampton on 14 April 1918, arriving at Basra a month later. Following a brief illness at Baghdad he joined the 7th Hussars on 28 June. However less than a month later he proceeded to India for "special duty". When news reached India of the Armistice on 11 November 1918 Sterling noted in his diary that:

... when the welcome news reached us, I naturally anticipated celebrations of some sort, but no! The news seemed to be received with indifference & one would have imagined India had had nothing to do with the war at all. In the Wheeler Club, more interest appeared to be taken in the Meerut Races than in the cessation of hostilities! The war hadn’t bothered them much evidently!

In December 1918 he returned to Mesopotamia where he rejoined his regiment at Baghdad. On 29 March 1919 he volunteered to serve in the Army of Occupation. He was promoted to lieutenant on 15 June and two months later was appointed commandant of the 3rd Prisoner of War Labour Camp at Baghdad, with the rank of temporary captain.

On 10 July 1920 he proceeded to Diwaniayeh to assume duties of railway transport officer at the railhead there, "on loan owing to the present military situation". At the end of 1920 Sterling left Mesopotamia and returned to the UK, arriving at Southampton on 2 March 1921. He was demobilised and relinquished his commission the following day.

Sterling returned to work as a journalist. He married Ellen Lennox Bell at Belfast on 26 September 1922. He died on 6 June 1939. Two of the many obituaries published are recorded below.

The Belfast News-Letter, 7 June 1939

We deeply regret to announce the death of Captain Robert Sterling, chief reporter of the "Belfast News-Letter," which occurred at his residence, Malavore, Cooldarragh Park, last night.
Captain Sterling, who was a son of the late Mr. Samuel Sterling, Town Clerk of Tandragee and brother of the present Town Clerk, Mr. Joseph Sterling, began his journalistic career on the "Portadown Express," and afterwards went to Newry, where for some years he was editor of the "Newry Telegraph."

In 1914 he went to France with the North Irish Horse ... and served in France and Belgium until December, 1917, when he came home to take up a commission in the 2nd Reserve Cavalry Regiment (Hussars). In April, 1918, he was posted to the 7th Queen's Own Hussars, and served with this unit in Mesopotamia – with the exception of a short spell with the 21st Lancers on the North-West frontier of India – until 1919.

After returning from India he received his captaincy and was engaged in the operations against the rebellious Arabs in 1920. He was Commandant of No. 3 Prisoners of War Camp at Hinaidi, Baghdad, for a year and later R.T.O. at Diwaniyiah and Hillah, being Administrative Commandant at the latter place when he was demobilised.

Captain Sterling joined the "Belfast News-Letter" reporting staff in 1921, and all his work was carried out in a most capable manner. He enjoyed the confidence of the directors of this newspaper and the esteem of his colleagues in journalism, who elected him chairman of the Ulster District of the Institute of Journalists in 1926. When Mr. Frank Johnston was appointed to be London Editor in 1928, Captain Sterling succeeded him as chief reporter, a post which called forth all his powers of initiative and organising ability.

Eighteen months ago he had a severe illness and though he recovered and was able to resume duty, his strength was impaired. Some six weeks ago the trouble recurred and he sank gradually.

Captain Sterling belonged to the Methodist Church. He had been a member of Press Masonic Lodge, No. 432, for many years, and was a member of the committee of the Ulster District of the Institute of Journalists, and a member of the local committee of the Press Fund.

He is survived by his wife – a daughter of the late Mr. Walter Bell, of Magherafelt, and Mrs. Bell, of 22, Brookvale Avenue, Belfast – and a son, aged 14 years.

AN APPRECIATION
(By a Colleague)

Bob Sterling was an outstanding figure in Ulster journalism and the sense of loss that his colleagues feel will be shared by the whole profession. Strong of frame, vigorous of mind, he prided himself on his fitness, and until the spring of 1938 had not known a day's illness. To his colleagues it seemed that of all men he stood the best chance of passing the allotted span before death's cold finger would touch him.

On a night in January, 1938, he was walking home when he was struck down by illness as swiftly and surely as if he had been bludgeoned. To a less robust man the blow would have been fatal at once but he fought doggedly and after three months' treatment was able to return to duty.

Some six weeks ago he had another attack.Grave complications occurred, treatment proved unavailing, and we were told that there was no hope of his recovery.

He realised even more clearly than we did that he was doomed. It was a hard blow. He was in his prime; not yet 48 years of age. Life was sweet to him. He had everything that men who have outgrown the flush of youthful ambition count as worth while; an exceptionally happy home life, congenial work, reasonable security of a modest competence. He was to abandon these things and embark on the greatest adventure of all. Yet he did not complain or flinch. With the courage that had marked his whole career he set his affairs in order and waited calmly for the end. He was not a man who paraded his religious beliefs but we who knew him intimately were aware that he had a firm grasp of eternal verities, an abiding and simple faith. These were the things that sustained him in the darkest hours and kept his mind serene and cheerful right to the end.

Courage, kindliness and loyalty were Bob Sterling's chief characteristics. There was nothing mean of shoddy in his composition. He had seen life in many lands, he had read widely and with understanding, and he had a fine sense of literary style. As a chief reporter he had organising ability, he had an almost uncanny "news-sense," and he had great skill and enthusiasm. Above all he was just, generous and tolerant to a fault. He won and retained the warm affection of his colleagues. Now "he is dead and past the bitter fret." We mourn for him. He will not be forgotten. Our hearts are enriched by enduring memory of a fine character and firm friend.

The Portadown Times, 18 June 1939

The passing last week of Captain Robert Sterling has evoked personal memories. Bob Sterling was not a captain when I knew him first, but one of the most lovable of colleagues, and in all the vicissitudes that have taken place since we first met – over 28 years ago – he always remained a friend. At that time he was Editor of the "Newry Telegraph," but the reins were held with such gentle – albeit with such firm – hands that one felt a pride in working for him and with him. The Newry Press was in those days "a band of brothers." Some have passed on – Captain Sterling and James A. Bell – while the others, with one exception, are scattered hither and thither. That one, the popular Jack Gracey, still remains in Newry, the most loved and respected of all who gathered at Newry press tables in the days before the war. But one and all will remember Bob Sterling as a genial, kindly comrade; an able and gifted journalist, the possessor of a virile and trenchant pen. His memory will for ever be green in many hearts.

 

Captain Sterling's diary from his period in the Middle East is held in the Public Records Officer of Northern Ireland. 

 

 

The second image of Sterling is from the Larne Times of March 1915, kindly provided by Nigel Henderson, Researcher at History Hub Ulster (www.greatwarbelfastclippings.com). The first image is from his diary recording his time on the Mesopotamian front held by the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland.