The last member of the Tank Corps to be killed in the First World War has been identified, reveals The Tank Museum, and he died just days before the Armistice in the very last tank battle of the conflict.
Eric Robinson had also taken part in the very first tank attack on 15 September 1916, and had served on tanks throughout the war, receiving injuries and being awarded the Military Cross and Bar. The Tank Museum and historian Stephen Pope have uncovered the poignant story of the soldier who was aged 26 when he died on 4 November 1918.
Frederick Robinson – known as Eric – was born on 2 October 1892 in Wood Green, London. He trained as an engineer and was working at a the India Rubber, Gutta Percha and Telegraph Works Company based in Silvertown when war broke out.
He quickly joined the Royal Naval Air Service and his engineering background and a keen interest in motorcycles saw him move to the RNAS Armoured Car Division and then the Army’s Motor Machine Gun Service (MMGS) where he was commissioned as an officer. The unit was where many of the first tank crews were recruited from; among them was Eric, who was trained as a tank commander.
He and his crew fought in the first ever tank battle at Flers-Courcelette in France in September 1916 where he was awarded the Military Cross for bravery in command after his crew had to dig out their tank under fire. In the following two months Eric was commanding two tanks that were hit and destroyed before he returned home for Christmas 1916, when he married his sweetheart Elsie Mapley.
In 1917, Eric led three tanks at the Battle of Arras and also fought at Passchendaele. During the German Spring Offensive of 1918 he was wounded, but returned to service and was awarded a Bar to his MC for his efforts during the Battle of Amiens, for moving on foot under heavy shellfire to direct his tanks.
At the final large battle on the Western Front, the Battle of the Sambre, Robinson was in command of a formation of tanks supporting British troops. On 4 November, Robinson died as the tanks were withdrawing, but the exact circumstances of his death remain unknown. He was buried where he fell, but his body was later re-interred at the Highland Cemetery, Le Cateau.
Historian Stephen Pope said: “I think that the lesson of Eric’s death, as with Wilfred Owen and all those who died in November 1918, was that the British Army and its Allies were committed to the defeat of the German Army in the field and bringing the war to an end, whatever losses were required.
“The Armistice was unexpected, as we know from the 1919 plan. It was only the threat of renewed hostilities which forced the German government to sue for peace… Mine may be an unfashionable view but it is only fair to say that the Germans were forced to accept that their wholly unacceptable aggression in 1914 had failed.”
David Willey, curator of The Tank Museum, said: “At the Museum we not only exhibit the tanks and hardware, but also the stories of the people involved. Eric Robinson’s story is sad but not untypical, dying as he did just days before the end of the war.
“Due to his engineering background and interest in motorcycles he was identified as someone who was suitable for the new British weapon; the tank. He was at the very first battle at which tanks took part, and the very last [and] he typified the bravery of these often very young men who were the pioneers of tank warfare.
“A century after the end of the Great War it’s important we don’t just remember the sacrifices of these young men, but also their achievement in winning a war against an oppressive power. You cannot say they died in vain.