2nd Lieutenant, 7th Battalion, North Staffordshire Regiment.
KILLED IN ACTION 25TH FEBRUARY 1917 aged 23.
Robert was born in Belfast in 1894.
In 1911 he was living with his family at Woodstock Road, Belfast.
At this time the family comprised :
Martha, a widow aged 52 born in Belfast in 1859.
William James aged 18 an apprentice in a Tea Business
Robert aged 17, an apprentice in a Boot Business
Thomas aged 16, a Clerk
And two boarders – Barbara Wilson aged 16 and Mary Ann Brown, a relative aged 42.
His father was the late Robert McDowell of Woodstock Road, Belfast.
At some stage not identified, Robert joined the British Army and received a commission into the North Staffordshire Regiment as a 2nd Lieutenant.
In that capacity, he embarked for Mesopotamia at Devonport on the 7th May 1916, arriving in Basrah on the 4th of July.
He finally joined his battalion in the field on the 28th of that month.
On the 11th of January 1917 he assumed command of ‘C’ Company along with Captain Robinson.
On the 25th of January 1917 he was wounded in action. On this date, his battalion took part in an assault on the first Turkish Line on the West bank of the Hai. After an intense bombardment, the assault commenced at 9.45am in four waves. This assault was partially successful with little difficulty being met by the right-hand companies whilst those on the left were held up by machine guns. At 11.00am the enemy counter-attacked using bombers and although A Company were almost isolated and the battalion on the right hand of the North Staffs gave way, B and C Companies held their ground for some considerable time until the Royal Warwicks came up and with their support, the line was regained. From that point, with only one officer, 2nd Lieut McDowell left, A,B and C Companies held what ground they could until overwhelmed by enemy bombers they finally evacuated the line and fell back to the position from which the assault had been delivered. Their casualties were quite severe with eight officers being killed, wounded or missing. After many bodies had been recovered the final tally was 55 men killed, 163 wounded and 46 missing.
For his gallantry in this action, Robert was awarded the Military Cross (LG 17.3.17. and 26.5.17. The commanding officer of the battalion, Lieutenant Colonel Henderson was killed in action and awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross.
The award of Robert’s Military Cross was recorded in the Order of the Day No 51 (Mespot Exp Force – 8.2.1917.
For conspicuous gallantry in action. He led his company in the assault, and after all the remaining officers of the battalion had become casualties, he assumed command of the whole line. He reorganized his men and maintained his position in spite of strong enemy counter-attack.
Robert had been admitted to Basrah General Hospital on the 28th of January being discharged to convalescence on the 3rd of February.
On the 19th of that month he rejoined his battalion.
He was killed in action on the 25th of February, one month to the day from the action which had resulted in the award of his Military Cross.
On the 24th of February, along with others, the battalion crossed the River Tigris and bivouacked for the night. Then, at 5.00am the following day, the 13th Division commenced the pursuit of the enemy. After the 38th Brigade had first engaged the Turks at approximately 1.30pm, the 13th was ordered to advance with the North Staffs on the left.
After a rapid advance over three miles the objective was sighted and the Turks opened fire at 1500 yards. Bayonets were fixed as the Brigade charged over the last 50 yards causing the enemy to retire before they reached the nullah.
The companies re-organised but whilst the nullah was being consolidated came the cry ‘ Over the top North Staffords!’ and the battalion immediately leapt the parapet and advanced. After an advance of 1000 yards of very rough ground the enemy’s front trenches were reached and taken at the point of the bayonet. Immediately, the second line of trenches was rushed and severe fighting took place. At the same time a heavy counter-attack developed on the battalion’s left flank and the Turks, urged on by their officers (who exposed themselves fearlessly) pressed the attack to within 50 yards of the left of the battalion. The Turks’ casualties were very heavy but at this critical moment large numbers of Turks on the right were beginning to surrender, ammunition was giving out and the artillery ceased their barrage fire on account of he fading light.
The Turks however wavered at this point and commenced to fall back but not before 300 prisoners including 5 officers had been taken.
The battalion held on until darkness and then fell back on the first position.
After re-organisation it was found that four officers, including 2nd Lieut McDowell MC had been killed and two wounded. In the other ranks, 27 men had been killed, 81 wounded and there were 34 men missing.
His brother, William, back in Belfast first received a telegram stating – ‘Deeply regret to inform you that 2/Lt R McDowell North Staffordshire Regiment has been killed in action date not stated. The Army Council express their sympathy’
Quickly followed by a second stating – ‘The King and Queen deeply regret the loss you and the Army have sustained by the death of your brother in the service of his country – their Majesties truly sympathise with you in your sorrow.(signed) Keeper of the Privy Purse’
Later, in a letter dated March 15th 1917, William was informed that Robert, previously reported killed in action date unknown now reported killed in action February 25th.
Robert’s death and the reports of the award of his Military Cross were well publicized in the
From the Belfast newspaper, The Ulster Service News :
Dated 12th March 1917.
ULSTER MILITARY NEWS – BELFAST OFFICER KILLED…Sec-Lieut R. M”Dowell, North Staffordshire Regiment, 17 Jocelyn Gardens, Belfast…
OFFICERS IN THE CASUALTIES
Second-Lieut Robert M’Dowell, North Staffordshire Regiment, killed in action, resided with relatives in Jocelyn Gardens, Belfast. He had been for ten years in he service of Messrs Bradley and Robb, boot and shoe merchants, 56 Victoria Street, Belfast when he joined the Army. He was a member of the Queen’s University OTC and received his commission on 26th March 1915. Deceased was a brother of Mr W. M’Dowell of the office staff of Messrs H. and B. Musgrave Ltd. He was a promising officer and the news of his death, telegraphed by the War Office has been a great blow to his relatives.
Dated 18th March 1917.
‘ULSTER SERVICE NEWS – POSTHUMOUS MILITARY CROSS – GALLANT CITY LIEUTENANT (Two local officers wounded)
A list od awards for conspicuous gallantry in Mesopotamia which appeared in last evening’s London Gazette contains the name of a brave young Belfast Officer, the late Second-Lieut Robert M’Dowell whose death in action was reported in our issue of last Monday. A pathetic coincidence is that the official casualty lists issued during the weekend include his name under the sad heading – ‘Killed in Action – Second-Lieut M’Dowell who resided with relatives at 17 Jocelyn Gardens, Belfast was the son of the late Mr Robert M’Dowell who was for many years a foreman in the employ of the City Corporation.
He was one of three brothers, two of whom joined the Army and his commission was received through Queen’s University OTC was dated 26th March 1915. Before temporarily taking up a Military Career deceased was in the service of Messrs Bradley and Robb, boot and shoe warehousemen , 56 Victoria Street. Second-Lieut M’Dowell was identified with some of the many sided activities of McQuiston Memorial Presbyterian Church. He was for five years secretary of the Junior Department of the Sunday school. He passed through the Boys Brigade and the Bible Class and also associated himself with the social life of the church. A first class athlete he was a member of the McQuiston Cricket eleven which won the Boys Brigade Shield on two successive seasons. He was a fine tennis player and an ideal companion and his death has removed another of that band of heroes who heard the call of King and country and paid down their lives in far off Mesopotamia. The Gazette states that the act of gallantry for which the Military Cross was awarded to Second-Lieutenant M’Dowell (will be_ published next month.
Dated 27th April 1917.
BRAVERY IN THE RANKS
Last night’s London Gazette announced that his Majesty the King has been graciously pleased to approve of the undermentioned awards for gallantry and devotion to duty in the field.
SECOND-LIEUT ROBERT M’DOWELL, North Staffordshire Regiment is awarded the Military Cross.
For conspicuous gallantry in action. He led his company in the assault and after all the remaining officers in the battalion had become casualties he assumed command of the whole line. He reorganized his men and maintained his position in spite of a strong enemy counter-attack.
This officer who has since been killed in action was the son of the late Mr Robert M’Dowell, Woodstock Roadm Belfast and before joining the Army resided with his AUNT, Miss Brown, 17 Jocelyn Gardens. He was a nephew of Mr Samuel S. Brown, Assistant Postmaster of Belfast.
Robert’s younger brother, Thomas also served – as Corporal 119828, 26th Battery, Royal Field Artillery.