ON August 7, 1914, just three days after the outbreak of war, 100 khaki-clad men of the Accrington Corps of the St John Ambulance Brigade answered the country’s call.

Among the ranks marching from the drill hall at Bull Bridge to the railway station, along streets packed with cheering crowds, was 38-year-old Robert Slattery, who had already seen service in the Boer War.

An inspector on the trams in Accrington, he was married to Elizabeth, nee Pickup and they had a daughter, Bessie, born in 1911.

They lived in Brunswick Terrace, Accrington, along with his elder brother William, who was married to Elizabeth’s sister Esther.

In 1914, the St John Ambulance Brigade formed a key element in the British Army’s reserve forces and it was understood that in the event of war, its members would be mobilised and take the place of regular staff of the Royal Army Medical Corps at military hospitals throughout the country.

The men from Accrington were on their way to Netley Hospital in Southampton, where they would serve for six months, and as the train pulled out of the station there was much waving of arms and hats and hankies from the carriage windows.

As the train got up speed, there was a general cheer, to give the men a hearty send off, although there were sorrowful faces among the womenfolk and many tears.

Their six months’ service came to an end on February 6, 1915 and a few, including Arnold Bassinder, a 21-year-old labourer at a print works, accepted a discharge in order to re-enlist a few days later in the Accrington and Burnley Howitzer brigades.

There were close to 50, however, who chose to remain with the RAMC and saw service overseas, including Robert, though his service record had advised that he not be posted abroad because of his age.

Robert was posted to Egypt in 1916, where he was promoted several times.

His unit was the 12 (Egyptian) Stationary Hospital and during his service he was mentioned in dispatches and recommended on four occasions for the Distinguished Conduct Medal.

This account tells of one of his acts of bravery: “We were in the reserve trenches and the Turks started shelling us about 7am and kept it up the whole day long.

“Although they fired about 200 shells, casualties were only three wounded.

“At 3pm, however, a cart drawn by six horses was passing our trenches when a shell knocked over the leading horse; the drivers immediately went for cover and the Turks started to shell the cart and animals for all they were worth.

“They killed two more horses and as this was going on, Lance Corporal Slattery and Private Twomey left the trenches to release the two surviving horses, jumped on their backs and, amid a hail of shells, galloped them out of danger, amid the cheers of their comrades and, by a miracle, escaped being hit.

“I recommend Slattery for the DCM and that he be promoted to sergeant at once.”

As he served his country, his wife did her share in the war effort, continuing her support of the Accrington corps and instructing countless recruits in first aid, while also working as a volunteer at Baxenden Military Hospital and at Elmfield Hall.

It is understood that Robert stayed in the Middle East after 1918, working in a Russian and then a prisoner of war hospital.

He returned home in 1920 and went back to work on the trams, but he died at home in 1921, aged just 46, from complications of the malaria he had contracted abroad.

He is commemorated on the Accrington St John Ambulance Corps’ roll of honour.

  • Maureen Noonan, of Baxenden, has researched Robert’s life and service, as he was a distant cousin and the son of her great, great, great uncle.