I have to assume that Robert John Waters Ross was a victim of faulty workmanship rather than his own lack of better judgement. Standing in a small boat, mid canal in northern France, I’d like to think his final thought was that what he had just done was still a good idea.
Robert was the son of Alexander and Rosanna Elizabeth Ross (Rosanna was born Waters which explains Robert’s second middle name) a Scottish couple who married in Lambeth, London in 1876 before moving to Walton on Thames sometime before 1881.
Alexander started his working life as a ploughman but gradually advanced his career to that of a domestic gardener, settled down with Rosanna by the Thames and had six kids. They lived on Cottimore Lane in The Lodge, which sounds very grand but was probably the gardener’s cottage for a larger property.
By 1911, Alexander described himself as a Landscape Gardener and was, presumably, doing quite well for himself. Meanwhile, fifth child Robert, was in the army, a private in the Gordon highlanders, and, it seems, enjoying himself immensely. He had enlisted in 1904 while working as a clerk for a gas company preferring the outdoors life rather than sitting at a desk.
In 1911 he was at the Goojerat Barracks in Colchester and had made Corporal. The barracks were relatively new, having been built between 1900 and 1902 although the armys ‘occupation’ of Colchester dated back to the late 17th century.
When the Great War started, Robert and his regiment headed off to France almost from the beginning. His own adventures started on 26 August 1914 when he found himself separated from his battalion near the town of Caudry in Northern France.
Unable to rejoin his mates, he headed off for the coast and managed to hitch a ride on a boat heading for Folkestone. Once back on British soil, he contacted the authorities and was happily reunitied with his fellow troops. I can only assume there was a bit of drinking and cheering when he returned.
But it wasn’t all fun and frolics as Robert was sent back to France where, in December 1915, on the field of battle, he re-engaged with the army, signing on for 21 years. I guess he really must have enjoyed the Army Life, even though he was wounded the previous September and, presumably, had a bit of a break from war. It clearly didn’t do him any harm as he was promoted to the Regimental Sergeant Major in March 1916.
A lot of Robert’s life is told in his surviving War Service Record, part of which involves a Court of Inquiry held shortly after his death.
The Court was told by a number of witnesses that Robert was standing on a boat in a canal. He put a hand in his trouser pocket and withdrew a hand grenade which he’d somehow obtained from the stores earlier that day. This was an illegal act which the Court intended to investigate later.
Robert had had the idea that this was an excellent way to fish. He pulled the pin and threw the grenade into the water but was disappointed with the amount of dead fish floating on the surface and reached into his other pocket for a second grenade.
I’m sure the bank of the canal was loud with wooping and yahooing as he prepared to launch his second bomb. However, because of some fault in the mechanism, the grenade exploded a bit prematurely, blowing Roberts hand completely off. He subsequently died from loss of blood or drowning or just embarrassment – the report doesn’t say which.
So Robert’s war ended by his own hand (if you forgive the pun) and not exactly covered in glory. He died on 23 June 1916 aged 30 and, officially, was Killed in Action.