Case Book 6 – Sgt Maurice Robinson

11 SERGEANT Maurice ROBINSON,  MID
1st ANZAC Corps Headquarters/ 4th Divisional MMP

 There were in fact three Maurice Robinsons within the 1st AIF, and something like nearly a thousand soldiers and nurses named Robinson who served in Australian forces during the Great War.  Maurice (Maurie) and his brother, Ethelbert (Bert) were both raised in the Wangaratta district (Maurie had been born at Chiltern); they were the sons of Harry and Winifred Robinson from ‘Boralma’ via Springhurst. The photo below shows Harry and Winifred with their three other sons and their daughter, the portrait was taken while both Maurie and Bert were away at the war.

Maurie and Bert were both single when they enlisted in 1915, Maurie was slightly older, he was nearly 25, Bert was close to turning 23, no doubt the pair were inspired by the exploits of the Anzacs on the Gallipoli Peninsula. Maurie described himself as a contractor when he enlisted on 7 July 1915; he was still living and working around Wangaratta.  

 Bert (shown left) didn’t enlist until 5 October 1915 he was actually working as a mounted police constable at Wagga Wagga prior to enlisting; he chose to take his discharge from the police force and returned to Wangaratta to enlist.

Upon enlisting Maurie did most of his training at the Broadmeadows Camp, here he was allotted to the 8th Infantry Brigade Headquarters, most probably straight away becoming a MMP (military mounted policeman)  this is not formally verified.  Maurie sailed with his unit aboard the Ascanius, (shown below) departing Melbourne on 9 November 1915, Bert would not sail for Egypt until January 1916.

Maurie Robinson was formally transferred to the 1st ANZAC Corps Headquarters on 25 March 1916, only days before that unit sailed for the Western Front; Maurie continued to be employed as a MMP.  Maurie’s unit sailed from Alexandria aboard the Transylvania on 29 March, as well as the MMP element of 1st ANZAC Headquarters there were also several detachments of Divisional MMP on board the troopship, the Transylvania arrived at Marseilles in France on 4 April.  

Bert Robinson had in fact beaten his brother in arriving on the Western Front.  Bert had sailed to Egypt as part of the 14th re-enforcements for the 4th Light Horse Regiment, but like a large portion of his draft he had volunteered to serve as a cyclist on the Western Front.  Now part of the 2nd Division Cyclist Company Bert sailed for France on 25 March.

No doubt Maurie and Bert’s paths would have regularly crossed over the next few years as they served on the Western Front.  As a cyclist much of Bert’s time would have been spent carrying out traffic duties and working alongside the MMP and the Divisional traffic men.

 Upon their arrival in France the AIF’s MMP adopted many of the practices of the British Military Police; the British RMP had been on the Western Front for over eighteen months and had honed their skills during that time.  Egypt and Gallipoli had provided some experience to the Australian MMP, but nowhere near enough to prepare them for the Western Front. 

Major John Williams, who was the APM (Assistant Provost Marshal) in charge of the 1st ANZAC MMP and all the Australian Divisional MMP, also studied and adopted some of the French Armies methods of traffic control.

Like the other AIF troops the MMP were able to learn their role in France around the relatively quiet Armentieres sector.  The MMP would be sorely tested in later battles and would suffer their share of casualties as a result of shrapnel as they often manned exposed intersections and positions.  The Australian MMP manned similar posts to their British counter-parts, close to the front straggler posts helped control the movement of men to and from the frontline, further back the posts were known as traffic posts.

The primary tasks for the Australian military police were the same as for rest of the British Army:

  • The detection of crime and the arrest of offenders
  • The maintenance of order and military law
  • Traffic control and assisting the maintenance of march discipline
  • The surveillance and control of all civilians within the area occupied by their formations
  • Custody of prisoners of war
  • Protection of the civilian population from acts of violence by soldiers, and
  • The prevention of contact between soldiers and such ‘undesirable characters’ such as prostitutes, hawkers, and sellers of liquor.

Maurie was one of the first Australian MMP to arrive in France, each of the Australian Divisions had twenty five MMP and presumably at this time 1st ANZAC Headquarters had a similar number.  A weekly report from Major Williams to 1st ANZAC Corps Headquarters, dated 6 May 1916, stated that discipline of those Australians and New Zealanders who had arrived in France was generally poor and was getting worse, principal offences were AWL, drunkenness, disobedience and conduct to the prejudice. 

On 6 June 1916 a detachment of a further 49 MMP under Lieutenant Kensett left Egypt for France.  Upon their arrival in France they were quickly absorbed into 1st ANZAC Corps (both into the Headquarter detachment as well as to bolster the Divisional MMP numbers) the remainder were sent to the AIF Base Depot which was being established at Etaples on the French Coast.  The Etaples Depot would become the distribution point of Australian troops as they arrived in France as the training of the AIF switched from camps in Egypt to camps in England.

Following the report he made Major Williams set about improving the policing of the AIF in both France and Belgium.  Williams is shown below with some of his men, the photo (below) is most probably from around this time in France (not verified).

Photo courtesy Geoff Barr.

Although he had been a military policeman for almost all his time in the AIF, it was not until 16 August 1916 that the various MMP elements serving in France (including Maurie) were formally absorbed into the Anzac Provost Corps.

 The photo (shown left) is of Maurie (l.h.s.) and a fellow MMP in Belgium, the photo is dated 6 August 1916, it can be seen that both men are wearing revolvers and have a revolver strap that crosses their torso similar to an officers Sam Browne, the revolver strap crosses in the opposite direction to that of the Sam Browne.  Neither men are wearing are wearing an armband that would normally be worn when on duty, Maurie is obviously holding the rank of corporal, it would appear that they are on duty (possibly traffic control) and are taking a break, or perhaps waiting for the next batch of vehicles or men.   The other MMP had obviously been a lighthorseman prior to joining the military police as he retains his emu plume from his original unit.

The photo is an unusual one, it doesn’t appear to be taken by an official war photographer, it may have been taken by a fellow MMP.  The photographer was probably fairly discreet in taking the photo, as one of the roles of the military police was to ensure soldiers did not photograph sensitive subjects near the front, it is not unusual to read in the official military police war dairies of cameras being confiscated and the film being checked.

In October 1916 Williams was tasked with commanding the whole corps, with that came promotion to Lieutenant Colonel and a move to Bhurtpore Barracks at Tidworth.   Tidworth had now become the focal point for the AIF’s military police, both for training and policing of the Salisbury camps.

Major William Smith (later Lieutenant Colonel) now took control of the French Section of the Corps; he would hold that appointment for most of the war. Lieutenant Colonel Smith (slouch hat) is shown to the right with Major General John Gellibrand, CB, DSO, he was the 3rd Division’s Commander.                                      

By this stage of the war, October 1916, the Anzac Provost Corps in France numbered 16 officers and 192 men.   A system of rotation was also brought into play between England and France however it appears that if any of the MMP were happy to remain with their unity in France they were not forced to go to England.  Maurie would remain with the 1st ANZAC (later re-designated Australian) Headquarters for all of 1917 and the first half of 1918.  In September 1916 all MMP in France were authorised to carry revolvers in lieu of rifles, but as can be seen by Maurie’s photo the majority appear to have already so armed.

On 10 March 1917 Maurie and Corporal John Kortright were both recommended for citations, their citation (which was identically worded for both) read:
‘For devotion to duty and good services rendered as a Military Policeman throughout.’

Maurie was formally mentioned in dispatch, Kortright was awarded the meritorious service medal (MSM).  John Kortright had served in the Boer War and had actually deserted from the regular Australian Army, the AIF had granted an amnesty to the likes of these men at the start of the ‘Great War’, this allowed Kortright to re-enlist.

In May 1917 the acting APM 1st ANZAC, Captain Watson-Colpitts (filling in as Smith was otherwise tasked) reported that there was unrest amongst the Australian troops (from the 5th Division) at both CAYEUX and VALERY, where rest camps had been established.  Captain Colpitts and Major Smith proceeded at once to ABBEVILLE with a party of MMP to investigate the claims.  It appears that the claims were greatly exaggerated, but in order to prevent any escalation in the situation extra MMP were stationed at both locations (CAYEUX and VALERY).

 Major Smith then continued on to Le Havre to check on the policing arrangements at the Australian Base Depot there.  Originally in France the Australian base depots had been at Etaples, however the lines of transport for the re-enforcement drafts – from Southampton to Etaples – crossed that of the Canadians, whose English depots were near Folkestone and their French depots at Le Havre.  At Folkestone conflicts were common between Australian troops and the Canadian military police.

Consequently in June 1917, the French depots of the two dominions changed places.  The Australian depots were transferred to the valley of Harfluer, just outside Le Havre.  Eventually the number of depots was rationalised – with one for the infantry and pioneers, and the other for divisional, corps and army troops.

At this time the establishment strength for the Australian military police at French Base Depots was 1 officer and 34 men.  The majority of these men, by this time, were based at Le Havre; however a notation indicates that a sergeant and 13 men had remained behind at Etaples, presumably to remain until all Australian troops marched out of the Etaples Depot.  When that task was completed those 13 military policemen themselves became re-enforcements, and were posted where they were most needed. 

The photo (above) shows some of the men from the 1st ANZAC Corps Headquarters, indicating it was probably taken in 1917.  Possibly it may be from early 1917 around the time of the CAYEUX incident as the officer sitting middle front is not Colonel Smith, but may well be Captain Watson-Colpitts (not verified).  To Colpitt’s right is Warrant Officer William Kenny; Kenny had been decorated for his service on Gallipoli as a MMP and had quickly worked his way up through the ranks.  The other three seated MMPs are all sergeants.

Perhaps the standing MMP second from the right end is Corporal Kortright, he is wearing several campaign or bravery ribbons and would appear to be old enough to have served during the Boer War?  It should be note that Maurie is not amongst the group, but it is obvious by the numbers that several of the members  of the detachment were absent at the time of the photo.

 On 21 May 1917 Maurie was temporarily attached for duty with the APM Paris, Maurie then spent two weeks on ‘Special Duty’.  This special duty was to go undercover, posing as normal AIF soldiers, even to the point of posing as absentees (AWL), they followed various leads and snippets of information about the men and were able to trace and arrest several long term offenders.

The photo to the left is described as being taken at the same time as the photo of Maurie and fellow MMP sitting on the step.  The nature of the photo and the soldier in the background indicate it could have in fact been taken earlier in Egypt.  The photo shows that once their armbands were off the military police relaxed in the same way that any soldier would, probably keeping pretty much to themselves for obvious reasons.

On 1 January 1918 the Anzac Provost Corps was formally re-designated as the Australian Provost Corps.  Initially when the corps had formed it was intended that the Australian and New Zealand Police would formally work together within the same corps, however this never formally occurred. However it is apparent that the two forces did work closely together, indeed on Gallipoli Colonel Bowler (NZ Forces) had a mixed force of Australians and New Zealanders as MMP within the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps Headquarters.  Likewise within the ANZAC Mounted Division in Egypt the MMP detachment was mixed. 

Similarly in France the Australian and New Zealand military police worked together at various detachments.  The strength of the Australian Provost Corps in France was by now 12 officers and 238 men.  The men would regularly brush up on their policing skills, in January 1918 Maurie was sent on two weeks instruction at an Army Provost School of Instruction.  The training generally included topics such as;

  • Charge Reports and Evidence,
  • Notebook and Traffic Notes,
  • Revolver Handling,
  • Equitation and Stables, and
  • General smartness and efficiency.

The men received were marked on each area, it should be noted that some of the shooting scores seen by the author (revolvers) were pretty low.

By the time Maurie had rejoined his unit both 1st and 2nd ANZAC Headquarters had amalgamated and become Australian Corps Headquarters.   Maurie continued to serve as a corporal with Australian Corps Headquarters until June 1918.  On 30 June Maurie was detached for duty with the Australian 4th Division, the MMP numbered 25 men and were part of the Headquarter elements.

The detachment was now being led by its APM, Major M. Jarvie; he would remain in command until the end of the war. Major Jarvie is shown to the right from March (?) 1918; next to him is a French interpreter who was attached to the 4th Divisional Headquarters. Maurie served with the 4th Division until well after the armistice, on 1 January 1919 he was promoted to sergeant (temporary) and he would retain that rank until discharge.

In mid May Maurie was sent back to the Le Havre Depot where he worked for the APM Le Havre for a week as he awaited a return to England.  Maurie returned to Bhurtpore Barracks at Tidworth, remaining in England until July 1918 when he was granted a passage back to Australia aboard the Zealandic.  Sergeant Maurice Robinson was discharged from the AIF on 17 October 1919.

Maurie returned to the Springhurst area after the war, where he continued to live and work for the remainder of his life, he found employment on the road gangs within the district.  Maurie never married, in later life he lived in a hut at the rear of a local store run by his brother, Bill.   Maurice Robinson died in the Beechworth Asylum on 2 November 1964.

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The photos in this story come from the author’s collection, unless indicated otherwise.