Alexander Robertson was born in Edinburgh on 12th January 1882, the son of Robert Robertson, formerly Headmaster of Edinburgh Ladies’ College. He attended George Watson’s College, where he won the silver medal in English Literature, and after graduating with First Class Honours in history from the University of Edinburgh in 1904, taught as Assistant Anglais in a lycée in Caen, then as history master at his old school. He went on to Oxford as a Carnegie Scholar and Fellow, and obtained a B.Litt. for his thesis on the life of Sir Robert Moray, later published as a biography.
Robertson took up the post of Lecturer in History at Sheffield University six months before war broke out, then answered the call to duty in September 1914 by volunteering as a private soldier, joining the 12th York and Lancaster Regiment (the ‘Sheffield Pals’). His battalion served in Egypt in 1915 and was then sent to France in March 1916. Ill with jaundice, Robertson spent three weeks in a military hospital in Marseilles before rejoining the battalion, which was on the front line near Albert by June, and was deployed in the opening attack of the Battle of the Somme at the village of Serre on the 1st of July. Robertson, along with many of his comrades, disappeared on that day, and with his comrades, is listed on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing.
All of Alexander Robertson’s poetry was written on active service, with Comrades published in 1916 and Last Poems posthumously. In his letters, his brother Dr Niven Robertson wrote: ‘It was his greatest joy and a great solace to him to express his soul in [the poems], as army life was far from congenial to a man of his character’ and to a friend of one of the comrades killed, ‘If it had not been for the friendship, sterling quality, and culture of his chief comrades in the battalion, life in the army would have been a horror to him’. When in Egypt, as a relief from the work on constructing railways there Robertson studied Italian in moments of free time.
Press notices of Robertson’s first book reproduced in Last Poems speak of ‘scholarly verses’, ‘poems [which] reveal marked delicacy and gravity of thought’ and ‘fine academic restraint of feeling and style’. His poetry was indeed scholarly, with the many cultural references to be expected from a man of his learning, and was also bound by the conventions of the time. David Goldie, in his essay ‘Archipelagic poetry of the First World War’ in The Cambridge Companion to the Poetry of the First World War (CUP, 2013) thinks ‘the shackles of convention’ constrained the poetry of Robertson and some of his peers, and that their ‘attempts to convey the experience of war are derailed by the decorum and circumlocution of the traditions to which their education made them heirs.’ Though they lack powerful immediacy, Robertson’s quiet examinations of the new and awful experiences of war are genuine; ‘Lines Before Going’ is honest in its trepidation and doubt of the final outcome; ‘A Conviction’ is a thoughtful meditation on how those who survive will cope with memories of conflict. He was not above sarcasm, as shown in ‘Let Us Drink’, addressing the hypocrites who will only occasionally remember the war dead:
Yes, I can see you at it, in a room
Well-lit and warm, high-roofed and soft to tread,
Satiate and briefly mindful of the tomb
With its poor victim of Teutonic lead.
‘Thou Shalt Love Thine Enemies’, on the other hand, demonstrates Robertson’s essential decency, as he grants a dead German soldier the dignity of an identity. On reading the letters, cards, soldier’s book and prayer-book (the knowledge of German standard in this group of university volunteers), he writes:
They were not meant for our too curious eyes
Or our imaginations to surmise
From what they tell much that they leave untold.
Strangers and foemen we, yet we behold,
Sad and subdued, thy solace and thy cheer.
Would that such respect for other lives and other cultures had been more widespread.