Come on the Dubs
Monday 23rd October 1916 had been yet another brutal and bloody for the Dublin Fusiliers as they assaulted the German positions at the village of Les Boeufs in northern France. Bloody bayonet charges towards the German held positions had seen hundreds of the Regiment cut down. Entrenched enemy machine guns and gun pits raked the attackers with withering fire every time they attempted to storm the position causing huge casualties. Any gains were immediately subject to ferocious German counter attacks. With all of the officers dead, the attack began to falter. Springburn man Robert Downie could see the desperate situation he and his comrades were in. He decided that he would act and stood in full view of the enemy and roared to the mostly Irish soldiers around him, ‘Come on the Dubs!’ and charged towards the enemy position. The exhausted soldiers rallied to him and followed him into a hail of fire. This time they succeeded in overwhelming the German defences and although wounded, Downie took one of the machine guns which had caused such misery to his comrades. The brutality of the war on the western front is demonstrated in a report by one of Downie’s senior officers of what went on during that bloody day…
‘We had one big battle and simply went for the Hun. The Fusiliers saw red and simply got at him with the bayonet. The Germans fought like beasts at bay, actual hand to hand fighting. I gave orders that no prisoners were to be taken ... in case of a counter attack and it takes too many men away to send escorts to the rear with them ... so you can imagine what happened with the bayonet.'
Despite being awarded a Victoria Cross for his courage by the King himself, Robert Downie never spoke of the events of that bloody day again. When asked what he received his medals for this modest man would reply with a smile, ‘I shot the cook.’ Upon his return to Glasgow, hundreds were waiting at Central Station and carried him from the station shoulder high but there was no 'land fit for heroes for many returning from the war. His street in the poor working class surroundings of Springburn in north Glasgow was covered in flags and bunting and he was welcome home in grand manner but like many he had to pick up the threads of life after the war. His courage was celebrated by all who knew him but at heart Robert was a modest man who disliked the fuss made about his war record. He had over the course of World War one been wounded on five occasions and suffered the effects of gas on another. As well as winning his country’s highest award for valour, the V.C, he was also awarded the Military Medal, the Russian Order of St George and was mentioned in despatches on two occasions. Whatever our modern eyes make of the slaughter or World War One, there is no doubting that Robert Downie, the modest man from Springburn, was a man of upmost courage.
Robert was given a civic reception in Springburn hall as well as being presented with a gold watch from his former school, St Aloysius. The Glasgow branch of the United Irish League also held a reception for him to mark his bravery. In those complicated times the struggle for Irish independence did not stop those of a nationalist outlook recognising the courage of so many of their countrymen in the killing fields of France. The Glasgow-Irish community provided tens of thousands of young men who fought in the war. This was the case all over the UK as regiments such as the Tyneside Irish, Manchester Irish and London Irish testify. Indeed men like James Connolly and Tom Barry first learned to hold a gun in the British Army. For Robert Downie, the Dublin Fusiliers was his chosen regiment, no doubt in honour of his father’s Irish roots.
One of thirteen children, Robert knew well the harshness of life in the industrial heart of early twentieth century Glasgow. Springburn produced locomotives which were exported all over the world at the famous Caledonian Railway works provided employment for many. The war called upon many of those workers to head off to France and many did. Two of Downie’s brothers were to perish in the mud and blood of Flanders. Indeed Carleston Street in Springburn, where he lived, had seen 16 men killed in the war and five return home minus limbs. This was a sad statistic repeated in towns and villages all over Scotland. In those days the psychological damage caused by war was seldom mentioned let alone treated.
By 1919 there was a downturn in the labour market as demand for munitions and other war supplies dried up. Many were thrown out of work and the more socialist minded men of the 'Red Clydeside' era called for better conditions and more work to be created. At one huge gathering in George Square the Police baton charged protesters some of whom responded with a barrage of bottles. It was an ugly day in Glasgow as the batons flailed and the bottles flew. Scottish Secretary, Robert Munro, panicked fearing a full scale 'Bolshevik uprising' and called on London to send in troops. Glasgow was flooded with truck loads of soldiers and tanks rumbled through the streets. London was showing that it would be utterly ruthless if there was any sign of revolt. Returning soldiers like Robert Downie must have wondered if this was the land they had fought for.
Life after the war was not easy for Robert but he settled to raising his family and following the fortunes of his favourite football team. Robert loved Celtic and would have seen good times and bad as Maley’s side took on the emerging Rangers of Bill Struth in the 1920s and 30s. He would have seen men like John Thomson, Patsy Gallagher and Jimmy McGrory play. He would have also watched Stein, Tully and Evans play in the 1950s and then watch the emergence of the Lisbon Lions. He was a groundsman at Celtic Park and for many years a turnstile operator at the Stadium. Few of the countless thousands who paid their money and clicked into the ground would have guessed that the quiet spoken man taking their cash held a Victoria Cross.
Robert lived long enough to see Jock Stein revitalise Celtic and lead them to European glory. He passed away in April 1968 in the week Bobby Lennox scored with the last kick of the game to defeat Morton at Celtic Park and all but seal the 1968 league championship. He would have liked that.
Robert was a man who combined great courage with great modesty and his life-long love of Celtic gave him enormous pleasure. His Victoria Cross was gifted by him to Celtic Football Club and remains in the club’s possession.