Robert Wilfred Balleine

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Robert Wilfred Balleine MC


This page is based on an article on the Museum of the Manchester Regiment website

Robert Wilfred Balleine, who was awarded the Military Cross for his bravery in the Somme offensive


Robert Wilfred Balleine was born in early 1881 in Bletchington, Oxfordshire. His father was George Orange Balleine, a member of a distinguished Jersey family, later to be appointed Dean of Jersey. His mother was Florence Gardiner. He had three older siblings, George Reginald, Estelle Margaret and Hilda Catherine, and two younger, Cuthbert Francis and Austin Humphrey.

George Orange Balleine was Rector of Bletchington when Robert was born, and the family lived at The Rectory in the village. By the time Robert was ten George had moved back to Jersey, following his appointment as Dean and Rector of St Helier. The family lived in the Deanery in St Helier.

Robert Balleine was educated at Victoria College before attending Pembroke College, Oxford as an Exhibitioner in 1898 to study Mathematics. He was awarded a Bachelor of Arts (BA) with 1st Class Honours in 1900. He then transferred to Wycliffe College to study Theology, gaining 2nd Class Honours in 1902.

Church of England career

He began his work for the Church of England in 1904 as a Curate at St Paul's Church in Chorlton on Medlock, Manchester. He began as a Deacon, but in 1905 was ordained as a Priest by the Bishop of Manchester, Edmund Knox.

As he was a graduate of Oxford University Robert became eligible for the title Master of Arts (MA) in 1906. This was the same year that he became a Curate at St Paul's Church in Astley Bridge, near Bolton in Lancashire. He only worked there for one year; he was appointed Domestic Chaplain to the Bishop of Manchester, still Edmund Knox, in 1907. After three years in this post he was made an Honorary Chaplain for the rest of Knox's time in office.

In 1910 he became the Diocesan Inspector of Schools in the Manchester Diocese. His job was to decide how effective they were as church schools, and to make sure a Christian ethos was maintained. He held this job until the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914. He lived with his sister, Estelle, in Kersal, Manchester during this period.

Chaplains needed

In the early months of the war the Army expanded massively and needed more than the 117 Chaplains on its strength at the outbreak of war. Ultimately almost 3,500 Chaplains would serve in the Army, and Robert Balleine was one of them. He was appointed as an Acting Chaplain to the Forces 4th Class (equivalent to the rank of Captain) on Saturday 12 September 1914. During this time Manchester was raising its 'Pals' Battalions, and he was appointed Chaplain to the 1st City Brigade, made up of the 1st - 4th City Battalions. These would later become the 90th Infantry Brigade and the 16th - 19th Battalions of the Manchester Regiment.

He trained with the Brigade at Heaton Park in Manchester until April 1915; Belton Park near Grantham, Lincolnshire until September and at Larkhill, Wiltshire until the Brigade was ordered to sail for France on 9 November 1915. Despite being the Senior Chaplain to the Forces in the 30th Division, he had not impressed all of his new comrades during their time in the UK.

Lieutenant Thomas Nash of the 16th Battalion thought he had 'seemed rather a wash-out'. As a Chaplain he was only engaged by the Army for 12 months at a time. He signed a contract just before he sailed to France; then again in September 1916, 1917 and 1918.

Once the 16th Battalion took its place in the trenches in December Thomas quickly changed his opinion of his chaplain: 'Day after day he went round the front line, sniped at and shelled like the rest of us, but never turning a hair. His pockets bulged with packets of cigarettes for the troops, and he had a cheery word for everyone'. Other than his position as a religious leader, this sort of friendship and morale-enhancing support was the main role of a chaplain in the front line.

Somme offensive

On 1 July 1916 the 16th Battalion took part in the first day of the Somme Offensive. They attacked towards the village of Montauban and captured it, taking heavy casualties. Balleine had moved forward behind the infantry to help recover casualties with Doctor Fletcher, the Battalion Medical Officer. The 16th Battalion held off German counter attacks and at the end of 2 July it was relieved and returned to the British lines.

Thomas Nash recorded what happened next: 'The Padre said: "Boys - I know you are fagged out, but there are still many wounded lying out. I want some of you to help me to get them in". And they stood up to a man'.

Balleine stayed with the 16th Battalion throughout the fierce fighting of the rest of the Battle of the Somme, which ended in November 1916, and then into 1917. On 11 May he wrote to Thomas Nash, who had been sent back to the UK for treatment, telling him about the attack the Battalion had just engaged in. They both mourned their lost friends and comrades; in Balleine's words it was 'heartrending to see one after another of the links with the original days disappear'.

His own turn to disappear came in July, when a letter from Wilfrith Elstob to Hubert Worthington noted that 'Balleine is leaving us'. He was sent to the II Corps School. It is not known what his job was in this role, but the fundamentals would have been the same as when he served with the 16th Battalion.

Bravery recognised

In Thomas Nash's opinion Balleine had 'again and again' proven himself to be 'one of the bravest men in the Battalion', and on 1 January 1918 this bravery was recognised when he was awarded the Military Cross. There is no citation recording that the medal was awarded for a specific act of bravery, but his obituary in the Regimental Gazette states that it was for his gallantry on the Somme.

At some point after this he was promoted to Chaplain to the Forces 3rd Class, equivalent to the rank of Major. This may have been connected to his new position as Senior Chaplain to the Forces for the 9th Division, which he took on the 24 October 1918. The Division did not see any fighting before the war ended on 11 November, but it then crossed into Germany and formed part of the occupation force. By February 1919 Balleine had impressed his superiors. The Assistant Chaplain General of the 2nd Army reported that he was 'A capable chaplain. Has rendered good services as SCF 9th Division in face of difficulties'.

Post-war jobs and retirement

He returned to the UK on 21 April 1919 and left the Army on 8 November. He remained an Honorary Chaplain to the Forces. His first post-war job was as Rector of Heaton Mersey, near Stockport, Manchester. He held this position until 1924, when he became the Incumbent vicar of St Crispin's in Withington, Manchester. After six years he became the Vicar and master of Temple Balsall Hospital in Solihull, near Birmingham. He held this position between 1931 and 1936 when he moved further south and east to become Vicar of the small village of Hemingford Abbotts in what was then Huntingdonshire.

He reached the age of 65 in 1946, and left Hemingford Abbotts, so it is very likely he retired. His address in 1949 was Crosby Cottage, St Helen's, Isle of Wight, but he had been living there from 1947, when he received permission to officiate in the Diocese of Portsmouth.

Robert never married and died on 20 August 1951 in Finsbury, London. He was 70 years old. His medals were presented to the Museum of the Manchester Regiment in 1973.

  • Family tree Robert Balleine's two younger brothers also served in the war. Cuthbert was a Captain in the Rifle Brigade and was killed in action and Austin was also a Chaplain.
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