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Glasgow City Council

Victoria Cross centenary paving stone laid for heroic Springburn soldier

Published: 20 October 2016

War hero Sergeant Robert Downie who received the Victoria Cross for his valour while fighting at the Somme, will be remembered at a special ceremony outside the People's Palace on Sunday 23 October. Exactly a century after saving comrades' lives while under heavy enemy fire.

A WW1 centenary paving stone in memory of the heroic Springburn soldier will be unveiled by Glasgow's Lord Provost Sadie Docherty outside the museum that chronicles Glaswegians' lives.

It is the fifth in a series of stones to be laid in the city, and the fourth at the People's Palace, as a permanent reminder of the bravery of Glaswegian servicemen awarded the Victoria Cross during the Great War as part of continuing centenary events across the country.

The Victoria Cross is the highest award for gallantry a British or Commonwealth serviceman can receive.

Robert Downie

The Lord Provost said: "Sergeant Robert Downie is far more than a local hero.  He ranks among the very few men in the Great War who survived while carrying out the ultimate act of valour. Risking his life to save the lives of his comrades.

"His bravery then was lauded and well documented by the media. He deserves our utmost respect and it's an honour to meet with his relations, many of whom are meeting for the first time, today."

Sergeant Downie's relatives including his granddaughter Helena Casserly (72) from Skelmorlie, niece Amy Birnie (84), Dunbartonshire and great nieces Anne Marie McGuire (60) from Bishopbriggs and Pamela Slavin from Canada will attend the ceremony.

Helena said: "I'm extremely proud of my grandfather. He was a very private man and it's wonderful to be able to remember his bravery today."

Sergeant Downie was born in Springburn on 12th January 1894. The son of an Irish father and Dundonian mother, Mr Francis Downie and Mrs Elizabeth Jane Downie. He had fifteen siblings and was educated at St. Aloysius School in Springburn.


He left school to work beside his father and two brothers at Springburn's Hydepark Locomotive works. In January 1912 at the age of eighteen he joined the army enlisting with the 2nd Battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers.

He was posted to France in August 1914 as part of the British Expeditionary Force. Five members of his family served in the First World War.

A keen amateur boxer Sergeant Downie, it is claimed, joked to his wife Ivy Sparkes, a munitions factory inspector during the war: "I'll fetch you something worth looking at." She was said to have replied: That will be a German helmet."

It is also reported that he told a former school teacher and several friends: "Next time I see you I'll bring a VC."

Sergeant Downie saw heavy fighting from the start of the campaign on the Western Front and had endured a gas attack earning him the Military Medal.

However, it was his exceptional heroism on the 115th day of the First Battle of the Somme that led to his Victoria Cross.

At the village of Lesoeufs on the night of 23 October 1916, The Dubliners had managed to capture several enemy gun-pits to the east of the village.

But the Germans mounted several counter attacks which led to heavy officer losses.  At a critical point in the conflict Downie decided to rally his men and attack a German machine gun crew.

It was a day so bloody Sergeant Downie never spoke of it to anyone again, not even in his own family. He told the press: "Every man in the regiment won the VC that day".

King George V presented Sergeant Downie with his Victoria Cross at York Cottage, Sandringham, Norfolk, on January 8th 1917.

Days earlier, on Hogmanay 1916, Sergeant Downie had returned home to a jubilant Carleston Street in Springburn. From that one street, more than 200 had joined the army. Sixteen had been killed and five had lost limbs.

He was also presented to the City Council and honoured at a public reception at Springburn town Hall. As well as feted by St Aloysius Church and his former school where he was presented with a gold watch and a purse containing guineas.

Victoria Cross

His citation for the Victoria Cross, published in the London Gazette on November 25th 1916 said: "For most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty in attack. When most of the officers had become casualties, this non-commissioned officer, utterly regardless of personal danger moved about under heavy fire and reorganised the attack, which had been temporarily checked. At the critical moment he rushed forward alone, shouting 'Come on, the Dubs.' This stirring appeal met with immediate response, and the line rushed forward at his call....."

Two of Sergeant Downie's brothers, Sergeant David Downie,The Royal Scots Fusiliers, and Private Richard Downie, The Seaforth Highlanders, who both welcomed him home, died in France in 1917.

The VC paving stones are being funded by the Department for Communities and Local Government. Communities Minister Lord Bourne said: "The paving stone ceremony for Sergeant Robert Downie is a fitting tribute to his exceptional bravery.

"I hope it will encourage Glaswegians to find out more about their local heroes gallantry and the role they played in the history of the First World War. Britain's First World War heroes remain as inspirational now as they were a century ago. We owe them a great debt of gratitude."

After the war Robert Downie became a groundsman and turnstile cashier at Celtic Football Club. He died in 1968 and is buried in St Kentigern's Cemetery, Glasgow.

Published: 20 October 2016

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