A blind veteran tours the US: the story of Robert Middlemiss

6 April 2017 21:00

This week marks the 100th anniversary of the entry of the United States of America into the First World War. Blind Veterans UK has connections with the USA going back to our earliest days. These include the remarkable story of Robert Middlemiss and his speaking and fundraising tour of the United States and Canada.

A Sergeant-Major in the 2nd King’s Own Scottish Borderers, Middlemiss had been blinded at Gallipoli. He came to us at our then headquarters in Regent’s Park in September 1915 but his training there was interrupted by a very unusual request. 

Black and white head photo of blind veteran Robert Middlemiss in WWIDespite having no background in public speaking or promotional work, he was asked to go to the United States for a year-long lecture and fundraising tour on behalf of the B.F.B. (British, French, Belgian) Permanent Blind Relief War Fund. Together with his wife, Beatrice, he travelled on the SS Adriatic on 3 May 1916. They left behind their then three year old daughter, Muriel.

The B.F.B. Fund had its origins in a dramatic story from the sinking of the RMS Lusitania in 1915 as a result of a torpedo attack by the Germans. Nearly 1200 people were killed, but among those who survived, rescued after four hours, was a American wine agent, George Kessler. He decided to aid the war effort and in particular those who had lost their sight. Together with his wife, Cora Parsons, Kessler set up the fund, with committees in Britain, France and Belgium. The British committee included our founder, Sir Arthur Pearson. 

The Middlemiss’ spent time in New York with the Kesslers before travelling to a number of other cities in the United States and Canada. They met with many significant people of the time, including the world-famous deaf and blind author, political activist and lecturer Helen Keller. The photo below shows Middlemiss in the centre, with Kessler next to him and Keller sitting in front.

Black and white group photo of WW1 blind veteran Robert Middlemiss with Keller and Kessler and 3 others

The Middlemiss’ also met with many celebrities of the time, including American actresses Mary Pickford, Lillian Russell and Edna May, British actor Sir Herbert Tree, and a former US Secretary of State, Robert Bacon. They visited cities including Chicago, Cincinatti, Boston, Nashville and Toronto, sending postcards to their little daughter from each so she could keep up with where they were.

Robert returned to Regent’s Park in May 1917 after a highly successful time in the States; it was reported in our magazine at the time that ‘The Sergeant-Major’s eloquence bore wonderful fruit among the Americans’. After completing his training he went on to a successful career as a physiotherapist. As for the B.F.B. Fund, following the USA’s entry into the war, it added an American committee. It continued after the war, and with a rather different remit still exists today as Helen Keller International.

Our thanks go to Robert Middlemiss' granddaughter Anne Hawthorne for her help with information for this article and for allowing us to reproduce her photo of Robert in New York.

To see more stories from our Historical Photography Project click here or check our Facebook page for our #ThrowbackThursdays.