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Remembered Today:

Paul Roberts

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The power of the Great War Forum: How it helped me to complete a book about my great-great-grandfather, who had 30 grandsons serving King and country in the Great War

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It was an emotional moment. The culmination of ten years of research inspired by the chance discovery of an old photograph. The day a book I thought I would never finish finally arrived on my doorstep.

It felt as if I had reached the end of an epic journey full of twists and turns, mysteries and surprises. That I had completed a seemingly never-ending project that had eaten up many thousands of hours of my life.

All kinds of thoughts raced through my mind today as I opened the boxes containing my new book about retired Devon agricultural worker John Roberts who had a remarkable 30 grandsons serving in the Great War.

I was thrilled that it would reveal the extraordinary courage shown by ordinary men of Devon on the front line a century ago. That their stories of life and death on the Western Front and beyond would at last emerge from the shadows of history.

I felt honoured to have had the opportunity and the time to ‘walk in their boots’ as they left these shores to fight in some of the bloodiest battles of the war – from Ypres to Loos, and the Somme to Aubers Ridge.

I felt proud that all the men I had researched were relatives of mine. And that I had got to know them, and how they had served – and in many cases died – in the war despite never having the privilege of meeting any of them.

Most of all, I thought of my wife Jenny, who encouraged me to start and continue with the research, helping me to find the time to investigate the lives of John Roberts, of Witheridge, and his 30 Devon-born grandsons.

Jenny played a pivotal role in the fact-finding, helping me to plough through hundreds of Census returns, parish records, museum and other archives. She accompanied me on visits to dozens of village and other cemeteries in my quest for information.

When Jenny died in 2013, I almost gave up on the book. But, after a long break from writing, I decided to continue with it, not wanting to waste all the hard work we had put into it over the years. Now History Maker is finished, it has been published in her memory.

The book would not have been possible without the help of the Great War Forum, whose members have provided a wealth of new information and leads about the war service and identity of John’s grandsons.

Of the seven grandsons who lost their lives in 1914-1918, four were identified with the aid of crucial clues from Forum members who also provided answers on war gratuities, regiments, service numbers and much more.

Proceeds from History Maker – which will be available from the National Archives Book Shop – are going to St Margaret’s Hospice in Taunton and Yeovil.

As well as doing a series of talks about the book in Devon this year, I am also hoping to be involved in an event or events focusing on the research that has been carried out.

The picture shows John Roberts, as found on Witheridge Historical Archive.

JOHN ROBERTS 1829-1919.jpg


Writing a book about a retired farm labourer who had 30 grandsons serving in the Great War presented considerable challenges.

Many of John Roberts’ grandsons shared the same Christian and surnames – and their service numbers were, in the main, unknown.

Seven never made it home. Three were killed on the battlefields of the Western Front, three died from wounds sustained in action in France and Flanders, and one died from heart disease in Mesopotamia.

It took more than two years to confirm the identity of one of the seven, Rifleman Sidney Roberts, of the Queen’s Westminster Rifles.

Verification that he was one of the 30 could have forever remained a mystery but for the help of a member of the Great War Forum.

Sidney died from wounds sustained in the Battle of Langemarck, part of the Third Ypres offensive, on August 17, 1917, aged 28.

Buried at the Brandhoek New Military Cemetery (No 3) in Belgium, he is remembered on two war memorials – at Oakford, in Devon, and at nearby Dulverton, in West Somerset.

Born in the heart of Devon, he was one of three brothers to fight in the war. The others, John Francis Bryant Roberts and Archibald Roberts, both survived.

John Roberts, who had 15 children and almost 100 grandchildren, had at least three grandsons called Sidney, all of whom were eligible to serve King and country between 1914 and 1919.

The Sidney who died is named as S Roberts in Major J Q Henriques’ celebrated book, The War History of the 1st Battalion Queen’s Westminster Rifles, 1914-18.

His service numbers (7122 and 553492) are revealed on his Medal Card, which can be found on the Ancestry.co.uk website.

Commonwealth War Graves Commission records also include his service number for the 2/5th Battalion of the Royal West Kent Regiment (4127).

But this information and searches of birth, death and parish records failed to confirm which Sidney died in the war.

War diaries and searches of hundreds of pages on the British Newspaper Archive provided no further clues.

Attempts to find and contact possible descendants of Sidney’s close family also failed to produce any evidence.

In a last-ditch effort to discover the truth, I issued a plea for help on the Great War Forum in September 1916.

And assistance came almost immediately, with a suggestion that I check soldiers’ wills on the Gov.uk website.

I discovered one for a Sidney Roberts of the Queen’s Westminster Rifles – and it provided the answer I had been looking for.

It confirmed that the beneficiary of his will was his brother, Bertie, who at the time was living in Oakford, Devon.

This, and other detail contained in the will, provided the proof that Sidney was the son of Charles Roberts (John Roberts’ fifth son).

This is just one example of how the Great War Forum provided the right assistance at the right time, when I was hitting a brick wall.

Sidney’s story is told in History Maker: John Roberts – the man with 30 grandsons in the Great War, which is to be published in early February.

The book will be available from the National Archives Book Shop, and from shops throughout Mid Devon.

Paul Roberts

Book cover.jpg


Ten years ago, I found a grainy old picture of a John Roberts on a village history archive. At that stage, I didn’t know who he was.

But he shared my surname. And, with his bushy sideburns, beard and broad smile, he looked so much like my dad.

A caption beneath the image astounded me. It said that John had 30 grandsons serving King and country in the Great War.

It inspired me to find out more about the octogenarian and his grandsons. And the truth could not have been more remarkable.

John, a retired agricultural worker who had lived all his life in Devon, turned out to be my great-great-grandfather.

One of his grandsons who went to war was my grandfather, George Burnett Roberts, who served as a horse transport driver in the Army Service Corps.

I had a picture of George, who died in 1948, the tunic buttons from his uniform – but knew nothing about his war service.

In the past ten years, I have researched John, who lived to the grand old age of 90 after having 15 children and almost 100 grandchildren.

I have traced 20 of his grandsons who served on the Western Front, in Mesopotamia, Gallipoli, Egypt and Palestine.

Seven never made it home. Several had remarkable escapes from death – one after being shot in the head and another who survived two of the greatest ever cavalry charges.

I have also traced two grandsons-in-law who survived the war. And a great nephew of John who died in the First Battle of Ypres in 1914.

The great nephew – Sgt William James Roberts, of the 1st Coldstream, Guards – lived on the farm where I was born and brought up in Mid Devon.

The research involved poring over military and parish records, thousands of newspaper pages, Census returns, birth, marriage and death certificates, and visits to villages, cemeteries and churches.

I hit many brick walls. But the Great War Forum helped me to get past these seemingly insurmountable hurdles time after time.

I asked many questions about the war service of John’s grandsons. And there was always someone ready to help me.

The Forum helped me to establish the war service of Corporal Sam Roberts, of the 8th Devons, who died on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

It also assisted in confirming:

·        The war service of Sam’s brother, John Francis, who was killed in the trenches in France in September 1916

·        The identity of Sidney Roberts, a private in the Queen’s Westminster Rifles, who died in August 1917

·        The war service of Frank Roberts, of the 16th Devons, who survived being shot in the head in Palestine in 1917

·        The war service of my grandfather, who joined the ASC at 17 and returned home to work as a head cowman and farm bailiff in Devon

Forum members provided the right help at the right time, frequently providing details of little-known information sources.

The book I have written would not be with the printers now but for the help I have received from the Great War Forum.

I would like to say a big thank you to all who have assisted me in any way. You have helped to make my seemingly endless project a reality.

The book (History Maker: John Roberts – the man with 30 grandsons in the Great War) is due to be published early next year.

Paul Roberts

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