What do you think and see when you look at your local war memorial?
What do the names of the men and women commemorated on it mean to you?
When I was growing up in Devon, I looked for soldiers sharing my surname – Roberts – on rural memorials.
I found one in my home village, Morchard Bishop, two in Rackenford and one in Cruwys Morchard.
I often wondered who they were and how they died. And if they were related to me.
Amazingly, it turned out that those men were ancestors of mine.
And there were others – listed on monuments in Witheridge, Tiverton and Oakford.
The family connection emerged when I started to research the life of John Roberts and his 30 grandsons who went to war.
Seven of those grandsons never made it home. All were listed on those Devon memorials.
In the past ten years, they have become so much more than just names on a list.
I have researched their lives, war service, and how they lived and died on the Western Front and in Mesopotamia.
I have also investigated the lives and war service of many of John’s grandsons who came home.
Some are listed on special parish memorials remembering those who survived, notably at Rackenford and Cruwys Morchard.
I never knew any of John’s grandsons including my grandfather, George Burnett Roberts, who died 10 years before I was born.
But in writing about them in my new book, History Maker, I feel I have got to know them and how they fought in some of the bloodiest battles of the Great War.
I have felt particularly close to the story of one soldier who was killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916.
He was Corporal Samuel ‘Sam’ Roberts, of the 8th Devons, who is buried at the Devonshire Cemetery in Mametz.
Sam had a miraculous escape from death just before Christmas in 1914 when he was shot in the chest near Neuve Chapelle.
He survived because the bullet first hit a book he kept in his breast pocket, taking the full force of the blast.
He spent many months at St Mark’s Hospital in London before returning to the front line a number of months before the Battle of the Somme.
He was one of more than 19,200 British soldiers to die on July 1, 1916, the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army.
I was able to piece together his war service with the help of war diaries and assistance from members of the Great War Forum.
When I look at his name on two memorials in Rackenford, I think about his remarkable escape – and his courage on the day of his tragic death at the age of 21.
Thanks to Sarah Child, of Rackenford, I also have a picture of Sam (published here), taken at Rackenford School when he was 10 or 11 years old.
I started this piece by asking what we see and think when we look at our local war memorial.
It’s worth looking back to the unveiling of county and other memorials in Devon to understand the enormity of the sacrifices made by so many in the Great War.
The Dean of Exeter, the Very Rev Henry Reginald Gamble, said the men of Devon who died were… ‘bone of their bone, and flesh of their flesh, nourished among their own hills and vales, lovers of their streams and meadows and rugged shores, who died ... with a vision before their eyes of the old fields of home far away’.
The Devon and Exeter Gazette, reporting on a special service to mark the end of the war, said: ‘There is no parish in the county and indeed there are very few homes where vacant chairs do not stand as silent witnesses to gallant Jack Tars (seamen of the Merchant or Royal Navy) or khaki-clad warriors.’
Perhaps the most impressive of Devon’s monuments to the fallen was erected in Exeter, in the city’s Northernhay Gardens. Designed by Newton Abbot-born sculptor John Angel, who devoted nearly four years of his life to creating the masterpiece, it was unveiled by Earl Beatty, the First Sea Lord and Admiral of the Fleet, on July 24, 1923.
In unveiling the memorial, commemorating almost 1,000 men from the city who lost their lives, Earl Beatty told the thousands attending that ‘none of us are likely to forget the war which devastated the world so recently. None of us are likely to forget those gallant men who gave their lives for their King and country in that great struggle. But a time will come when the war will be but a feint echo down the path of time, and it is against that day that we erect enduring memorials in stone and bronze to replace those which are enshrined in our hearts.’
In a stirring speech reported in The Western Morning News and Mercury, he said: ‘Those who pass this memorial a generation hence, and generations after that, will not be stirred with the sense of personal pride and sadness which we feel, but they will see in it a reminder of the virtues which preserved this empire of ours from destruction in time of great peril. It will serve as a reminder of the courage and the self-sacrifice of their fathers, and as an incentive to spur them to equal nobility of purpose and of action … these men gave their lives for the future of England.’
Great words indeed.
The picture: Sam is pictured in the second row (second left).