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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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Official documentation produced three years before the start of the Great War provides a poignant and powerful insight into how lives would change so dramatically in the years ahead.
The 1911 Census return for Newland Farm, Witheridge in Devon shows three generations of the Roberts family living under one roof.

John Roberts – who had 30 grandsons serving in the Great War – was living at Newland. Aged 81 at the time, he was strangely described as a ‘boarder’ and ‘old age pensioner’.
He was living with his 41-year-old farmer son, Thomas, daughter-in-law Mary Ann and their eight children.
At least three of Thomas and Mary Ann’s sons would serve in the Great War – Frank, Thomas Jnr and Albert.

At the time of the 1911 Census, Frank, aged 18, was a farrier on the farm. Sons Thomas Jnr, 17 and Albert, 15, were working there as a carter and cattleman.

The youngest children were John, 13, Ivy, aged nine, Reuben, aged seven, Beatrice Mary, aged four, and Courtney, aged two.

Frank, who had joined the Royal 1st Devon Yeomanry in 1912, sailed with them to Gallipoli in 1915. In December 1917, he was shot in the head, near Jerusalem. He survived – and later married and had his own family.

Thomas Jnr followed in his brother Frank’s footsteps in joining the Royal 1st Devon Yeomanry, in 1913. He was discharged as medically unfit on August 5, 1914, a year and 169 days after he had joined, and before he had an opportunity to see active duty in the war.

Almost four years later, on June 26, 1918, he joined the Devonshire Regiment. At that stage, he was regarded as ‘fit for despatching overseas’, and was posted to Italy in November 1918, just after the war ended. He served with the Devonshire and Warwickshire Regiments, before arriving home in April 1919. He married in 1923.

Albert lost his life three days before his 20th birthday – and just 71 days after he had sailed to France with the 8th (Service) Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment, hoping for a ‘great adventure’ in Europe. He died from wounds sustained in or after the Battle of Loos.

Thomas Snr and Mary’s son John almost certainly served in the Yeomanry. However, there are no records to confirm this. Reuben and Courtney were too young to fight, although Courtney went on to serve as a Royal Artillery gunner in the 1939-45 War.

The stories of John Roberts and his grandsons who went to war are told in the new book, History Maker.

The picture shows Frank Roberts, in about 1945.

Frank Roberts Witheridge.JPG


It was an incredible moment. I was preparing to talk about WW1 cavalryman Archie Roberts in a packed hall at Thorverton when I met his son, grand-daughter and other family members for the first time.

They were in the audience to hear how Archie, a private in the 13th Hussars, lived through two of the greatest cavalry charges in history, at Lajj and Hadraniya in Mesopotamia, in 1917 and 1918 – and survived the war.

Emotions ran high as I attempted to ‘walk’ in Archie’s boots and ride and ‘charge’ with him and the 13th Hussars as they fought the Turkish Army in the desert sands close to the River Tigris with such immense bravery.

It was a great privilege to meet Archie’s son, Michael, who lives in village of Thorverton where his father lived and worked for so many years. And to come face to face for the first time with Michael’s daughter, Lynne, Archie’s grand-daughter.

The talk, organised by Thorverton and District History Society, helped to mark the launch of my new book, History Maker, which tells the story of retired Devon farm worker John Roberts who had 30 grandsons in the Great War.

It was the second talk in Devon in two days. The first, held in Witheridge on February 21, was equally rewarding with a number of descendants of John’s grandsons who went to war being among those attending.

The book – researched and written with the help of members of the Great War Forum and so many others – is inspiring many people in Devon to carry out their own research into ancestors who served in the Great War.

And it is helping to bring together descendants of John Roberts and his grandsons. So much so, I am looking to arrange a special family reunion for those related to John and his grandsons in Devon later this year.

I am hoping that the book will play a role in a possible re-dedication of the War Memorial in Witheridge. One of John Roberts’ grandsons, Albert, who died in France in 1915, aged just 19, is remembered on the memorial.

It was unveiled between 1920 and 1924 by Witheridge soldier Francis Selley, who served as a sergeant in the 16th Devons. He was one of six sons of Witheridge butcher George Selley to fight in the war.

It would have been an emotional moment for Francis when he unveiled the memorial. For among the 17 soldiers named on it was his younger brother, Sidney, a corporal in the 8th Devons, who was killed in action in France in May 1917, aged 23.

In researching many hundreds of pages of local newspapers after the war, I was unable to find one mention of the unveiling of the memorial. The only reference I could find was on the Witheridge Historical Archive.

It said the ceremony was surrounded in controversy because of a noisy intervention by an ‘old Mrs Morrish’, the mother-in-law of a local Military Medal holder, Edward ‘Ned’ Stanley Ayre, who had been a sergeant in the 2nd Devons.

Apparently, Mrs Morrish stood on the steps of the memorial during the ceremony repeatedly shouting that Ned should have been asked to carry out the unveiling. Was that why the ceremony was not reported? Was the embarrassment of it all too great to allow it to be recorded in the newspapers?

When I spoke about the controversy in Witheridge, I suggested that, with the centenary of the end of war approaching, perhaps it was time for a re-dedication of the memorial to be considered. The idea is to be chewed over within church circles within the coming weeks.

·        Devon History Society and Devon Family History Society are linking up to arrange a talk – focusing on the research I have carried out and the four grandsons from Tiverton who fought in the war – at Tiverton’s Baptist Church Hall on Wednesday, May 23, at 3pm. The book is available at The National Archives Bookshop (more copies are on the way to them) and from book and other stores in Devon. 

The picture shows the King's Certificate of Discharge awarded to Archie Roberts.

P15 - Archie's discharge details.JPG


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).

P5 - samuel roberts - middle row second left.jpg


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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