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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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The Great War took a terrible toll on William Weekes and his family.

William, of Sherford, near Kingsbridge, Devon lost five sons in 2½ years between 1916 and 1919.

Only four of those who died are remembered on the War Memorial in Sherford – and on a grave in the village churchyard.

Missing from the memorial and grave is William’s eldest son, William Henry.

He was killed in action in France in 1916.

His story is told here for the first time.

The devastating losses suffered by the Weekes family would never have been revealed – but for Devon Family History Society and research carried out by Audrey and Dick Lloyd on the men named on Sherford War Memorial.

A picture of the grave commemorating brothers John, James, Charles and George Weekes was published by Devon Family History Society in 2019.

Audrey and Dick Lloyd discovered that William Henry served in the Royal Engineers and was killed at Givenchy. He left a widow and child, but nothing more was known about him.

William Weekes and his wife, Elizabeth (nee Maddick) – who died a year before the outbreak of the Great War – had 13 children.

The first of their sons to die in the war 25-year-old John Robert Weekes (regimental number 10622), who was killed in action in the Battle of Loos on September 25, 1915. A private in the 8th Devons, he is remembered on the Loos Memorial in France. Born in East Pool, near Sherford in 1890, he worked as a farm labourer at Bowden Cottage, near Kingsbridge before enlisting in the Army.

James Thomas Weekes was 33 when he was killed in action in Salonika on April 25, 1917. A private in the 10th Devons (regimental number 15230), he is remembered on the Doiran Memorial in the north of Greece. Born in Churchstow in 1884, he enlisted in the Army in Kingsbridge. In 1911, aged 26, he worked as a horseman, living with his family at Bowden Cottage.

Charles Weekes, a sergeant in the Machine Gun Corps, died of wounds and pneumonia in Nottingham Military Hospital on October 23, 1918. He was just 22. Audrey and Dick Lloyd discovered that he had fought on the front line for more than three years and had several narrow escapes from death. Charles (regimental number 18282) previously served in the Devonshire Regiment (regimental number 10688). Born in South Pool in 1895, he worked as a farm labourer before enlisting in the Army in Exeter. He is buried in St Mary’s Churchyard, Sherford.

George Edwin Weekes was a leading seaman in the Royal Navy (service number 231215) before the war began. He served in HMS Thunderer in the Battle of Jutland – the largest naval confrontation of the Great War – and died at home from Spanish flu on April 7, 1919, aged 30. He was born in Churchstow on October 20, 1888. His brother Alfred, who also served in the Royal Navy in the Great War, was the only one of the six brothers to survive.

William Henry Weekes was killed in action on November 17, 1916 while serving as a pioneer in the 1st Labour Battalion Royal Engineers. He was believed to be 42 when he died. He enlisted in London on August 14, 1917 (regimental number 110225). At the time he was living at Glendower, Sea View Terrace, Newlyn in Cornwall. His war records show that he went to France on August 21, 1915 with the British Expeditionary Force. He was invalided home on April 17, 1916 and received treatment at a hospital in Newcastle. He returned to France on July 13 that year, just four months before he lost his life.

William Henry married Ethel Morrison Nicholls on October 4, 1904 in Penzance. In 1911, aged 36, he was working as a mason’s labourer and living with Ethel at St Peter’s Hill, Newlyn. They had a daughter, also called Ethel Morrison, in 1911. Before enlisting, William Henry worked for a Justice of the Peace in Mousehole. After his death, his personal belongings – a damaged silver watch, chain, medallion, a photo and letters – were returned to his widow. He was buried at Guards’ Cemetery in Lesboeufs, on the Somme. His widow, born on April 24, 1885, died at 2, Sea View Terrace, Newlyn on August 15, 1945, aged 60. William Henry and Ethel’s daughter was born on May 12, 1911. She married John Harry in Penzance in 1928. He died the following year, aged 23. Ethel Jnr died in 1976, aged 65.

The picture – showing the grave remembering four of brothers – is from Devon Family History Society.

weekes family losses great war.jpg

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Final preparations are being made for the special service taking place in Witheridge to commemorate the centenary of the official end of the Great War.

The Bishop of Crediton, Jackie Searle is to give the address and blessing at the service, which is being held at St John the Baptist Parish Church at 2pm on Friday, June 28.

Among those due to attend are Devon’s Deputy Lieutenant, Mark Parkhouse and his wife, Philippa, of High Bickington.

Also there will be Lt-Colonel Bill Sharpe, MBE, chairman of the Devon and Dorset Regimental Association and the secretary, Colonel Geoff Phillips.

A former soldier of the Devonshire Regiment will be among the association members attending the service.

Two Standards will be paraded at the event – one for the Devon and Dorset Regimental Association and one for the Royal British Legion.

When the guns of the Great War fell silent on November 11, 1918, there was still one more major battle to fight – for a peace agreement.

The war finally ended on June 28, 1919 when a peace treaty was signed at the Palace of Versailles, near Paris.

As news of the signing reached Devon, tens of thousands of people took part in parades and attended thanksgiving services in hundreds of churches and chapels.

Bands played stirring music in the streets, people danced with joy everywhere – and there was a spectacular 101-gun salute in Plymouth.

The service, believed to be the only one of its kind being held in Devon and beyond, will include a welcome and readings reflecting on the signing of the peace treaty – and the celebrations that followed.

Children of Witheridge Church of England Academy are due to perform a musical version of In Flanders Fields, the famous Great War poem written by Major John McCrae, and will sing Make Me a Channel of Your Peace, an anthem of the Royal British Legion.

There will be a special tribute to the Devonshire Regiment who had 50,000 men fighting in the war. A slide show of images of the signing of the peace treaty in Versailles and how Devon and England marked this historic moment, will welcome people arriving at the church.

A special commemorative booklet is being produced for the service, which will be followed by a cream tea and cake celebration at the Parish Hall.

Three weeks after the signing of the peace treaty, the people of Devon had another opportunity to celebrate the end of the war – with a national Peace Day being held on July 19, 1919. It rained heavily throughout the whole county that day, but the downpours could not dampen the enthusiasm of tens of thousands of revellers.

Huge crowds attended a special Victory March in Exeter and processions, and a host of musical jamborees and services were held in every community. In Crediton, as many as 300 soldiers marched through the town as three bands led two processions to the Ship Hotel. Thousands later attended a firework display on St Lawrence Green.

Tiverton-born soldier Thomas Henry Sage, who was awarded the Victoria Cross for his bravery in Flanders, was among 500 servicemen who marched through the town. Thomas, a private in the 8th Battalion of the Somerset Light Infantry, received the VC after he threw himself on to a bomb just before it exploded in a shell-hole near Ypres in October 1917. He saved the lives of several of his fellow soldiers, but was hit by almost 20 pieces of shrapnel as the bomb went off.

Seventy soldiers and 10 land girls took part in a parade in Morchard Bishop, led by the village’s brass band. Bonfires were lit in many villages, including Newton St Cyres and Poughill. Three hundred people attended a tea at Yeoford School. A procession through Cheriton Fitzpaine was followed by a dance and fireworks. About 120 soldiers in Newton St Cyres were presented with silver medallions to commemorate their service to King and country.

The picture shows the front cover of a special 16-page commemorative booklet produced for the service.

Commemorative booklet cover for special service.jpg

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A special service is being held at Witheridge Parish Church in Devon at 2pm on Friday, June 28 to commemorate the centenary of the official end of the Great War. Here, in the run-up to the event, I look at how Devon's soldiers were still engaged in fighting in North Russia many months after the end of the Great War.

As peace was celebrated across Britain in the summer of 1919, few of the hundreds of thousand revellers in Devon were aware that some of their soldiers were still fighting for their country – in a remote area of North Russia.

Two hundred volunteers from the Devonshire Regiment had arrived there in May that year to help strengthen an Allied Expeditionary Force that had been despatched to the trouble-torn region after the Russian Revolution of 1917.

Several lost their lives in a clash with Bolshevik forces in June 1919, the day before the Great War finally ended with the signing of the peace treaty in Versailles. A number were killed or wounded in a street battle in Ust-Vaga, Arkhangelsk Oblast three months later.

The Devons, led by Major Arthur Frederick Stafford Northcote, had joined the 1st Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry when they sailed from Southampton on the troopship HMT Czar on May 12, 1919.

They arrived in Murmansk six days later and, after a slow passage through broken ice, landed at Archangel – a city lying on both banks of the Northern Dvina River near its exit into the White Sea – early on May 26.

‘Many of the men had seen service in Egypt and Malta. They went to the “frozen north” expecting the rigours of the Arctic. Judge their astonishment to find the sun as hot there as at any place they had ever known,’ The Western Times reported.

On June 27, a group of Devons were among a raiding party looking to oust Bolshevik soldiers from the town of Kitsa. Picking their way through dense forests, they suffered their first casualties as they came under sniper and machine gun fire.

When they encountered an ‘enormous barbed-wire entanglement’, 2nd Lt Norman Labrey Hughes and Sgt Peter Herbert, who had previously served in the 1st Devons, were both killed as they tried to cut their way through it.

To avoid further losses in the face of the formidable barricade – the wire had been supplied by the British to Russian troops in the early days of the Great War – the Devons and other members of the raiding party withdrew to their base at Ust-Vaga.

The Devons came under attack when a 250-strong Bolshevik force attacked their base in the early hours of September 1. A ‘sudden outburst of firing’ and a hand grenade explosion were the first warning of the assault.

Explosive devices were thrown through a window in which one platoon were sleeping and ‘inflicted several casualties’. Major Northcote got his men ‘out in the open as quickly as possible and they fought like devils’, The Western Times reported.

Many of the raiders began to ‘lose heart’ after two hours of fighting. A dozen Bolsheviks were found dead outside outhouses, others were killed while firing from blockhouses and wood stacks, and dozens of wounded attackers were taken prisoner.

Five officers and men, were honoured for their heroism that day. Major Northcote, who served in the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry in the Great War, was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO).

Two weeks later, the Devons were heading home. Shortly after leaving Ust-Vaga, their base there was occupied by the Bolsheviks. They departed for nearby Beresnik and arrived in Liverpool on October 4, 1919, almost 11 months after the end of the Great War.

Fifteen days after the Armistice of 1918, 401 officers and men of the 10th Devons crossed the River Danube to march to Bucharest to represent the British Army at a ceremony marking the official arrival of the King and Queen of Romania in the capital.

‘To reach Bucharest was not easy. To cross the Danube was difficult,’ C T Atkinson remarked in The Devonshire Regiment 1914-1918. ‘Few barges were available, embarking and landing facilities were bad, the transport wagons and mules gave much trouble, especially as it was already dark when the battalion reached the Romanian shore, and wagons had to be manhandled over a pontoon barely wide enough for their wheels.’

The battalion marched the last 40 miles to Bucharest in two days over ‘very indifferent roads’ and in atrocious weather. On the day of the ceremony, December 1, 1918, they lined the route by which the King and Queen entered the city and then joined the procession through the city as huge crowds turned out to see the return of their royalty.

After being based in Dobrudja, on the Romania-Bulgarian border, they moved to Varna in Bulgaria in April 1919. The battalion crossed the Black Sea to Batum in Georgia on May 5 and on arriving there had transferred to their forces all officers and men of the 4th Rifle Brigade not eligible for demobilisation. When the 10th moved to Constantinople (now Istanbul) in September, the remaining officers and men were absorbed into the 10th Hampshires.

The 5th Devons became part of the Army of Occupation on the Rhine, leaving Monplaisir in France five days after the Armistice and reaching Schwerfen in Germany two days before Christmas in 1918. All men from the 1st Devons not eligible for demobilisation joined the 5th on the Rhine. Some 150 men of the 2nd Devons joined the 2/8th Worcesters in Germany and nearly 250 officers and men of the 9th Devons joined the 5th Battalion of the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry in the Army of Occupation on March 1, 1919.

Five officers and 103 men of the 16th Devons joined the 2/4th Oxford and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry in March 1919 as they became part of the Army of Occupation in Egypt. The 4th Devons provided three platoons for the 4th Dorsets, the 6th and 2/6th Devons had a total of 360 officers and men transferred to Salonika, and six officers and more than 100 men of the 8th Devons joined the Army of Occupation.

Note

Four officers and men of the Devonshire Regiments are remembered on the Archangel Memorial in North Russia: 2nd Lt Norman Labrey Hughes, the Son of Albert and Mary Louisa Hughes, of Hill Crest, Newton Abbot, Devon, who was 19 when he died on June 27, 1919; Lt Tristram James Pine-Coffin, 3rd Devons, attached to the British Army’s Intelligence Corps, who was 33 when he died on September 23, 1919 while assisting in the withdrawal of British troops from Murmansk in North Russia. He was the son of John and Matilda Pine-Coffin, of Portledge, Fairy Cross, Bideford; Sgt Peter Herbert, who was 20 when he died on June 27, 1919; and Pte Ernest James Gough, of the 16th Devons, who was 19 when he died on June 27, 1919.

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Many of our soldiers were still serving in three continents as the Great War finally ended on November 11, 1918. A special service marking the centenary of the official end of the war – when a peace treaty was signed in Versailles – is taking place at Witheridge Parish Church on Friday, June 28, 2019. Here, I look at the cost of the war and the challenges of demobilising millions of British officers and men.

 

When the guns of the Great War finally fell silent, the shocking cost of more than four years of bitter conflict began to emerge.

More than nine million soldiers – including 956,000 from the British Army – were killed in action, or died from wounds, disease or in accidents.

Twenty-three million officers and men were wounded and eight million civilians died, many from war-related famine and disease.

The financial cost was staggering, crippling British and European economies and leaving millions of people in poverty.

In all, Great Britain spent something like £27 billion on the 1914-1918 War (or about £420 billion in today’s money).

A large chunk of that money helped to keep millions of soldiers in the British Army fighting in theatres of war in three continents.

The bullets fired in just one day in September 1918 cost nearly £4 million (equivalent to almost £60 million in 2019), according to government statistics.

Bringing back millions of British soldiers from the Western Front, the Middle East and other theatres of war after the Armistice proved an immense challenge.

Demobilising and absorbing them into the civilian workforce was far from easy, with Britain hit by serious industrial unrest after the war.

Hundreds of thousands of British engineers, miners, railway and transport workers were involved in a series of strikes over pay and working conditions.

The first stage of demobilisation at the end of 1918 – in which the first men to be released from the Armed Forces were those holding key jobs in vital industries – caused huge controversy.

Many of those going back to civilian jobs, including miners and engineers, had been the last to be called up for war because they had been needed at home.

Consequently, men with the longest service records were often the last to be demobilised – a move that sparked protests at some British Army camps and soldier demonstrations in London.

Winston Churchill, who served in the Grenadier Guards and Royal Scots Fusiliers on the Western Front, defused the crisis when he was appointed Secretary of State for War in January 1919.

He introduced a more equitable and widely welcomed scheme to ensure longest-serving soldiers were generally demobilised first.

Within two months of the Armistice, more than 300,000 officers and men were released from the Army, Navy and Royal Air Force.

By the end of December 1919, more than 4.5 million had been demobilised, including tens of thousands serving in Mesopotamia, Egypt, India and Salonika.

At that stage, about 335,000 were receiving an out-of-work donation – given to soldiers as they looked for employment.

By Christmas 2019, an estimated 80,000 firms had signed up to a national scheme to employ some of the almost two million British soldiers disabled in the war.

Forty thousand of them had lost legs or arms. Many more were left blind. The vast majority needed ongoing care, work, training and support to survive in peacetime.

Demobilisation of officers and men of the Devonshire Regiment, who had 50,000 soldiers serving in the Great War, began weeks after the Armistice.

Twenty-one coal miners in the 1st Devons – who were at Le Quesnoy in Northern France when the war ended – were the first to go, on December 21, 1918.

By March 1, 1919, the battalion, then based at Perwez in Belgium, had been reduced to 26 officers and 255 men.

Sixty miners were the first to leave the 2nd Devons, on December 15, 1918, while the battalion were based in Tournai, on the border of Belgium and France.

Forty miners were released from the 9th Devons in December 1919. Another 300 officers and men went home in January and February 1919.

By March 31 that year, the battalion – based in Pommereuil, Quievy and Englefontaine in Northern France after the Armistice – had just 29 officers and 101 men.

Hundreds of men of officers and men of the 8th Devons – based in Piave and Orgiano in Italy after the Armistice – were demobilised in February 1919.

The first of Devon’s service battalions to be formed, the 8th were the first to disappear, the last of their soldiers arriving in Exeter on March 23, 1919.

The 16th Devons – based in Tournai and then Grammont on the France-Belgium border after the Armistice – released nearly 150 officers and men in February 1919.

Demobilisation of the 10th Devons – who went to Bucharest in November 1918 as the King and Queen of Romania returned to the capital – began in January 1919.

Hundreds of officers and men of the 4th and 6th Devons – based in Baquba and Basra in Mesopotamia at the end of the war – were demobilised between November 1918 and February 1919.

The 2/6th Devons, who sent 160 officers and men to Salonika in December 1918, had released 250 of all ranks by the end of February 1919.

Demobilisation of officers and men from the Garrison Battalion was suspended until May 1919 after the outbreak of trouble in Egypt in the spring of 1919.

The battalion were the last of the Devonshire Regiment to serve in Egypt and Palestine.

The picture shows Pte Walter Roberts, of Sandford, Devon who served in the 1st Royal Marine Light Infantry. He returned home in 1919.

P28 - WALTER ROBERTS RMLI.jpg

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There was jubilation as the guns finally fell silent on the Great War battlefields on November 11, 1918.

But the war was not over when the firing stopped. There was still one more battle to fight – for a peace agreement.

Many of our soldiers remained ‘on duty’ on the Western Front, in Italy, Egypt, Palestine and Mesopotamia for months after the Armistice.

Countless numbers were still listed as ‘missing in action’ and the fate of many British prisoners of war was unknown as peace talks began.

Spanish flu – which killed millions of soldiers and civilians across the world – was still wreaking havoc in the United Kingdom.

After 229 days of complex and frequently acrimonious negotiations, the war finally ended at 3.12pm on Saturday, June 28, 1919.

When a peace treaty between Germany and the Allied Powers was signed in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles, near Paris.

The signing took place exactly five years after the incident that directly led to the war – the assassination in Sarajevo of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne.

News of the breakthrough reached Devon 30 minutes later – via a telephone call to The Western Times’ headquarters in Exeter.

Within minutes, details were posted on the windows of the newspaper offices. And then the celebrations began.

Flags and bunting were flown in virtually every community in Devon. Tens of thousands of people took part in parades and attended thanksgiving services in hundreds of churches and chapels.

Bands played stirring music in the streets, people danced with joy everywhere – and there was a spectacular 101-gun salute in Plymouth.

This historic day will be marked at a special service being held in Witheridge in Devon on Friday, June 28 to commemorate the centenary of the official end of the Great War.

The Bishop of Crediton, Jackie Searle, is giving the address and the blessing at the service which is taking place at 2pm at St John the Baptist Parish Church.

Veterans of the Devon and Dorset Regiment Association and members of the Royal British Legion will be among those attending.

Children of Witheridge Church of England Primary Academy will be reading and singing In Flanders Fields and Make Me a Channel of Your Peace.

I will be giving a short presentation on the Devonshire Regiment, who lost almost 6,000 officers and men in the war.

The service is believed to be the only one of its kind to be held in Devon and beyond.

A cream tea and cake celebration will follow at the Parish Hall in Witheridge.

All are welcome.

The picture shows Pte Thomas Roberts of Witheridge who remained in Italy with the 8th Devons for many months after the Armistice of 1918. Thomas was one of 30 grandsons of farm labourer John Roberts who went to war

P22 - THOMAS ROBERTS.jpg

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There were few ‘home comforts’ for British soldiers in the mud-filled trenches of Northern France in the Great War.

John Francis ‘Frank’ Roberts, of Rackenford, was enjoying one of them on the morning of September 9, 1916 – a mug of hot tea.

He was taking a well-earned break after a series of ferocious encounters with the German army on the Somme.

Without warning, a shrapnel shell burst over his trench, firing its lethal load into him.

Frank, described by his commanding officer as ‘one of the very best, and a soldier through and through’, was killed instantly. He was 25.

He died just a few weeks after his brother, Sam, was killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in July 1916.

Frank, who served in the 2nd Devons, was one of the record 30 grandsons of Witheridge farm labourer John Roberts who fought in the Great War.

In ten years of researching John and his grandsons who went to war, I was unable to trace a picture of him.

In October 2018 – at the first ever John Roberts Family Reunion – a photograph of Frank in WW1 uniform emerged.

It was brought to the event by his nephew, Gerald Roberts, of Exmouth (whose father, Charles, was a younger brother of Frank).

A wonderful picture of a young man about to go to war, it is shown here for the first time.

Another brother of Frank, Ben, served in the Royal Engineers.

He survived the war and ran a bakery and shop in Knowstone, Devon for many years.

The story of John Roberts and his grandsons who went to war is told in the book, History Maker.

John Francis Roberts.jpg

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A family reunion inspired by the remarkable story of John Roberts who had 30 grandsons in the Great War was attended by almost 150 people.

It took place at the Waie Inn at Zeal Monachorum in Devon – a village close to where many of the grandsons were born.

Those attending included a son and four daughters of three of the 30 grandsons of John Roberts who served in the Great War.

Fifteen great-grandchildren of the agricultural labourer, who died aged 90 in 1919, were among those at the reunion.

The eldest of John’s descendants there was 95-year-old Ivy Bucknell, of South Molton, who attended with her sister, Vera, who is 93.

Their father, Frank Roberts, survived being shot in the head while serving with the 16th Devons in Palestine in 1917.

The youngest at the event was nine-week-old Aurora Roberts, of Witheridge, who was joined by her young cousins, Ila and Orla.

Relatives of ten of John Roberts’ grandsons who went to war – spanning four generations of the Roberts family – were at the reunion.

People travelled from as far afield as Staffordshire, Wales, Norfolk, Buckinghamshire, London, East Sussex and Cornwall to attend.

The event raised more than £500 for a hospice charity.

The reunion exceeded all expectations. It brought together many direct descendants of John who were meeting for the first time.

It was a wonderful way to honour John and his grandsons in a year in which the centenary of the Great War is being commemorated.

The event was so successful, a follow up get-together has already been booked at the Waie Inn for October 2019.

 

The reunion took place nine days after an English oak memorial cross for John Roberts was dedicated at Witheridge Churchyard in Devon where he was buried 99 years ago.

The story of John and his grandsons who went to war is told for the first time in the book History Maker.

 

The pictures show:

1. Aurora Roberts, the youngest of John Roberts' descendants at the family reunion in Devon, with her great aunt, Anne Mackenzie. Picture by Jackie Walker

2. The Memorial Cross for John Roberts at Witheridge. Picture by Tony Martin

3. A son and daughter of two of the 30 grandsons who went to war lay a wreath at the base of the Memorial Cross at the dedication ceremony. Picture by Tony Martin

1. Aurora and Anne.jpg

3. Cross decorated after dedication.JPG

1. Ivy Bucknell and Michael Roberts - daughter and son of two of the grandsons who fought in the Great War - place a wreath at the base of the cross.JPG

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A mystery over what happened to a book which saved the life of Devonshire soldier Sam Roberts in the Great War has been solved.

Sam, of Rackenford, Devon, was shot in the chest just before Christmas 1914 as he charged at a German trench in northern France.

The bullet, fired from an enemy rifle, should have killed him. But he lived to fight another day because a book he kept in his breast pocket took the full force of the blast.

Sam, a private in the 2nd Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment, was critically injured, spending many weeks in intensive care in hospital in London.

But, a year later, he returned to the front line – this time as a corporal in the 8th Devons.

He was killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme on July 1, 1916 and he was buried at the Devonshire Cemetery at Mametz.

His near miraculous escape from death in 1914 was reported in local newspapers, but it was never revealed what had happened to the book that saved his life.

It has now emerged that the book – a Soldier’s Pay Book with a hole all the way through it – was given to Samuel’s younger brother, Charles.

He later gave it to his son, Gerald Roberts – but, sadly, the book was lost a number of years ago.

Gerald, now 88 and who still lives in Devon, revealed the story of the book as we talked for the first time this week.

A Soldiers’ Pay Book was issued to all those serving in the Great War. It served as a log book and had to be carried at all times.

It recorded a soldier’s earnings and details of next of kin, vaccinations, inoculations and eye prescriptions. It also included regimental numbers, dates of enlistment, ranks, awards and space for a will.

Sam – Gerald’s uncle – was one of 30 grandsons of John Roberts, of Witheridge in Devon who served in the Great War.

Seven of John’s grandsons died in the war – three were killed in action on the Western Front, three died from wounds sustained in action in France and Flanders and one died from heart disease in Mesopotamia.

An oak memorial cross for John Roberts – who was buried in an unmarked grave in 1919 – is to be dedicated at Witheridge Churchyard on October 4.

A John Roberts Family Reunion is to be held in Devon on October 13. About 100 descendants of John – including Gerald – will be attending the event.

These events have been inspired by the publication of History Maker, a book which tells the story of John and his grandsons who went to war.

The picture shows Sam (middle row - second left) among 21 children at Rackenford School with a perfect attendance record. The picture (provided by Sarah Child) was taken in 1906, when he was 11. He was killed 10 years later on the Somme. 

 

Sam Roberts - middle row second left.jpg

 

 

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There have been many great discoveries and surprises since I wrote a book about my great-great-grandfather, John Roberts, who had 30 grandsons serving in the Great War.

Perhaps the greatest surprise of all has come in the smallest of packages – in the shape of an old and fragile postcard.

It features a picture of John and the following 20 words:

‘Mr John Roberts, of Witheridge has 30 grandsons on active service. The old man is naturally proud of his boys.’

The postcard clearly demonstrates that John, an agricultural labourer for more than 70 years, was something of a celebrity in Devon a century ago.

It belongs to a family living in Mid Devon – and it may well be the last of its kind.

Talks about my new book, History Maker, have led to numerous first-time meetings with descendants of the grandsons who served in the Great War.

Just recently, I met two daughters of Pte Frank Roberts, who survived after being shot in the head in fierce fighting in Palestine.

Frank was serving with the 16th Devons when he was wounded in an attack on a remote hilltop village near Jerusalem on December 3, 1917.

He endured a 300-mile journey by camel to hospital in Cairo, with the bullet still in his head – and returned to his battalion just a few months later.

After the war, he married Alice May Bending and they had three daughters and a son.

His surviving daughters, aged 93 and 95, live in Devon, and remember him as a very hard working farmer, and a ‘strict’ father.

It was a great privilege to talk to them – two more cousins of mine that I didn’t know existed until the publication of History Maker.

The picture shows how the postcard of John looks.

john roberts postcard photograph.jpg

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An extraordinary coincidence

It was a genuinely jaw-dropping moment.

I had just finished doing a talk in Devon, when I met for the first time a grand-daughter of a soldier who had a remarkable escape from death in the Great War.

She brought a family photograph of her grandfather, Frank Roberts, who survived after being shot in the head in fierce fighting in Palestine.

Frank was wounded as his battalion, the 16th Devons, captured a hilltop village near Jerusalem in December 1917.

Rescued by fellow soldiers, he was taken to hospital in Cairo by camel, a perilous and tiring journey that took almost a week to complete.

Remarkably, he survived and recovered sufficiently to re-join his battalion in 1918 before travelling with them to France where he was later transferred to the Labour Corps.

At the same talk was a lady, aged 89, whose father – Corporal Jack Strong – served with Frank in the Royal 1st Devon Yeomanry in Gallipoli in 1915.

The lady, from Washfield, near Tiverton, brought with her Jack's incredible diary of his time with the regiment (which later became part of the 16th Devons) in Gallipoli.

The diary details the movements of Jack and the 1st Royal Devon Yeomanry during their testing three months in the Turkish-held peninsula.

I could hardly believe that in an old church hall in Tiverton, I had met not only the grand-daughter of Frank, but the daughter of a corporal who served with him in Gallipoli and the Middle East.

They had never met before attending my talk about a retired farm worker – John Roberts, of Witheridge, Devon – who had 30 grandsons serving in the Great War.

Frank (pictured below) was one of the 30.

His story is told for the first time in a new book, History Maker.

Frank Roberts Witheridge.JPG

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The knowledge of members of the Great War Forum – and their willingness to help – never ceases to amaze me.

In the past few days, I published a picture on the Forum of someone I believed to be one of my ancestors in his Great War uniform.

I had an idea of who he was, but did not know which regiment he was in or where he may have served.

I hoped that someone on the Forum would perhaps identify the distinctive uniform and provide clues to the soldier’s war service.

Within an hour, two members – Squirrel and Frogsmile – confirmed that the soldier was wearing a Royal Marines Light Infantry uniform.

Believing him to be Walter Roberts, of Devon, I checked military records for him on the National Archives – and found his RMLI service record.

It confirmed that he was indeed Walter Roberts, of Mill Lane, Sandford, near Crediton, born on January 1, 1896.

It showed that he initially enlisted in the Army before being transferred to the RMLI in early March, 1917.

Walter was based at the Portsmouth Naval Barracks between April 1917 and December 19 and served with the 1st RM Battalion in France.

His service record was hard to interpret. When I sought help in understanding it, Forum member Max D stepped forward to assist.

He went through it line by line, offering a comprehensive insight into Walter’s years at war.

Another member – Loader – revealed that Walter was awarded the British War and Victory Medals.

Within just a few hours, the mystery over Walter’s war service had been resolved, thanks to the Great War Forum.

Walter was one of three brothers to serve in the war. The others were Archie, who served in the Machine Gun Corps, and Harry, whose war service is still not known.

The sons of Henry and Mary Roberts, of Sandford, they all survived the war and went on to marry and have children.

Walter, Archie and Harry were three of 30 grandsons of retired farm worker John Roberts to serve in the war.

The story of John and his grandsons is told in the new book, History Maker.

The pictures show Walter, Archie and Harry. The photographs have been kindly supplied by descendants of the family. 

Walter Roberts.jpg

Archie Roberts.jpg

Harry Roberts.jpg

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Never give up. That is the lesson I have learned time after time while researching soldiers who served in the Great War.

It took ten years to find and research 20 of the 30 grandsons of John Roberts who served their King and country between 1914 and 1918.

Among the great unresolved mysteries was the war service of three of the grandsons – brothers from Sandford, near Crediton in Devon.

I spent many long hours perusing old newspapers and looking through military, parish and other records to try and find out more about Archie, Harry and Walter Roberts.

The sons of Henry and Mary Roberts, of Sandford, all three survived the war and returned to live in Devon.

Archie, a local preacher and stalwart of Sandford Congregational Church, was given an emotional ‘farewell’ in his home village when he went to war.

Well-wishers in a packed church sang ‘God be with you till we meet again’ as Archie was called up in May 1917.

Parish records – and a rare prayer plaque for soldiers and sailors in St Swithun’s Church, Sandford – confirmed that his brothers, Harry and Walter also went to war.

Last year, I stood in St Swithun’s churchyard, looking at the graves of their parents, who died in the 1930s.

I took a photograph of the grave, wondering what they looked like – and what happened to their sons in the war.

I never expected to discover more about them.

But, having been in contact with descendants of the brothers in recent weeks, a breakthrough has finally been made in the past few days.

‘Lost’ pictures of Archie and Walter in WW1 uniform are among a collection of photographs that have just been returned to family members.

The collection includes wonderful pictures of Archie, Walter and other family members with their parents at a 50th wedding celebration.

Also among the images is an old newspaper report of the Golden Wedding of Archie and his wife, Lily.

It reveals that he had served in the Machine Gun Corps in the Great War.

His medal card and the awards roll – for recipients of the British War and Victory Medals – confirmed that he was a private in the MGC and that his service number was 131889.

It is now hoped that this information will help piece together his war service, although I realise this may be a very difficult task.

I have just put an appeal for information about Archie’s war service on the Great War Forum.

The discovery of Archie and Walter’s pictures has inspired me to find out more about them, and their brother, Harry.

The important and unexpected information that has emerged in the past few days has reminded me to never give up on a search.

The story of John Roberts and his 30 grandsons who went to war is told in the new book, History Maker.

The pictures show the prayer plaque for soldiers and sailors at St Swithun’s Church, Sandford, near Crediton, and the grave of Henry and Mary Roberts in Sandford.

Sandford Church prayer plaque.JPG

P31 - Henry and Mary Roberts grave - Sandford.JPG

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It was a rare series of weddings – three brothers marrying three sisters in the same village parish church in rural Devon.

The brothers, all sons of John and Mary Roberts, wed the daughters of William and Mary Morrish at All Saints Church, Rackenford between 1889 and 1891.

John Roberts Jnr, a gunner in the Royal Artillery, married Elizabeth Morrish on March 20, 1889.

Samuel Roberts wed Maria Morrish on March 26, 1890.

And Thomas Roberts and Mary Ann Morrish were joined in marriage on March 6, 1891.

The three couples would go on to have 20 children between them, 15 of them sons.

Just over 25 years later, they would be united in grief.

Remarkably, each of the three couples had three sons serving in the Army in the Great War.

Four of the nine would not make it home.

Two of John Jnr and Elizabeth’s boys, Sam and John Francis (Frank), were killed within weeks of each other in 1916.

Sam was killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in July 1916. Frank died when he was hit by a shrapnel bomb while making a cup of tea in the trenches.

Samuel and Maria lost their second son, Jack in the aftermath of the Battle of Aubers Ridge in France in 1915.

And Thomas and Mary Ann’s third son, Albert, died from wounds sustained in or after the Battle of Loos in France in 1915.

The devastation of the Great War is starkly demonstrated in statistics that almost defy belief.

Eighteen million soldiers and civilians died in four years of fighting and more than 20 million were wounded.

More than 950,000 British soldiers were killed in action, died of wounds or from disease.

Sam, Frank, Jack and Albert were four of the 30 grandsons of John Roberts who served in the Great War. Their stories are told in the new book, History Maker.

The picture, supplied by Monica Pike, of Tiverton, shows Thomas Morrish – brother of the three sisters who married the three Roberts brothers.

Thomas Morrish.jpg

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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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