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.