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.