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.