Eight Devon soldiers – all connected to my family – fought together on a remote hilltop battlefield near Jerusalem in 1917. They were all serving in the 16th Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment on what would become the darkest day in the history of the battalion. Their stories are told here for the first time.
They were ‘brothers in arms’, fighting together in a desolate mountain village near Jerusalem – more than 3,000 miles from their homes in Devon.
Eight went into battle. Two were killed and two were wounded – with one left fighting for his life after being shot in the head.
Another, taken prisoner by Turkish troops, died of wounds 45 days after the fighting in a hospital in Syria.
They had all been serving in the 16th Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment on that fateful day in Palestine in the Great War – December 3, 1917.
Frank Roberts, Tom Johns, Fred Charley, Derrick Singerton, Charlie Hitchcock, Albert Jones and Frank and Charles Boundy were involved in a daring night-time attack on Turkish enemy positions at Beit ur al-Foka.
It took them two hours to climb steep, uneven, rocky ground and scramble through deep, perilous ravines to get to the village.
They – and all officers and men of the 16th Devons – attacked with all guns blazing and captured Beit ur al-Foka after fierce hand-to-hand combat.
As the battle raged on, they found themselves surrounded by enemy soldiers – and coming under relentless and devastating machine gun fire.
The battalion were forced to withdraw 12 hours after launching the attack on what would be their darkest day in the Great War.
More than 80 of their officers and other ranks were killed and almost 140 others were wounded, with some taken prisoner.
Private Frank Roberts – one of 30 grandsons of John Roberts who fought in the war – was unconscious after being shot in the head.
With the bullet still in his head, he was put on a camel for a 300-mile journey to hospital in Cairo. Incredibly, he survived.
Private Tom Johns – a great nephew of John Roberts – was killed. A signaller, he died just a few days before his 24th birthday.
Lance-Sergeant Fred Charley, 22 – whose great nephew would marry a granddaughter of Frank Roberts – was also killed in the battle.
Private Derrick Thomas Singerton, 20 – the great-grandson of John Arscott (1807-1879), my great-great grandfather – was captured during the battle.
He died of wounds in hospital in Syria on January 17, 1918 while being held as a prisoner of war by the Turkish army in Damascus.
Private Charlie, or Walter Charles Hitchcock – a cousin of Frank and Tom – was wounded and was listed as such in a ‘roll of honour’ in January 1918.
The oldest of the Devon eight, 38-year-old Sgt Charles Boundy and his nephew Frank Boundy, 24 – and Sgt Albert Jones, 23 – are believed to have escaped the battle unscathed.
All eight had served in the Royal 1st Devon Yeomanry or the Royal North Devon Hussars before their regiments became part of the 16th Devons.
- Frank Roberts (1892-1970) was the son of Thomas Roberts (1870-1947) and Mary Ann Morrish (1870-1937). He grew up at Newland Farm, Witheridge where his grandfather, John Roberts (1829-1919) lived for many years. John was my great-great grandfather.
- Tom Johns (1893-1917), born in Clovelly, was the grandson of John Roberts’ sister Caroline (1847-1921). He is remembered at Jerusalem War Cemetery and on Hartland War Memorial.
- Fred Charley (1895-1917) was born in Kentisbury. His great nephew married the granddaughter of Frank Roberts (1892-1970) in 1970. Fred, buried at Jerusalem War Cemetery, is also remembered on Kentisbury War Memorial.
- Derrick Thomas Singerton (1898-1918), born in East Anstey, was the only child of William Thomas Singerton (1869-1951) – who was landlord of the Masons Arms in Knowstone between 1908 and 1941 – and Dinah Arscott (1870-1938). Dinah was the granddaughter of John Arscott (1807-1879), my great-great grandfather. Derrick, buried at Damascus Commonwealth War Cemetery, is remembered on Knowstone War Memorial.
- Charlie Hitchcock (1893-1947), born in Witheridge, was the great-great-great grandson of William Roberts (1738-), the great-grandfather of John Roberts (1829-1919). Charlie’s brother, William Henry Jnr, was killed in the Battle of Loos in France in 1915.
- Charles Boundy (1879-1958) was related – through marriage – to John Roberts (1829-1919). He and his nephew, Frank (1892-1980) are among five Boundys remembered on Rackenford War Memorial.
- Albert Jones (1893-1956) was the stepson of Sarah Maslin (1874-1961), who married Frank Roberts (1874-1910), a son of John Roberts (1829-1919), in 1897. Sarah married Albert’s father, Henry Jones (1861-1940) in 1912.
THE FULL STORY OF THE EIGHT WHO WENT INTO BATTLE IS TOLD IN THE A-Z OF ROBERTS FAMILY MEMBERS WHO WENT TO WAR
Frank Roberts, who had a miraculous escape from death after being shot in the head.
Tom Johns, who died in the battle on December 3, 1917.
Fred Charley, who also lost his life that day.
Fred Charley’s grave at Jerusalem War Cemetery.