When I researched Frank Roberts’ remarkable escape from death in the Great War, I had been unable to trace any of his descendants. That all changed in the most astonishing way when two people closely connected to him attended a talk I gave in Devon about his wartime experiences. The first pictures of Frank emerged, two remarkable family get-togethers were arranged – and a diary kept by a soldier who served in Gallipoli with Frank came to light.
Of all the 30 grandsons of John Roberts who went to war, Private Frank Roberts probably had the greatest escape from death on the front line.
He was shot in the head in ferocious fighting as his battalion captured a remote hilltop village near Jerusalem in December 1917.
Rescued from the battlefield, he was put on a camel for a perilous 300-mile journey to hospital in Cairo – with the bullet still stuck in his head.
Incredibly, he survived the trek. He responded well to treatment and within just a few months he was well enough to return to the trenches.
In researching and writing about Frank’s narrow escape from death, my efforts to trace his descendants proved unsuccessful.
But that changed in the most astonishing way shortly after the publication of the first edition of History Maker – a book revealing the remarkable story of John Roberts and his grandsons who went to war.
After giving a talk about Frank’s war service in Tiverton, I met one of his granddaughters, Rose Colman, who had been in the audience.
As we spoke about his life after the war, she showed me a lovely picture of Frank at a family wedding – the first good photograph I had seen of him.
Just a few moments earlier, I briefly chatted with a Jeanne Jones of Washfield who kindly left for my attention a war diary kept by her father.
Amazingly, her father – Corporal Jack Strong – had served with Frank in Gallipoli and the Middle East in the Royal 1st Devon Yeomanry and 16th Devons.
He was in that same battle – at Beit ur al-Foka in Palestine on December 3, 1917 – when Frank was felled by a rifle bullet.
His diary revealed the day-to-day movements and happenings in Gallipoli as he and Frank served in the Royal 1st Devon Yeomanry.
I found it almost unbelievable that a granddaughter of Frank and the daughter of a man who had served with him in the Great War had both attended the talk in Tiverton.
News of our meeting spread. And just a few days later, I visited the home of another granddaughter of Frank, Cherie Gubb and her husband, Nick.
We looked through some wonderful old pictures of Frank and his wife, Alice May, with their children and grandchildren at Cuckoo Farm, near East Anstey.
They told me that two of Frank and Alice May’s daughters, both in their 90s, were still living in Devon, in South Molton.
I contacted the son of one of them to try and arrange a get-together. Within a few short weeks, a meeting beyond my wildest hopes happened.
It felt so special when I sat with sisters Vera and Ivy Bucknell and talked about their father Frank’s exploits in the Great War.
Widows Vera, 93, and Ivy, 95, had married two brothers in a double wedding in Molland more than 70 years earlier, in 1945.
I had with me a newspaper picture of that wedding in which the sisters were given away by their father and their grandfather, Thomas, a son of John Roberts.
Vera showed me a photograph of Frank in his WWI uniform and on a horse – taken when he served with the Royal 1st Devon Yeomanry.
She and her sister said Frank never talked about the war. They were amazed to hear how he had survived being shot and at how he got to hospital for treatment.
I had the chance to hold and open two beautifully kept Great War Princess Mary tobacco and sweet tins given to Frank and his brother Albert, who died in the Great War.
Inside Frank’s tin were two rifle bullets. One was almost certainly the bullet that almost ended Frank’s life.
Frank’s medals were brought along by his grandson Michael Roberts (whose late father, Norman, was the only son of Frank and Alice May).
In September 2018, David Bucknell – Vera’s son and a grandson of Frank – and his wife Jan organised another memorable get-together in South Molton.
Vera and Ivy were there with many of Frank’s grandchildren – along with Jeanne Jones, whose father had served with Frank.
Jeanne brought with her albums of pictures her father had taken in the Middle East and the diary he had kept in Gallipoli in 1915.
A remarkable tapestry made by Frank for his mother while he served in Egypt was brought along by the first granddaughter of his I had met – Rose Colman.
We all had such fun poring over old photographs, particularly one showing Frank and his brothers shearing sheep at George Nympton in the 1920s.
Vera and Ivy attended a big John Roberts Family Reunion in Devon in 2018. Vera was interviewed by BBC Spotlight in their coverage of the event, and appeared on our TV screens.
Vera died just a month after the reunion. I had the great privilege of talking about how we met at a celebration of her life at South Molton Church on December 6, 2018.
FRANK’S STORY IS TOLD IN DETAIL IN MY BOOK HISTORY MAKER
John Roberts (1829-1919), of Witheridge in Devon, had a record 30 grandsons serving in the Great War, seven of whom did not make it him. John, who lived in Witheridge, Devon for many years, was my great-great grandfather.
Frank during the Great War.
Frank and his wife during the Second World War.
Jack Strong, Picture supplied by his daughter, Jeanne Jones.