It was a jaw-dropping discovery. Made in an old newspaper cutting ‘hidden’ in a village archive. It revealed that a John Roberts had 30 grandsons serving in the Great War. The clipping, which I had stumbled across by chance, included a grainy image of John wearing a bowler hat – and a broad smile.
At the time, I didn’t know who he was. But he shared my surname. With his bushy sideburns, beard and broad smile, he seemed familiar. He looked like my father. I was eager to know more about him. And my research produced an extraordinary outcome. John turned out to be my great-great grandfather.
The surprises didn’t end there.
A ten-year investigation into his life showed that he may have been the most unlikely Great War record breaker. That he conceivably had more grandsons serving in the war than anyone else in his home county and perhaps in Great Britain.
John, a retired agricultural worker, was 84 and enjoying his twilight years on his son’s farm in Witheridge, Devon when war broke out in 1914.
A father of 15, he had almost 100 grandchildren. He was a proud man as his grandsons, all born and brought up in Devon, volunteered to join the Army and Navy.
But the war would take a terrible toll on John and his family. Seven of his grandsons never made it home. Three were killed in action on the battlefields of the Western Front. Three died from wounds sustained in action in France and Flanders. One died from heart disease in Mesopotamia.
Among those who lost their lives were North Devon brothers Sam and John Francis ‘Frank’ Roberts. Sam was just 21 when he was killed in action on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916. He had a miraculous escape from death just before Christmas in 1914 when he was shot in the chest while charging at a German trench. His life was saved that day because the bullet first hit a book kept in his breast pocket.
Frank was killed just a few weeks after Sam when he was hit by a shrapnel bomb while making a cup of tea in the trenches. He was 25. The youngest of the grandsons to die was Albert Roberts, who was just 19 when he was fatally wounded in the Battle of Loos in 1915. The grandsons who came home included by grandfather, George Burnett Roberts, who was 17 when he went to war. One survived being shot in the head in Palestine in 1917. Another lived through two of the greatest cavalry charges of the war, in the deserts of Mesopotamia.
John Roberts was a broken man when he died aged 90 in May 1919, just a few months after the war ended. The losses he and his family endured between 1914 and 1918 were among the worst suffered in Great Britain. John was buried in an unmarked grave in his home village. His astonishing story disappeared into the shadows of history. Until now – a century after his death.
The newspaper cutting revealing that John had 30 grandsons serving in the Great War.
Three of the grandsons who died in the war – Brothers Sam and John Francis ‘Frank’ Roberts and Albert Roberts.
A memorial cross for John Roberts – unveiled at Witheridge in October 2018.