On this day in 1916, Samuel ‘Sam’ Roberts (1895-1916) was killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in the Great War.
As dawn broke on a ‘beautiful’ and ‘breathless blue morning’, on July 1, 1916, Sam, a corporal in the 8th Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment, stood shoulder to shoulder with his fellow soldiers in a ‘reserve’ trench near the village of Mametz, ready to join the largest offensive ever mounted on the Western Front.
On what would become the bloodiest and most disastrous day in British military history, his battalion played a pivotal role in the capture of the German-held village, which was about five miles from the town of Albert in Picardy, in northern France.
Sam was among 100,000 British and French soldiers sent ‘over the top’ along a vast 23-mile front north and south of the Somme.
He was killed just a few short yards from his own trench.
He was one of more than 19,200 British soldiers to die on that most terrible of days.
Another 40,000 British soldiers were wounded on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.
Sam’s body was retrieved and carried back to the front-line trench behind Mansel Copse where he had started his attack.
He was among more than 160 officers and men of the 8th and 9th Devons to be buried there – a site which became The Devonshire Cemetery.
The cemetery, where there is a headstone in Sam’s memory, is unique in being almost exclusively devoted to the dead of a single regiment from one day of battle.
The defiant and poignant ten-word message ‘The Devonshires held this trench, the Devonshires hold it still’ – originally carved into a wooden cross at the spot where so many fell – is inscribed on a permanent memorial at the cemetery, close to Mametz.
Sam cheated death seven days before Christmas in 1914 when his then battalion, the 2nd Devons, attacked German defences at a farm complex known as the Moated Grange, situated between Neuve Chapelle and Armentieres.
Shot in the chest, he survived because the bullet – believed to have been fired from a sniper’s rifle – first struck a soldier’s pay book kept he kept in his shirt pocket.
Seriously wounded, he was rescued from the battlefield and later transported back to England for medical care. Sam was invalided out of the Army for almost a year before joining the 8th Devons towards the end of 1915.
Sam is remembered on the two war memorials in Rackenford – on a granite monument on the outskirts of the village and on a brass plaque in the parish church.
Sam was the son of John Roberts (1858-1929) and Elizabeth Morrish (1866-1943). John was the third son of John Roberts (1829-1919), my great-great grandfather, who had 30 grandsons serving in the Great War.
Born on March 6, 1895 at Cove, near Tiverton, Sam lived with his family at Blindwell Cottage, Rackenford when he went to war.
Sam Roberts. Photo supplied by his nephew, Gerald Roberts.