On this day in 1916, John Francis ‘Frank’ Roberts (1891-1916) was killed in a shell attack in northern France in the Great War.
After a brutal two years on the front line in France, Lance-Corporal John Francis ‘Frank’ Roberts had every reason to believe that he would survive the Great War – and return home to Devon to perhaps get married and have children.
Against all the odds, he had remained uninjured in four of the bloodiest battles on the Western Front between 1914 and 1916 which claimed the lives of hundreds of officers and men serving with him in the 2nd Devons.
He fought side by side with his brother, Sam, at the Moated Grange, between Neuve Chapelle, in December 1914 – seeing him shot in the chest and miraculously being saved by a pocket book which had taken the full force of the bullet.
Frank took part in one of the most extraordinary events of the war, the ‘Christmas Truce’ of 1914 when British and German troops stepped out of their trenches, shook hands, exchanged cigarettes and gifts, and buried their dead.
He narrowly avoided serious injury or death when shrapnel grazed his shoulder as he charged enemy lines at the Battle of Neuve Chapelle in March 1915. He had another narrow escape the following year when he was side by side with his school friend, Private Archie Snell, when he was hit by shrapnel.
Frank was involved in the attack on Aubers Ridge in May 1915. He survived the massacre of the 2nd Devons in Mash Valley on the Somme on July 1, 1916 – the day on which his brother was killed in an attack on nearby Mametz.
Seventy days later, on September 9, 1916, Frank was taking a well-earned break with his men in a trench in northern France – enjoying one of the few luxuries available to him and his men, a mug of hot tea.
Without warning, a shell burst over the trench, firing its lethal load into him.
Frank, described by his commanding officer as ‘one of the very best, and a soldier through and through’, was killed instantly. He was 25.
The Western Times in October 1916, reported that he was ‘instantly killed, together with his officer, when having tea in the trenches, by the bursting of a shrapnel shell’.
The 2nd Devons’ war diary does not record the death of an officer that day. It does report the killing of 2nd Lt Gilbert Hosegood on September 10 – from machine gun fire while leading a night patrol.
Frank’s death was first reported in The Western Times in September 1916.
‘The sad intelligence came to Rackenford last week that Lance-Cpl John Francis Roberts, better known as Frank, of the Devons, met his death in action in France,’ said the newspaper.
‘According to a letter received by his parents from the officer commanding the company, “Frank suffered no pain, being instantly killed by a shell. He was one of the very best, and a soldier through and through”.
‘With this high opinion, all who knew the brave fellow will agree. Only as recently as July 1, his younger brother, Corporal Sam Roberts gave his life for his country, a memorial service being held about six weeks ago. It is exceedingly deplorable to have to mourn the loss of two sons in so short a time, and the family have the fullest sympathy of the parish, and of all their friends.’
A memorial service was held for Frank at Rackenford Parish Church.
Frank was a professional soldier before the war, serving in the 2nd Devons in Malta in 1911.
He is one of 2,134 soldiers commemorated at Vermelles British Cemetery, near Lens.
Frank and his brother, Sam, are also commemorated on the granite Rackenford War Memorial at Rackenford Cross – and on a brass memorial plaque in the local parish church naming eight men from the village who died in the Great War.
Frank 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.
Frank was born on April 24, 1891 at East Mogworthy, Rackenford, just a month after the Great Blizzard brought Devon to a halt.
Frank Roberts. Picture supplied by his late nephew, Gerald Roberts, of Exmouth.