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Stafford Newsletter reporter recalls First World War family history

By Staffordshire Newsletter  |  Posted: August 03, 2014

  • CHERISHED MEMORY...Sergeant Frank Roberts

  • Frank Roberts, third left, with a group of soldiers at a convalescent home in 1916.

  • The devastated centre of Ypres, on a postcard Frank sent to his sister in 1916

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MY great-uncle was 37 when he died, killed in action at Inverness Copse, Ypres, on August 10 1917.

According to the letter to his wife Alice from his commanding officer, Sergeant Frank Marshall Roberts was shot in the head by a sniper and died instantly.

It would have been small consolation to his grieving wife - they had been married for only six months.

And it is unlikely to have been true. Such letters to the bereaved often glossed over the more gruesome facts and the fact that Frank's body was never found suggests a grislier end to his life.

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His only memorial is his name inscribed on the Menin Gate at Ypres.

But Frank - who volunteered for the Army in 1914 - had made his mark, even though, as an amateur naturalist with a love of poetry, he made an unlikely soldier.

"I have known him ever since he came to the regiment and we have been through some very trying times together," wrote Captain Bevis Haggard, of the West Surrey Regiment.

"His love of nature and interest in botany were I think a great comfort to him in France and he loved, when we were back at rest, to get away into the woods and fields and be alone with his thoughts."

Frank had joined up on September 4, 1914, within weeks of the outbreak of war, along with numerous colleagues from the insurance firm where he was working at the time.

He wrote excitedly to his younger sister Win (short for Winifred): "Harry (a friend) and I have enlisted and leave here tomorrow. I went up to the office yesterday. More than half the Life Department will have enlisted within a few days.

"I called to see a man tonight and found his house full of Belgian refugees, ages six to 70, being looked after by his sister. All rather distraught and they could talk of nothing but the horrors of Belgium."

By August 1915 he was writing from "somewhere in France" within sound of the guns and about to go into action.

"I shall be glad to be doing my bit in the trenches at last, for the months of preparation have been very tedious."

In October he was telling his sister about his regiment being taken from "a dirty, dark dug-out" close to the front and tidied up "rather superficially" to go on parade for the King, who was on a tour of the battlefields.

"We were glad to have had a good night's kip on clean straw in a barn once more," Frank wrote.

He was wounded in 1916 and spent some time recuperating in England before returning to the front.

His death was not only mourned by his family and his new wife - who was herself killed in the London Blitz in 1940. He was also fondly remembered by his pals in the Croydon Natural History Society, of which he had been secretary for several years.

Their obituary of him read: "It was characteristic of the man that, despite the wishes of his friends that he should take a commission, or at least choose his regiment, he preferred, as he put it, to go the whole hog and join as a private.

"The writer cannot close without expressing the deep sense of personal loss he shares with those who numbered Roberts among their closest friends. His early death has left for them a gap that cannot be refilled; they will cherish the memory of a life that was in every way inspiring."

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