Robert Wynne Roberts came into this world on the 14th of December 1889 in Yr Allt, Dyserth. He was the youngest child born to Welsh speaking parents, Edward and Mary Roberts. Mary, formerly Wynne, was from a Dyserth family. Edward, originally from the next village; Newmarket, was a tailor. In 1861 Edward, his parents and his brother were all working as tailors in 3 Mostyn Terrace, Newmarket. (Trelawnyd yn Gymraeg.)
In 1882 Edward and Mary married and had three children in all. (Mary gave this information on the 1911 census return – including the fact that one child had already died.)
Sadly in 1891 Edward passed away leaving Mary with two little children, Mary Anne and baby Robert. Times must have been hard for her. Perhaps her family in Dyserth rallied to help. Ten years later the census tells us she was working as a domestic servant. Her two children were with her in their home in Central Terrace, Dyserth. Mary Ann was now 15 and Robert an 11 year old attending school. That would have been the school on the hill – now a private house.
By 1911 Mary Ann had left home and Robert and his mother were living in Weaver’s Lane. He was a coalman, no doubt delivering the coal with a horse and cart.
It was through this line of work that he may have met his future wife because on the 26th of December 1914 he married Mary Ellen Wilkes, the daughter of Reuben Wilkes – also a coal merchant. Mary Ellen was born in Holywell, Flintshire and we know that in 1901 thirteen year old Mary was living in the Liverpool Arms in the Holway, Holywell. Her father is described as a coal dealer and publican.
Their marriage was blessed by the birth of a son, Reuben Edward Roberts, who was born on the 7th of June 1916 at home in Dolwen Cottage, Dyserth.
The war was now to intervene in their personal lives as it was in 1916 that Robert joined up. Because there were too few volunteers coming forward to serve in the armed forces, in January 1916 the Military Service Bill came into being which introduced conscription for all single men between 18 and 41 years of age. In May of that year this was extended to include married men. There was little enthusiasm amongst the general population with many thousands challenging the authorities on the matter. Accordingly Tribunals were held throughout the country. Robert’s enlistment coincides with this legislation. Did he volunteer or was he conscripted? We shall never know.
Whatever the case, he enlisted in Prestatyn and served as a Private with the 1st Battalion, Welsh Guards. No army records survive to give the details of Robert’s service, but we do know that he saw action in France.
I am very grateful to Robert’s grand daughter Margaret (daughter of Reuben) and her husband Tony for their contribution to this story.
Robert died of his wounds in Number 26, General Hospital, Etaples on the 1st of August 1917. A story passed down the family claims that Mary went out to France to visit him before he died and that she brought a piece of shrapnel from his wounds back with her. The remaining family have not been able to prove this as fact. However, I have found evidence to show that families were indeed invited to the bedside of fatally injured soldiers in France. Special hostels were set up for them and the Red Cross paid the travelling expenses for those who couldn’t afford it. (www.4yearsofww1.info)
The General Hospitals were situated at quite a distance from the Front and would have been accessible to people from Britain as they were in towns near the coast. The area around Etaples was the scene of immense concentrations of Commonwealth reinforcement camps and hospitals. It was remote from attack, except from aircraft, and accessible by railway from both the northern or the southern battlefields. In 1917, 100,000 troops were camped among the sand dunes. At its peak the hospitals, which included eleven general, one stationary, four Red Cross hospitals and a convalescent depot, could deal with 22,000 wounded or sick at any one time. (CWG website)
Wilfred Owen – the former pupil of Birkenhead Institute Grammar School – in his Collected Letters. (Oxford University Press) described the Army Base Camp at Etaples as,
“A vast, dreadful encampment. It seemed neither France nor England, but a kind of paddock where the beasts are kept a few days before the shambles … Chiefly I thought of the very strange look on all the faces in that camp; an incomprehensible look, which a man will never see in England; nor can it be seen in any battle, but only in Étaples. It was not despair, or terror, it was more terrible than terror, for it was a blindfold look, and without expression, like a dead rabbit’s.”
Robert is buried in Etables Military Cemetery and, although they never knew him, his family still treasure his memory and ensure that his sacrifice has not been forgotten.