Date of Death:19/04/1916
Regiment:South Lancashire Regiment
Panel Ref:Panel 23
John Roberts was born in the Sharples area of Bolton in 1895. His parents were John, born in Flintshire, who worked as a domestic coachman and Sarah Ellen from Bolton. John was the eldest of four children, the others being William, Frank and Annie. The family moved to Glossop at some point between 1898 and 1901 before later moving to Royton, this latter move being at some point between 1903 & 1911. At the time of the 1911 census the Roberts family was living at 19 Perth Street in Heyside. At the time of enlisting in August 1914 John junior worked as a piecer at the nearby Springfield Mill.
Upon joining the army John became a member of the King's Own Royal Lancaster Regiment but this proved temporary and he was transferred to the South Lancashire Regiment and joined their 6th Battalion which had been formed in Warrington shortly after the outbreak of war.
The 6th South Lancs spent the winter of 1914/1915 at Winchester before moving to Blackdown (Hampshire) towards the end of February.They sailed from Avonmouth on the 16th of June 1915 to Malta and then onto Alexandria.From there it was another voyage to the island of Mudros, the great staging base of the Gallipoli campaign, before landing at W Beach at Helles on July 7th. August saw the 6th South Lancs moved to Anzac, landing there on the 4th. Two days later heavy shellfire caused 68 casualties.In the early hours of August 8th they were to attack the Turkish positions on Sari Bair as part of the Battle of Chunuk Bair. They were to follow behind another battalion of the 38th Brigade, the 9th Royal Warwickshires.
In the ensuing fog of war the men of the battalion were scattered amongst other units - the Warwicks, the 7th North Staffs and the 1/6th Gurkhas. The South Lancs who found themselves with the Gurkhas managed to to get within about 100 feet of the crest of the Sari Bair before being forced to dig in. The general feel of the attack was one of confusion, the regimental history produced after the war stating that "details are difficult to verify, particularly as in these operations the situation was never very clear".
The following day half of the battalion were sent forward with the Gurkhas and they proceeded to reach the crest of the hill where fierce hand to hand fighting too place. They seized control of the peak but after a strong enemy counter attack and a number of high explosive shells landing amongst them were forced to withdraw. It was later unclear as to whether the artillery fire came from British or Turkish guns.Major Allanson of the 1st/6th Gurkhas wrote afterwards:
"At the top we met the Turks;Le Marchand went down, a bayonet through the heart. I got one through the leg, and then, for about ten minutes, we fought hand to hand, we bit and fisted, and used rifles as clubs; blood was flying like spray from a hair wash bottle.And the Turks turned and fled, and I felt a very proud man;the key of the whole peninsula was ours, and our losses had not been so very great for such a result"
The British Commander, General Hamilton wrote in a despatch a few months later that only did the men reach the summit but...
"they began to attack down the far side of it, firing as they went at the fast retreating enemy.But the fortune of war was against us.......came suddenly a salvo of heavy shells. These falling so unexpectedly among the stormers threw them into terrible confusion. The Turkish commander saw his chance; instantly his troops were rallied and brought back in a counter-charge, and the South Lancashires and Gurkhas, who had seen the promised land and had seemed for a moment to have held victory in their grasp, were forced backwards over the crest and on to the lower slopes whence they had first started"
The remainder of August was spent manning the front line in the Aghyl Dere sector. Losses by this time had mounted so much that a composite battalion had to be formed from the men of the 6th South Lancashires and the 6th Loyal North Lancashires. The battalion then headed out of the line to a rest area at Suvla Bay and spent most of September recovering and integrating a large draft of new men that had arrived from Britain to make up the losses. They were evacuated from Suvla on the 19th and 20th of December 1915, and after a weeks rest they moved to the Helles bridgehead. They were in action during the last Turkish attacks at Helles on the 7th of January 1916 and were evacuated from Gallipoli over the next
two days. From there it was back to Egypt and a spell manning the defences of the Suez Canal.
In February 1916 John Roberts and his comrades headed for their next theatre of war, Mesopotamia, where they were to join the continuing British push to relieve the besieged garrison at Kut.
On the morning of April 5th 1916 the 13th Division attacked the Turkish positions. Amongst it's three brigades was the 38th which included the 6th South Lancs. With artillery and machine gun support the first two lines of Turkish trenches were taken. When the artillery barrage was lifted it became clear that the Turks had withdrawn and the third trench line was then quickly occupied. The 38th Brigade then spent a few hours out of action whilst other units pressed on towards Fallaniyah some three miles further on. This attack halted some 500 yards short and then in the evening the 38th and 39th Brigades passed through the new British line to take Fallaniyah, the Turks again fell back to new defences at Sannaiyat. The British had taken over 1800 casualties and were still some 16 miles from Kut.
The fighting was taken up by other units for the next couple of days but the 6th South Lancs were again in the fray on April 8th. The men had moved forward into position overnight and lay there in very cold temperatures until 03:00 when they attacked. The first line reached the Turkish trenches but the second was broken by enemy fire and fell back. The first line finding themselves exposed and unsupported were eventually forced out of the Turkish trenches and had to dig in some 400 yards back. The failed attack of the 38th & 40th Brigades that morning came at the cost of another 1807 casualties.
That was to be the 6th South Lancs last major engagement in the doomed attempt to reach Kut but the fighting went on. On April 19th a neighbouring Brigade launched an attack on the Turks and perhaps playing a supporting role the 6th South Lancs lost 19 men killed that day. John Roberts was one of them.
John's parents back in Heyside received the notification that he had been killed towards the end of the following month. A service was held for him at Heyside Church which attracted a large congregation. The Oldham Chronicle reported that John had been well known and much respected in the district.
John senior and Sarah Ellen were to make many inquiries as to how their son had died and eventually in September of that year they received a reply from a Sergeant C.Fender of the 6th South Lancs:
"In reply to your letter inquiring about your son's death. I was with him when he met his death, and it occurred while he was behind the machine gun. His death was instantaneous, as he was shot through the head. He died doing his duty to his King & Country, feeding his gun with ammunition whilst holding a communication trench from the enemy. I am pleased to be able to state that he showed much courage and bravery throughout the campaign and never lost his coolness once. All the section mourn his loss very much, as he was a great favourite amongst us. We saw that he had a decent burial as that was the least we could do. Please accept the sympathy of all the machine gun section for your great loss"
Even though it would seem that John was buried by his comrades there is no known grave for him and his name can be found on the Basra Memorial. The British found in Mesopotamia that grave robbing and desecration were such a problem that many men were deliberately buried without any marker being placed that might attract unwanted attention.
The other 18 men listed as being killed that day (only Heeson has a known grave) were:
BARRY PATRICK 27 Lance Serjeant 11973 from Co.Limerick
CUMMING WILLIAM Private 17379 born Salford,enlisted Manchester
DEMPSEY MARTIN Private 17698 from Stockport
DINSMORE ALEXANDER Corporal 11799 born Liverpool,lived Seacombe
DORBER JOHN Private 19507 from Salford
GARRITY GEORGE Private 19295 from Newton-le-Willows
GERRARD SIDNEY Private 19018 from St Helens
HEESON JOHN Private 11755 from Warrington
LAVELLE MICHAEL Corporal 11325 from St Helens
MAINES PETER Private 12309 from Earlestown
MOLYNEUX RICHARD Private 15970 from St Helens
MURPHY JEREMIAH Private 3157 from Cork
McGARRY BERNARD Private 1901 from Widnes
SOUTHERN JOSEPH Private 11668 from Haydock
STATHAM JOHN Private 15741 from Lymm
STEPHENSON JOHN Serjeant 3162 born Rawcliffe,enlisted Nelson
TAYLOR JOHN Private 12167 from Widnes
THOMAS DAVID Private 15068 from Mumbles,Glamorgan