WILLIAM JOHN ROBERTS
Date of Death:03/09/1916
Regiment:East Lancashire Regiment
Memorial:Ypres (Menin Gate) Memorial
Panel Ref:Addenda Panel 60
William's inscription on the Menin Gate
William John Roberts was born in Oldham in 1895. His parents were Frederick and Fanny who in total had 13 children, 4 of whom had died in infancy. Confirmed siblings for William are Elijah, Frederick, Albert, Eliza, Ada, Fanny, Ann, Emily, Charles (died in 1898 aged 1), Elizabeth Hannah & Benjamin (these were twins who both died in 1910 aged 1). William's father was originally from Walton near Warrington and his mother was from Dorset.
Before William's birth the family had lived in Warrington with his father working as a coal dealer. Between 1899 and 1901 the Roberts' moved to Burnley where Frederick snr worked as a Plate Layer, before that there is some evidence they may have lived for a short while in Royton (or perhaps neighbouring Crompton) and it was to here that they moved between 1901 and 1903. Frederick snr was employed as Sewerage Drainer by Royton District Council. At the time of the 1911 census the Roberts family were living at 24 Church Street and 15 year old William was working in one of the local cotton mills.
William was one of the many young men who rushed to join up early in the war and he did so in Ashton-under-Lyne which is where he was apparently living at the time. His parents were later listed as being in Royton so it appears he had moved out alone. Enlisting in that town would under normal circumstances have meant joining the Manchester Regiment, whose home depot was in the town, but it was to the 3rd Battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers that William was assigned to. The 3rd Lancashire Fusiliers was a reserve and training unit and whilst with them William would have been based in Hull.
A transfer of regiments was to come though and not long after he found himself with the East Lancashire Regiment's 3rd Battalion, another training unit, who were based in Plymouth. William was sent out for active service in May 1915, arriving in France on the 5th of that month and joining the 2nd Battalion East Lancs two days later as part of a draft of 35 reinforcements. Just two days later his new unit were thrown into battle at Aubers Ridge.
The Battle of Aubers Ridge was to be a two pronged assault on the German positions there - a slightly raised area of ground that commanded views down upon the British lines, this was to be in support of a larger French offensive at nearby Vimy.
The German positions that the 2nd East Lancs, and other British & Indian units, had to attack were heavily fortified. There was to be a 40 minute long artillery bombardment & then the Brigades (including the 24th that included Joseph's battalion) leading the attack would advance, some 6000 yards apart, in a pincer movement which would roll back the German front line and then they would advance to take the enemy positions on Aubers Ridge some 1.5 miles ahead of the starting positions.
That is how, on paper, the assault was supposed to happen. What actually transpired was an unmitigated disaster for the British Army. No ground was won and no tactical advantage gained. It's also doubtful if it had any effect whatsoever in assisting the main French attack.
The men of the 2nd East Lancs were faced with 300 yards of no mans land to get across before they got to the German trenches. C & B Companies were to lead the assault, with D Company in immediate support. A Company was held back in reserve. The men went over the top at 05:20, not to immediately attack the Germans but they were to advance under cover of the artillery bombardment to 80 yards from the German line and then lie down and await the end of the bombardment. Heavy machine gun fire hit the lead platoons as soon as they emerged above the parapet with many men getting no further. Regrouping, the 3 companies charged forward again at 05:40 but were mown down by incredibly heavy fire from 8 machine guns and also rifle fire before most had got even 25 yards. The survivors crawled back, if they could, to the front trench and sap (a trench leading out into no mans land towards the enemy positions). A further artillery bombardment was requested in preparation for another attempt by the 2nd East Lancs scheduled for 07:30. In the meantime the 1st Sherwood Foresters (who had been planned to follow up behind a successful East Lancs attack) were ordered to attack across the same ground at 06:10, elements of this battalion got as far as the unbroken enemy wire but there, without shelter, were wiped out. One of the Sherwood Foresters in the attack, James Upton, was to win the Victoria Cross for his actions.
When the British bombardment started up again the shells were falling well short of the German lines and were instead inflicting heavy casualties on the 2nd East Lancs, the battalion's war diary stating that they were being 'annihilated by our own artillery'. The men were forced to withdraw further to escape the shellfire & there was no third attempt. At 01:00 on May 10th the shattered remnants were withdrawn from the front lines to bivouac and reorganise. Royton man Joseph Cope was dead along with 134 others from the battalion. At least 325 further men were wounded.
A conversation was recording taking place later in the morning between General Rawlinson (the Corps Commander) & Brigadier Oxley (in charge of the 24th Brigade which included the 2nd East Lancs)
Rawlinson:"This is most unsatisfactory. Where are the Sherwood Foresters?Where are the East Lancashires on the right?"
Oxley:"They are lying out in no-man's-land,sir,and most of them will never stand again'.
William did not stay a member of the 2nd East Lancs and at some time found himself back with the 3rd East Lancs in Plymouth. This would only have happened due to injury and it seems highly likely that he was one of the 325 men wounded that day. How long he was back in England for is unfortunately not known but when he was sent back for active service it was to the 1st Battalion East Lancashires. Thomas Handley had been killed serving with them in 1915.
Not knowing when he joined his last battalion prevents us from saying with any authority what actions William may have been involved in. It's possible he was there on July 1st 1916 when the 1st East Lancs went through the slaughter of the first day of the Battle of the Somme but perhaps more likely he was one of the many new men the battalion needed afterwards as it was rebuilt.At 0730 hours on 1st July 1916 the artillery lifted and the 1st East Lancashires, advanced in extended lines towards the German trenches north of Beaumont Hamel. For a few moments there was silence, and then suddenly machine guns opened up from behind largely unbroken wire and cut down the attackers in swathes. Despite rapidly mounting casualties the East Lancashires moved steadily forward until they melted away under the fire. Small parties of men entered the German trenches but were never seen again. Out of 700 officers and men of the 1st Battalion who went into action, only 237 were present to answer their names when the roll was called.
On the night of September 2nd/3rd 1916 with the battalion working on improving their trenches near Poperinge in Belgium the unit suffered a number of fatalities. After what the 1st East Lancs had recently been through it was possibly deemed unremarkable enough to not rate a mention in the unit War Diary. William John Roberts was one of those killed.
Sadly, after the war, his name went unrecorded by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and also by the town of Royton, he is not on the town's war memorial. There is a William John Roberts on the Oldham Transport Garage Memorial which may or may not be him.
An organisation called the In From The Cold Project (IFCP) exists to research and identify all service men and women missing from the official Commonwealth War Graves Commission list of casualties from the First and Second World Wars. They are determined to get these soldiers, sailors and airmen their due recognition – even after the passing of so many years and they identified that the sacrifice of William John Roberts had been overlooked. The IFCP submitted the relevant documentation to the CWGC commemorations team to investigate before adjudication by the Army authorities who in 2012 accepted him as a casualty of the First World War. William's name was then added to the Menin Gate Memorial to the missing.
William's parents, Frederick and Fanny died in Oldham in 1932 and 1939 respectively.
The other men listed as being killed the same day as William were:
BYROM WALTER 26 Private 22692 from Blackburn
HEAP ARTHUR 25 Private 25091 from Accrington
LOWE THOMAS 37 Private 24318 from Preston.Prewar regular who served in India with King's Royal Rifle Corps
MITCHELL WILLIAM Corporal 6152 from Todmorden
SAGAR EDWIN 22 Private 11968 from Waterfoot
WEBSTER ALFRED 25 Private 25082 from Great Harwood