The War Dead of Lanhydrock Parish


A paper delivered to the congregation of Lanhydrock Parish Church on 11 November 2011.

I am sure that at some point we have all stood in this wonderful church and looked at the war memorial above the door.

Of course, memorials like this are sited all over the country, in small churches, on village greens, in town squares and city parks. They are tangible reminders of the horrors of conflict but sadly their true meaning has been lost over time because the inscribed names are simply that, names. Names don’t tell us much about the people, who they were, what they did or in this case, what sequence of events led to their premature deaths.

One name, however, has endured the test of time – the Honourable Captain Thomas Charles Reginald Agar-Robartes MP or Tommy, as Lanhydrock staff past and present have referred to him. Regarding his legacy Tommy had the huge advantage over the others listed on this memorial as he was son and heir to Viscount Clifden and was set to inherit private wealth, huge tracts of Cornish, English and Irish landed estate and the hereditary Viscount Clifden title.

He did not have to go to war. Arguably his duty was serving his St Austell constituents in Parliament. But as war became increasingly likely he championed volunteer forces as being vital to the defence of the realm – indeed, Tommy himself was a volunteer in the Devon Yeomanry. When war was declared he considered his life no more important than that of any other Englishman so he insisted that he served at the front line. The effect of his actions changed Lanhydrock’s history for ever.

For in September 1915 Tommy advanced towards enemy positions at Loos in France with the 2nd Company, 1st Battalion Coldstream Guards. On 26 September during a fierce battle he ventured into no-mans-land to rescue a wounded comrade. He was hit by a sniper bullet and died in the field hospital four days later.

Four months before his death Tommy wrote to his constituents a letter headed ‘1st Coldstream Guards May 17, 1915 in a dirty ditch somewhere in France’. In this letter he voiced a familiar war time cry, he wrote,

every man can help! Every effort is required, for although our ultimate victory is certain, I would venture to remind the delegates that it is a long, long way to Berlin. So one and all must help.

Tommy’s call to arms echoed the expectation that everyone had a role to play. History tells us what these men experienced: slaughter on an unprecedented scale, inconceivable fear and hardship and depravity beyond imagination. A life far removed from the tranquillity of Lanhydrock.

Being respectful to Tommy’s obligation to ‘one and all’ I am sure he would not forgive me if I placed his memory any higher than that of his fellow parishioners. So in the spirit of ‘one and all’ it is fitting that I just touch briefly on others listed on the memorial who, like Tommy, left this idyllic location to venture into an unimaginable hell.

Clarence Hawken of Garden Cottage and William Roberts sought their fortunes abroad and entered the war under the Canadian and Australian flags respectively. Hawken died on the Somme battlefield alongside Roberts who had already survived the Gallipoli campaign. William Vanderwolf of Quarry Park Cottage survived the Somme but died later in Belgium, he has no marked grave.

Alfred Walkey was one of the 72,000 men reported missing at the Somme. As was Sergeant Thomas Fewell of Treffry Cottages whose best man at his wedding William Beare, who had already lost three brothers in battle, died himself at Loos. Charles Johns died in Basra, Iraq, whilst on campaign against the Turks, Joseph Coad died at Passchendale and Frank Blake died advancing on Jerusalem.

Sidney Smith, Lanhydrock’s groom, lived in the Harness block and was declared unfit for frontline duties. After caring for the horses of the Devon Yeomanry he died in London of influenza in the service of the Agricultural Company producing food for the war effort.

These names and places give emphasis of the war as a global conflict so it is not surprising that Tommy’s conviction to duty took him abroad ‘to’, in his own words, ‘assist by every possible means in the great struggle that lies before us…the final triumph of Great Britain and her Allies over the fiendish atrocities of our enemies’.

As you would expect Tommy’s life was quite different from these men listed above. He was born in 1880 and was educated at Eton and Oxford. He served as MP first for South-East Cornwall and then for St Austell.

He was a colourful character – an Edwardian playboy in every respect. He was a regular in Paris, Monte Carlo and London and was reported in the media as ‘a most eligible parti …greatly but unsuccessfully courted by matchmaking mammas’. When not sailing around the Mediterranean with the 5th Earl of Rosebery he would be at the wild weekend parties hosted by the Rothschild family. As a politician he was well respected, a witty and confident orator, a great champion of the Cornish and very popular amongst his constituents. He was widely regarded as the best horseman in Cornwall and the best dressed man in Parliament.

In February 1914 he drew up his will and took up an appointment as 2nd lieutenant in the Royal Bucks Hussars. Being stationed in England and not bearing the thought that others were taking risks that he did not share he joined the 1st Battalion Coldstream guards as a Captain. Yet, his impetuosity continued as in early 1915 he was reported to have said ‘I am getting fed up with all this training. I am moving heaven and earth and using all the influence I and my family possess to get to the front, because I want to do my little bit’. His wish was soon granted as in February 1915, after only a few weeks abroad, he wrote to Winston Churchill at the war office to ask if his chauffeur and valet could travel to France to pick him up to bring him home so that he could perform best man duties for Neil Primrose, son of Earl Rosebery.

Tommy returned to the front before once again being summoned home in September 1915 this time to vote in the House of Commons on the Conscription Bill. On his return his battalion had advanced on Loos. What happened next is recorded in the regimental war diary

At about 6AM on September 16 1915, two sergeant’s, Hopkins and Printer…went out in front of our trenches at the chalk pit…to bring in a wounded man. When they were about to return Hopkins was shot down by a German sniper. Sgt Printer continued on with the wounded man and brought him into the lines. Captain Robartes who had been watching the whole episode, at once went out with Sgt Printer and brought back Sgt Hopkins who was severely wounded. The whole ground in front of the chalk pit was covered in enemy machine guns, Captain Robartes was severely wounded shortly afterwards.

On 28 September Tommy was unsuccessfully recommended for a Victoria Cross for conspicuous gallantry in the field. He was, however, to be put forward for a high military decoration if he were to survive his injuries. Two days later, Tommy, aged 35, died in the 18th Casualty Clearing Station; he was mentioned in despatches on 30 November. Soon-after his best friend Neil Primrose too died of his wounds received at Gezer during the Sinai and Palestine campaigns.

On his death the Cornish Guardian reported: ‘His Death was Grand, The Cause was Just’; his mother simply wrote ‘we do not know how to bear our grief’. At the St Austell Liberal Club meeting on 8 October 1915 a great gratitude was tendered from the constituency members while more simple respects were paid by the estates of Lanhydrock and Wimpole in Cambridge both of which Tommy was set to inherit.

Sgt Hopkins survived the war and a letter of gratitude to Viscount Clifden for Tommy’s unselfish sacrifice survives in the collection to this day.

Tommy, like most named on the memorial, perhaps knew that they would never return from war. Indeed, the local liberal agent commented in the press that on the last occasion that he had met Tommy he conveyed the impression that he never expected to see England again.

Such resolution is something that people of my generation cannot fully understand. Many years back whilst visiting the war site and cemetery at Monte Cassino I had the honour of meeting two veterans of the conflict. At lunch, and by now fuelled by the local vino, I plucked up enough courage to ask them if they were scared as they ascended the terraced slopes towards the monastery. ‘No’ was the reply adding

We knew that we were going to die that day. The odds were against us. The Allies were shooting indiscriminately up the hill and offloading bombs randomly overhead. Coupled with enemy fire ahead the odds were certainly stacked up against us. In some ways advancing onto the Monastery made the time right.

For me these comments brought home to me the chaos of war, the futility, the scandal, the fear, the ultimate waste – all things that Tommy was a part of and party to.

The last words should be left to Tommy’s younger brother Alexander who in the weeks after Tommy’s death was himself invalided back to England. ‘To a Brother’ is a moving tribute

A life of charm has passed:
Cut short in all its ardency and might.
A life of peace, more glorious than the last,
Now floods this hour of darkness with its light.

We, as friends and brothers,
Bear hard this cruel loss which is his gain,
Although his life on earth he gave for others,
And smiled at death throughout his mortal pain.

Would we disturb his peace?
Nay, let us wait that meeting far more blest,
From strength to strength led on, till strife shall cease;
For him, for us, God knows it is the best.

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5 Comments

  1. Chris Berkeley

     /  February 26, 2013

    I was intrigued by the reference to William Roberts having served with the AIF.

    I have checked through the personnel records at the National Archive of Australia and can;t find any record of his service among the 170 or so “William Roberts”. Basically I examined all the records for Roberts, William born the UK and this turned up nothing. Have you any other clues such as another forename?

    Reply
    • Thanks for this message. I am afraid that I am working on a third parties reserach here so cannot really confirm. I know that we commissioned some reserach from the National Archives on this topic a couple of years back. Sorry I cannot help more.

      Reply
      • Chris Berkeley

         /  March 1, 2013

        I am just wondering if William Roberts of Lanhydrock might have been in the New Zealand army ie. an ANZAC. I have seen this mistake made elsewhere ie. a member of a New Zealand unit that was part of an ANZAC operation being described as Australian.

        If you have access to the UK census records can you turn up a DOB?

      • This is what I have. Hope it helps.

        Paul

        Born as Moorswater Cottages on 11th May 1887, he was the son of William – a ‘mason/journeyman’ – and Amelia (nee Hawking). The 1891 Census records the family still living at Moorswater Cottages, with William junior one of the five siblings and by 1901, having relocated to Carminnow Cross, Bodmin there were seven, although it would seem one sister had passed away in the intervening years.

        By the time of the 1911 Census the Roberts’ abode had not changed and 23 year old William was employed as a ‘carpenter’, having worked on the Lanhydrock Estate since 1904. This may have been considered a comfortable job with stable prospects, but in the years prior to the First World War he decided to try his luck in Australia, as skilled men were required in the expansion of the Empire. When the conflict began in Europe during early August 1914, many British-born subjects overseas as well as those who were second or third generation natives of their new countries, rushed to join the Forces and Roberts was no exception, signing his enlistment papers at Sydney on December 14th 1914. It was noted he had been a carpenter on the Estate of Viscount Clifden, Bodmin for ten years. The new recruit was 5’ 2½“ in height, had green eyes, dark brown hair, and his religion was Anglican.

        In June 1915 Sapper Roberts went with the Australian Engineers to Gallipoli, scene of some brutal fighting with the Turkish enemy, as well as a place fraught with disease and deprivation. When the campaign ended he spent some time in Egypt before proceeding to the Western Front, receiving promotion to 2nd Corporal by July 1916. During this month the 1st Field Company – to which Roberts belonged – was deployed to the Somme sector, near the town of Albert. The Australians as a whole were heavily involved in the capture of Pozieres, suffering severe losses in the process.

        By mid-August the 1st Field Company was tasked with repairing, strengthening and reconstructing captured German trenches at La Boisselle. The continual German shelling and sniping coupled with the congested nature of their work domain and plentiful corpses made this operation onerous indeed. Having taken temporary shelter in deep German dugouts the men were in danger once more on the 18th, clearing out an old communication trench to form a firing line and strong-point from which to return fire. The following day nothing of note in the War Diary is given, but an Appendix at the end of August’s report indicates that one soldier in the ranks had been killed on this date with a further nine wounded.

        The dead man was 2nd Corporate William Roberts, and on his ‘Casualty Form – Active Service’ paper is the entry; ‘GSW. Head’. As the Cornishman was carrying out his duties, clearly a German sniper had inflicted a gun shot wound which proved fatal. His body was buried ‘… in a small cemetery about 500 yards W.N.W. of Contalmaison & 3½ miles E.N.E. of Albert’. This grave subsequently lost as the battlefields were fought over again in 1918 and the soldier is now remembered on the Villers-Bretonneux Memorial, the monument to Australian men who fell on the surrounding battlefields.

        Archibald Roberts, William’s brother, was told of the death via a comrade of the latter, who correctly informed him of the date and the fact that he was ‘buried the following day’. Also residing in New South Wales Archibald requested official confirmation of this sibling’s demise, as he had heard nothing from the army by the end of October 1916.

        Early in 1917, an inventory of personal effects was returned to Williams Roberts of ‘Carminnon’, Bodmin, Cornwall comprising: ‘purse, clip of German bullets, diary, note book, wrist watch (silver) and strap, letters, post cards, envelopes, tin box, holdall’.

        After the war the Australian authorities took measures to locate 2nd Corporate Roberts’ next of kin in order to pass on the deceased serviceman’s campaign medals – the 1915 Star, British War Medal and British Victory Medal – and memorial scroll. In addition, the families of the Fallen were issued with a pamphlet entitled ‘Where the Australians Rest’. Rather poignantly in amongst 2nd Corporal Roberts’ service papers is a 1919 document with the heading: ‘Application for Railway Tickets to proceed to Sydney to meet soldier returning for Demobilization’.

        (References: copy of birth certificate; online Census returns 1891, 1901, 1911; copy of service record and relevant War Diary – National Archives of Australia; CWGC.)

  2. Chris Berkeley

     /  March 12, 2013

    Thank you for all of this. With this information the NAA search was a lot easier and William Roberts’ records leapt out at me.

    To make the search in the NAA online archive a little easier for anyone else his service number which is a field in the “refined” search tool was 340 – there is only one Roberts with this service number.

    I am now left wondering whatever happened to Archibald. By 1921 he had left the address at Illawarra Road, Marrickville as the letter the army wrote to him that year about his brother’s war medals was, according to the NAA file, returned unclaimed.

    Coincidentally I go past his address from time to time. It is now a laundromat – one of a row of small shops and offices (with what was accommodation above) that must date back at least a hundred years.

    Reply

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