Searching for Grandpa Lionel

28 07 2018

We finally found grandpa Lionel’s grave where the documentation said it would be; Extension 2, row I.C. grave 11.

Lionel Roberts’ grave

We’d been discussing our ancestry with cousin Pat in June 2015 when in the UK for a family reunion and holiday. She’d mentioned that grandfather Lionel had died in the Somme area in May 2018 so I’d suggested we should have another family reunion on the 100th anniversary of his death at his graveside.

On May 24th Marianne and I boarded an Ethiopian Airlines jet in Harare and flew to the UK to start the pilgrimage. It was a long flight made longer by a 5 hour stop over in Addis Ababa in the middle of the night. Compared with the quality of the aircraft and aircrew service the airport was more than a bit drab. Heathrow airport is vast and by the time we’d got to the coach station to catch the bus to cousin Pat in Harlow it was a good hour and a half after landing. Three very tedious hours later we arrived in Harlow and vowed the next time to take the train no matter how much it cost!

My brother Duncan arrived from Shropshire the next day and we set off to France. The weather was bright and sunny and after a roadside lunch in a nearly deserted picnic area it was time to turn on the Google Maps navigator for the next leg into Amiens where Duncan had booked rooms in a utilitarian hotel of the sort favoured by traveling salesmen. I was a bit disconcerted when the app told me that I would be arriving at our destination in 15 minutes and also had our booking details even though I’d had nothing to do with it. I can only presume that it had searched my phone and found that Duncan was my brother and then done a search to see what bookings he’d made for the area we were in. Not sure I like that but I guess it’s something we’ll just have to get used to.

The next day we headed some 50km north to the small town of Doullens to find Lionel’s grave. It took longer than it should have. After and hour scouring what we thought was Extension 2 of Doullens Communal Cemetery and wondering why there were no graves newer than 2017 Pat made the discovery in the registry at the gate that we were in Extension 1. A quick search on Google Earth revealed that Extension 2 was much nearer where we’d parked the car and so we quickly found Lionel’s grave right where the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) information said it would be.

Doullens Communal Cemetery 2. Beautifully maintained by the CWGC

The cemetery is small by First World War standards and beautifully maintained by the CWGC. At some fairly recent time all the gravestones have been renewed. Some have been personalized in the form of granite, presumably by family members.

Pat laid a card from cousin Malcom on the grave together with a sprig of myrtle for Lionel’s wife Myrtle whose ashes are scattered on the grave. We sat in the cool shade of some trees, signed the register and discussed family ties.

Lionel is not our grandfather at all. My sister Diana noticed this back in 1992 when looking after my mother in the final stages of her terminal illness. Going through various documents she noticed that my father’s father’s name was not on his birth certificate. At that stage we had never met Pat and didn’t know about Lionel, who really is her grandfather, and that he’d died seven years before my father was born. My mother clammed up and that was the end of that particular conversation. My brother, sister and I were intrigued by a scandal in the family but in my mother’s era it was terribly shameful to be born out of wedlock – oh how times have changed! Pat has a friend who pastime is tracing family trees and she asked her to see if she could find out whom our real grandfather is but the trail has gone cold as anyone who would have known is now dead and Pat said she never heard the subject being discussed by her parents.

We’d known for sometime that the family name has not always been Roberts. The Roberts name used to be Metz which is of course of German origin. Lyon William Metz applied to change his name on 21st September 1917 to Lionel William Roberts, presumably as Metz would have been associated with the enemy. It was approved on 7th January 2018 and then on the 27th of May in that year Lionel was killed by his former countrymen. He died from abdominal wounds – I hope he had sufficient morphine. Three days later the hospital where Lionel spent his final hours was bombed.

 

<i>No. 3 Canadian Stationary Hospital at Doullens</i>

No. 3 Canadian Stationary Hospital at Doullens

I also have combat experience but in a very different war. In August 1987 when I cycled across northern France on a round trip to Zurich and Germany, I had a stark reminder of just how different. After a long day of 143 km I collapsed in a delightful campsite near Verdun, site of one of the major campaigns of the First World War. I got chatting to a Dutch man whose holiday hobby was going through the old battlefields with a metal detector. He assured me that he still had to be careful what he unearthed as there was still live ordinance buried. He showed me a clip of .303 ammunition which he said would likely still work. What he was really looking for was the double eagle cap badges the Germans had on their helmets. The next day as I tried to pull up my tent pegs I was amazed by the suction of the soil which wasn’t even very wet. I could only imagine the appalling conditions of trying to fight in really wet weather. At the battle of Passchendaele soldiers drowned in the mud. By contrast the war in which I was involved was primarily counter-insurgency warfare where “contacts” with the enemy were usually fleeting and very close range – around 30m or so. Rain was very rarely a contributing factor to the action and we were fighting in our own country.

Cap badge of the Artists’ Rifles

The regiment in which Lionel served was the Artists’ Rifles. None of us had heard of it but a little internet research turns up that it was a highly popular regiment and supplied many officers to other regiments. Established in 1859 it really was intended for artists, musicians and other creative types. Whilst it was a fighting regiment in WW1, in WW2 it was an officer training regiment and was disbanded after WW2 before being resurrected in 1947 and incorporated into the SAS as 21 SAS.

Before visiting Lionel’s grave I did wonder if I would feel any emotion, a connection perhaps with the man whose name I inherited. As a former soldier I have also experienced the terror of combat and was wounded 39 years ago and I will carry the consequences for the rest of my life.  I had to reflect as we walked back to the car that the death a 100 years ago of a man to whom I’m not related was too distant to feel emotionally connected.

We were there. A salute to all those brave men who paid the ultimate price.

 

 

 

 

 


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One response

28 07 2018
JB

All very interesting. Never heard of the Artists Rifles. I had a chance to visit the MOTHS shrine, the WWI memorial in the Matopos, a year ago. Big contribution from southern Africa during the war. My own grandfather and his Irish regiment followed right on the heels of the South Africans and Rhodesians at Delville Wood. Such terrible slaughter. A salute to all the men, indeed. I wonder where there may be other WWI memorials in Zim. I’ll try to check them out next time I’m there. (Good luck for this Monday!)

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