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The Great Survivor-bookcover

By: edited by Hugh Malcolm Roberts

The Great Survivor

Pages: 166 Ratings: 4.7
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The First World War offers many tales of survival against the odds, but few can have been so meticulously documented as this. Wounded at Passchendaele in October 1917, then sent to a supposedly quiet area near the Aisne just before the Germans’ ‘Spring Offensive’ intensified, Private William Roberts was both desperately unlucky and extremely fortunate. His wartime diary provides not only a compelling insight into the carnage and mud-filled misery at the front, but also glimpses of rare lighter moments – a quiet drink in a local French bar or the surreal experience of attending a concert while battle raged only miles away.

The diary brilliantly captures his training in Doncaster, with the excitement and foreboding of what was to come, and the blend of doughty camaraderie and daily tedium that was life in a POW camp.

Locked away in a chest for nearly a century, this is perhaps the most remarkable diary by a private soldier of the Great War.

Hugh Malcolm Roberts was born on 3rd January 1945, in Birmingham, the second child to William and Amy Roberts whose first son John had died aged thirteen on 15th December 1943. Following the death of his father on 13th June 1963, while searching through his papers, he discovered a small paper bag which contained a pocket address book and many scraps of paper. These turned out to be the diary of his time in the Great War. Fifty-three years later, having retired the previous year, Hugh began the challenging task of transcribing them into this book. As can be seen within the text, William’s writing is very small and hence the need to make regular use of a magnifying glass!
Hugh left school in the summer of 1961 and secured a position as a trainee quantity surveyor. This led to his attaining qualification as a chartered surveyor and later, having switched careers in 1977, as a chartered loss adjuster. Between these two choices came a period of working in Jamaica and London before a return to the second city and the move to loss adjusting. Upon qualifying in this second career, promotion followed together with a move to Cheltenham where he now lives.
Upon the one hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War in 2014, Hugh was interviewed by the BBC for both television and radio when he took the opportunity of explaining not only his father’s role in that conflict but also that of his regiment, The Durham Light Infantry.

Customer Reviews
3 reviews
3 reviews
  • Sean Godfrey

    William Roberts, like many of his generation, served their country in the Great War.
    However, unlike most of that brave generation, William Roberts kept a diary.
    Locked away for nearly a century, it is now in the public domain and gives an informative insight into the daily life of a British soldier in the Great War.
    William appears to have been a humble man, giving only brief details of his part in two of the most dramatic days in the war, where he would have been involved in some of the heaviest fighting and on both occasions, being wounded.
    His detailed diary entries of life behind the lines and on being a Prisoner of War give a revealing account of the reality of being a ‘Tommy Atkins’, where losing a spoon and what he had to eat every day are as important to him as being wounded at Polygon Wood.
    An enjoyable read and a worthy addition to anyone’s Great War collection of books.’

  • Peter Stone

    Private W G Roberts' succinct personal diaries manage to convey the horrors of WW1 more subtly than any standard graphic account. They include descriptions of his initial training, front line duties in Flanders, and subsequent day-to-day progress, under duress from mental stress and the physical pain of his shrapnel wounds, during his captive months in a POW camp. There his post-battle daemons - boredom and sickness - are tempered by tones of stoicism, patience, and courage, albeit with the knowledge that many of his erstwhile Durham Light Infantry comrades are gone forever.
    His diaries are an assertion that life still carries on in the midst of catastrophe. He largely eschews detailed battle accounts - apart from starkly effective inclusions like "(we) fought to the last " (just before his capture at Aisne) - in favour of down-to-earth, even mundane, topics such as his food, the weather, and books he read in the prison camp, atmospherically portraying a world of relative "normality" that struggles to exist alongside the carnage. He also describes lighter pre-POW moments when there were chances to dance, drink and be merry, even in the midst of the war.
    Hugh Roberts has done a superb job of collating the material from his father's diaries - which were hidden away and untouched for nearly a century. He's fleshed out the work with period photos and copies of Private Roberts' private notes, creating a real feel for time and place.

  • Marianne Zweigbergk

    A fascinating snapshot of WW1 through the eyes of Private Roberts. His Diary is an illuminating example of this time, endured with both resilience and resignation. Written without sentiment, he portrays daily events, which are both interesting and informative and he transports the reader completely into his world.

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