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Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Manitoba's WWI Fallen: Private Thomas W. Roberts of Rivers

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War, I am working on a series of blog posts and radio shows that will look at some of the Manitobans who died in action. For more about this project and links to other posts, follow this link.


Brothers Thomas (Tom) William Roberts and John (Jack) Roberts lives were mirror images of each other. Born in Liverpool, they came to Manitoba, likely first to Transcona, then to Rivers, with parents George H. and Sarah Roberts.

When hostilities broke out, both teens were back living in Transcona at 162 Melrose Avenue while apprenticing at the CPR shops; Tom as a carpenter and Jack as an air brakeman. 

As both were underage**, they joined the 90th Rifles Home Guard reserves as buglers. After a few months, Tom decided to enlist on February 9th, 1916, followed by Jack on Feb 17. They went to England and, once there, were assigned to different batallions to go to France and fight. 

Tom, who was with the 43rd Battalion (Cameron Highlanders), received multiple gunshot wounds in the Battle of Passchendaele on October 28, 1917. He died later that day at No. 44 Casualty Clearing Station and is buried in the Nine Elms British Cemetery in West-Vlaanderen, Belgium.

When brother Jack received the news, he wrote the following poem in the trenches and sent it home. It was published in the Rivers Gazette on September 25, 1918, (source.)

Somewhere in France our hero sleeps,
To wake on earth no more;
Somewhere in Canada his loved ones fret
For the dear one gone before;

A British hero to the heart
His precious life he gave
He died upon that famous ridge,
Where many shall remain.

Sleep on, dear brother, God's will be done
For now I know they work is done;
God took thee when He thought it best.
To be with him forever blest.

Forget him? No! I never will
I loved him here, I love him still,
Nor love him less because he's gone
To his eternal rest.

It was reported in the Winnipeg Tribune of November 26, 1918 that Jack appeared on the official list from Ottawa as being killed in action. This was an error, something that happened from time to time. (The fact that he survived is confirmed by his name not appearing on the Canadian Virtual War Memorial or the Rivers war memorial.)

Related: Canadian Virtual War Memorial entry
Canadian Great War Project entry
Attestation Papers
Circumstances of Death register

** This was a common "loophole" in the Canadian system that allowed child soldiers as young as 13, perhaps younger, into battle. Battalions traditionally used young boys as their buglers and drummers. When they were mobilized, the boy, normally with their parents permission, would enlist but lie about their age on their attestation papers. 

When the battalion was mobilized, the boys could then go to training and even to England with them. Once there, though, they technically could not go into battle but some went along with their unit or, as in this case, found other units to take them that were desperate or none the wiser to the boys' actual age.

This was the case with both Tom and Jack, whose birth dates provided at the time on enlistment make them 18 and 19 respectively. The fact that they were underage is from a Winnipeg Tribune story and the . "The Story of Rivers", published in 1963 and available at Manitobia.

January 18, 1918, Winnipeg Tribune

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