Late in 1917, the British aided by 476 tanks, decided to launch a surprise attack towards the German held city of Cambrai. Despite gains in the first ten days, the British did not come close to capturing the city and by the first week of December had been pushed back, close to their starting lines by spirited German counter-attacks. Both sides suffered about 45,000 casualties.
Oundelian Guy Hepworth Roberts, a Yorkshire boy, was one of those fatally wounded on the first day of the Battle of Cambrai. He was an unusual Oundelian, in that he lived in two boarding houses. He started in New House in 1907 but later transferred to Francis Norbury’s Grafton.
He won a History Prize in the Lower Sixth Form, but his academic progress was perhaps overshadowed by his sporting prowess. He played in the centres for the XV in his last year, but the Laxtonian felt that he did not pass out often enough as he was “too fond of trying to burrow through his opponents.” Nonetheless, the same critic acknowledged that he had “helped greatly in the defence and plays a vigorous game.” He was clearly a good all-round sportsman as he also captained Grafton in rugby and cricket and rowed in the house boat. In athletics he was 2nd in the Half Mile and 3rd in the Quarter Mile on his last Sports Day. He left Oundle in 1911 and was articled to a firm of chartered accountants.
As the war began, he was rejected by the Artists Rifles and the Public School Boys’ Naval Division for defective eyesight but managed to secure a commission in the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry in October 1914. By July of 1915 he was a Lieutenant and was appointed to the staff of Brigadier General Lassiter. He was then appointed A.D.C. (Aide-de-Camp) to General Braithwaite but later resigned from this post to re-join his regiment.
In July 1917 he was promoted Captain and given command of a company. He led his men into action in the great attack on Cambrai on 20th November 1917 and died of his injuries two days later, aged 25. The regimental diary records the success of the attack on that day:
“At 6.20 am the attack was launched. 3 wire crushing tanks and 8 fighting tanks were allotted to the Battalion. The objective of A & B Companies was a section of the German front line trench running from VESUVIUS to OXFORD ROAD and that of C & D Companies a line running west from the North West corner of HAVRINCOURT. The attack was completely successful, objectives being gained by 8.30 am. The captured positions were consolidated.”
His Commanding officer wrote of Guy Roberts: “We all mourn the loss of a cheery, gallant friend, and I, in addition, the loss of an excellent company commander, who I cannot replace. Your boy was looking forward with great confidence to the attack, and I saw and spoke to him just before our troops were launched. All his arrangements were in perfect order, and he was as merry and cheerful as ever. The last words he said when we left him was ‘We are going to have a great time today’.”
His Major later noted that Guy “died leading his men into an attack which was completely successful and it was his gallant example and leadership which greatly helped us to gain our objective.”
Guy Roberts was 25 years old at the time of his death.