Charles Francis Roope was born on 24 December 1883 into a Roman Catholic family. After the birth of four older sisters, my grandmother Evelyn amongst them, he was no doubt more than welcome! He was followed a year later, by the arrival of a further sister, before the family was complete.
His father Charles Henry Roope was a merchant banker in the City of London and his mother Millicent Matilda (née Lawes) came from a Catholic family in Norfolk. This branch of the Roope family had very strong connections with the Port Wine trade and indeed Charles Henry had been born in Madeira and spent much of his childhood in Lisbon. Charles Francis grew up in Hampstead and completed his education at St Augustine’s Ramsgate (a Catholic boarding school). After which, he appears to have worked as a clerk in his father’s bank.
However, by 1912 he had obviously decided to begin a new life as a farmer. He took passage to Montreal on a steamship owned by the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) on the 25th April 1912 (just 10 days after the sinking of the Titanic).[i] He travelled to Vancouver; most probably by rail, the CPR having completed the rail link in 1885. The rail link certainly appears to have opened up the region and bought prosperity, mining, lumbering & salmon fishing being the main occupations. Charles Francis bought some land at Comox on Vancouver Island and set about clearing it. There are several photographs taken by his sister Mary (who went out to visit him in 1914),of him sawing giant redwoods and seated outside his log cabin. He wrote to his mother around this time
“We have sent down to Victoria for a few hens to form the nuclear of our poultry establishment. They are pure bread Leghorns & 5 of them judged the best in the Province at the international show in Vancouver, that is to say in the egg laying contest. It is everything to start with a good laying strain to breed from.”[ii]
Unfortunately his attempt to settle in Canada lasted little more than 3 years. By May 1915 he had embarked once more for England, no doubt with the intention of joining up. [iii]Eventually after ‘pulling a few family strings’ he was commissioned on the 21st August 1915 into the 16th Battalion the Royal Fusiliers.[iv] On the 15th December he was writing to his sister Evelyn.
“Things are going along apace over here and I am now on the waiting list for the front having passed the necessary exam, so I rather expect to go out before long. Rather sooner than I expected, but things are coming to a head and the Balkans look like the last big attempt at the enemy. I shall probably go out to Egypt and thence to Salonika. My chief worry is when I shall have to tell them at home”[v]
We next hear from him in Alexandria on the 12 March 1916. He clearly had an exciting voyage out.
“We came out on a mighty vessel one of the largest afloat. Like your own trip we had to wear life belts from morning till night & had the additional experience of falling in with a real live …submarine. The war was obviously lying in wait for us…her periscopes were clearly visible almost before she had fired our great ship was twisting & turning like an eel in the water, keeping her stern to the enemy & offering as little of a target as possible. I was close to the deck when the alarm was sounded & came out as our guns began to fire. The splash of the shots indicated where to look & I got a good look at the submarine as her bows rose above the waves after firing the torpedo. She looked mighty close through my glasses & our shots all but got her. She soon had enough & submerged & we carried out our masterly retreat…At present we are attached to a Composite battalion which is made up of men just out from home or from hospitals & waiting to join their own battalion again. It is instructive work in the handling of men & quite interesting but will be a temporary job & I may be moved any day”[vi]
The 2nd Battalion Royal Fusiliers (to which Charles Francis was later attached) had clearly experienced a terrible time in Gallipoli. Of their return to Alexandria after their evacuation from Salonika the history of the Royal Fusiliers relates:
“It was little more than a year since the Battalion a splendid fighting unit had reached this very place, travelling in the opposite direction. The intervening period enshrined one of the most terrible experiences any soldiers were called upon to suffer”[vii]
The 2nd Battalion Royal Fusiliers was attached to the 29th Division. Another account relates:
“At a Sunday morning drumhead service in Alexandria we heard we would be going to France. The Padre spoke of “fresh fields and pastures new” but by the time we got there it was “pastures old” (Pte H. Parker, 1st Essex)[viii]
They landed at Marseilles in March 1916 en route for the Somme. On the 4th May Charles Francis wrote to Evelyn:
“You probably know from home of my arrival in France. Have not told them at home that I have already been under fire. Nothing serious, only a few shells & a stray bullet or two. They would only imagine all sorts of things at home so they may as well remain in ignorance as long as possible.”[ix]
The 29th Division were part of the Fourth Army under General Sir Henry Rawlinson. They went into the front line and faced the Hawthorn Ridge and the fortress village of Beaumont Hamel, just North of the river Ancre in between Serre and Thiepval and north-east of Albert. The ground was almost devoid of any worthwhile cover apart from a sunken road to the left of the sector. The tunnelers were also hard at work constructing the huge Hawthorn Redoubt mine, which it was anticipated would provide cover for the advancing troops as well as destroying a lot of the German front line.
“When they arrived they were greeted by a large placard displayed by the Germans “Welcome to the 29th Division” …The divisions continued to arrive until the area was thick with troops. Nothing like it had ever been seen before; there were to be three times as many men as at Loos, the BEF’s previous biggest effort. Eighteen divisions would be available for the first day of the attack (each division contained thirteen battalions)…The superiority over the Germans was seven to one. Even old timers who had known the bad battles of 1915 were impressed; surely this huge force must succeed”.[x]
His last letter home:
“My own dearest Mother,
Your dear letter & the knowledge that you are having so many masses said for me & are all praying so hard makes me feel very confident & happy. I do trust my little mother & dear ones at home will have courage & confidence to pass through the next week or so. Remember not only your own but Dot’s prayer’s (Dot was his sister & a Carmelite nun), but also the sisters at home who I know are having masses said. It seems selfish to have so much in my favour but I trust also it is for the grand success of our great cause which is far away above all individuals. The day before yesterday the chaplain gave us Catholics general absolution without confession…I intend to come through safely little Mother so try not to be too anxious. As I wrote before your biscuits & cake arrived quite safely & were much appreciated.
The weather has improved too a great deal pray heaven it will keep fine now… I received such a long letter from Evelyn the other day she writes so cheerfully & promises me no end of a good time when I come out to see her. I have no time to write just now.
Goodbye darling much love to you all
Your loving son
Chas. F. Roope”[xi]
[i] Ancestry.com. UK, Outward Passenger Lists, 1890-1960 [database on-line].
[ii] Family Papers.
[iii][iii] Ancestry.com. UK, Incoming Passenger Lists, 1878-1960 [database on-line]
[iv] 8362 SUPPLEMENT TO THE LONDON GAZETTE, 21 AUGUST, 1915
[v] Family Papers
[vi] Family Papers
[viii] The First Day on the Somme; Martin Middlebrook; Publ.Allen Lane; 1971; p.27
[ix] Family Papers
[x] The First Day on the Somme; Martin Middlebrook; Publ.Allen Lane; 1971; pp.77-78
[xi] Family Papers