William John Roberts was born and raised in King’s Cove Newfoundland, a small fishing village notable only for its lighthouse. Roberts’ parents both died when he was a baby, and so he was raised by his uncle, Kenneth Monk. Although Monk was a poor fisherman, he worked hard to ensure Roberts grew up happy and healthy. Monk even managed to secure Roberts an apprenticeship as a tailor, a lucrative position for someone without a high school education. When William was nineteen he joined the Royal Naval Reserve and served without incident for four years.
In May of 1915, Roberts enlisted with the Canadian Expeditionary Force despite his naval experience making him, in the eyes of the military, better suited for naval service. However, with only two barely seaworthy vessels at the start of the war, the Canadian Navy had no positions for Roberts who wanted to fight as soon as possible. Roberts was then attached to the 2nd Canadian Mounted Rifles. During his training in Canada, Roberts was convicted of being absent without leave and sentenced to 28 days impriso
Upon his release, Roberts finished his training and was shipped to France in September 1915. For the next four months Roberts was an unremarkable soldier. The only event of note involving Roberts was that he contacted gonorrhea within days of arriving in France and had to be sent to Cambridge hospital for two weeks for treatment. On January 10th following a major bombardment, Roberts was sent to No 1. Convalescence Depot with ‘Not Yet Diagnosed Nervous’, a temporarily diagnosis often used as a euphemism for shell shock. On February 5th, Roberts was discharged from hospital and ordered to return to the front. Roberts refused to return abandoning his uniform and disappearing in France. The Military Police immediately began searching for Roberts, but it was not until June 1916 that he was captured. Roberts was brought before a court martial where he was quickly convicted of desertion and sentenced to death. At 4:36 AM on July 30 1918, Roberts was executed by firing squad. Roberts was buried in Boulogne Eastern Cemetery.
Kenneth Monk was informed of his son’s death a few months later. Perhaps in some attempt to protect Monk’s memory of his son or to lessen his grief, Monk was told Roberts died in battle. Monk and the entire village were heartbroken by the news and grieved deeply at the loss of one of their own. The death of his son and a lifetime of hard labour took their toll on Monk’s health leaving him unable to work and in difficult financial circumstances. In 1921, Monk became aware of pensions for parents who lost sons in the war and applied for one. Interestingly, despite Roberts being killed for desertion, Monk was still eligible for a pension and efforts were made to preserve Monk’s belief his son had died an “honourable” death in battle. The problem for Monk was that he had no documentary evidence for his claims. Pensions for family members of soldiers who died because of their service, were only granted if documentary evidence could be provided proving the deceased soldier had and intended to continue providing financial aid. Monk having no access to a bank account and having received support from his son in cash, could provide no documentary evidence. Though community members including the parish minister testified for Monk’s case, the pension board ultimately rejected Monk’s claim.
Roberts along with the 25 other Canadians executed for desertion or cowardice were excluded from government memorials for nearly a century. In 2011, the Canadian government officially added Roberts name to the book of remembrance and pardoned him for desertion.