The Black Chair and the Blackbird (Two deaths in WWI)

Artillery Wood

Two military graves lying only feet apart in a Belgian cemetery commemorate the lives of two iconic literary figures: the greatest Welsh and the greatest Irish poets of the Great War.

They died on the same day (102 years ago today) in the same battle, but the paths that led them into British Army uniform could not have been more different.

Elis Humphrey Evans – “Hedd Wyn” – was born into a farming family in Trawsfynydd. The war had torn open a split in Welsh non-conformism, causing a major clash between those who opposed and those who supported the conflict.

His poetry, which was inspired by the Romantic work of Shelley, quickly began to tackle the subject of the war. He wrote his war poetry before he enlisted.

Hedd Wyn was a Christian pacifist, but he joined the British Army so that his younger brother would not have to fight.

Ledwidge memorial

Francis Ledwidge is known in Ireland as the “poet of the blackbirds”. Born into a poverty-stricken family, he became a political activist and union leader while still a teenager. His poetry earned him the patronage of Lord Dunsany, who introduced him to WB Yeats.

A keen patriot and nationalist, he joined the Irish Volunteers, a pro-Home Rule force. On the outbreak of war the Irish Volunteers became split between those who supported the British cause and those who did not.

Ledwidge initially opposed the war but changed his mind, believing that if Britain won the war Ireland would get its Home Rule. He said he could not stand by while others fought for Irish freedom.

The stories of these two men’s “paths to glory” and violent death are set against the backdrop of the history of the Edwardian and First World War Wales and Ireland: the 1904-05 religious revival, the power of the Chapel to oppose and support war, Irish Catholicism and Nationalism, the Easter Rising and the promotion of the war as a Christian fight against paganism.

In Wales, whilst poet T Gwynn Jones and Socialist preacher TE Nicholas were campaigning against the war, the chapels with the help of ministers like John Williams, Brynsiecyn, ensured the youth of Wales enlisted in their thousands.

In Ireland, Nationalism developed into a failed revolution. But Ledwidge now considered himself a soldier and wondered in his poetry if he would have a soldier’s death.

On July 31, 1917, on the opening day of the Third Battle of Ypres, a shell landed in the trench where Ledwidge was drinking tea. His chaplain recorded: “Ledwidge killed, blown to bits”.

Nearby, as Hedd Wyn – who had only recently arrived at the front – advanced with his comrades on Pilckem Ridge, the Welshman was struck down. He died soon after at a first-aid post.

The Birkenhead National Eisteddfod of 1917 became known as “Eisteddfod y Gadair Ddu” (Eisteddfod of the Black Chair) in recognition of Hedd Wyn’s being posthumously awarded the Chair for his long poem, Yr Arwr. He is regarded as the iconic Welsh poet of the First World War.

In Ireland, the thousands who had died for the British Army – people like Francis Ledwidge – were forgotten. It was said by leaders of the new Republic of Ireland that although their sacrifice was great but they “did not die for this State”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

*First published at https://jonkilkade.com/

100-year-old war veteran poem turned into a song

STA77423

A number of Welsh veterans of the Gallipoli campaign went on to write poems about their experiences.

Among the poems unearthed by historian Anne Pedley were ‘The Heroes of Suvla Bay’ by Sergeant WR Williams, of the 6th Battalion Royal Welsh Fusiliers, and ‘The Boys of Suvla Bay’ by an unknown author.

Anne helped research the Radio Wales programme ‘Quarry Boys: The Welsh at Gallipoli’. Together we contacted singer Helen Bradley, who had heard about the poems and wanted to record one.

She worked with Neil Dunsire, of TAPE Community Music and Film, of Old Colwyn, who worked with Helen to combine the lyrics of the poems and put them to music.

They made a fantastic job of it. Hear it on ‘Quarry Boys: The Welsh at Gallipoli’ which is due to be broadcast on BBC Radio Wales at 12.30pm on Sunday, April 26, and repeated at 6.30pm on April 27 and 5.30am on April 28.

Quarry Boys: The Welsh at Gallipoli

This is my grandfather in the centre. Photo taken in Alexandria in 1916 with two other survivors of Gallipoli. He was a sergeant - CopyOne hundred years ago this weekend (April 25, 1915) the Allies launched a land invasion of the Gallipoli peninsula in Turkey.

The plan was to capture Constantinople and take Germany’s ally Turkey out of the war.

The landing failed and the battle developed into a stalemate – the trench warfare of the Western Front in miniature.

Every year on April 25, Australia and New Zealand mark the sacrifice of their troops in the battle on what is known as Anzac Day.

But thousands of Welsh troops took part in the Gallipoli campaign too and their contribution has been largely forgotten – until now.

This weekend Radio Wales will broadcast ‘Quarry Boys: The Welsh at Gallipoli’, a programme to commemorate the men who fought and died in the Dardanelles.

Among the men who served in the campaign was William John Jones, of the Penmaenmawr Company of the 6th Battalion Royal Welsh Fusiliers.

The company was composed of men who worked at the quarry in the town of Penmaenmawr, near Llandudno.

William Jones’ grandson, Dennis Roberts, said: “When he was an early teenager he joined a fife and drum band which was part of the local [army] volunteers.

“He moved from the little cadet band to be an active soldier in the volunteers.

“War broke out and they wondered what was going to happen to them. As volunteers they didn’t have to go abroad – they had to be asked nicely. I am sure most in 1914 said they were happy to go – they daren’t say no.”

The Quarry Boys did not take part in the initial landings at Gallipoli, although many Welshmen did.

On the first day of the landings at Helles in the south, the 2nd Battalion South Wales Borderers lost three officers and thirteen men. The battalion would remain at Helles until evacuated in January 1916. They would leave behind more than 500 dead.

After the April landings the invading force was held back at the coast. It dug in and held on to the small amount of territory gained.

By August 1915 a new strategy was needed. A fresh invasion with even more troops.

The 4th battalion of the South Wales Borderers, the 4th and 8th battalions of the Welsh Regiment and four battalions of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers prepared to play their part in the coming battle.

On the Greek island of Lemnos the Quarry Boys of Penmaenmawr were writing final letters home.

They moved onto boats in the early hours of August 9th, 1915. Ahead of them, their target: a rocky stretch of the Turkish coast called Suvla Bay.

Private Richard Jones, a friend of Williams Jones, later wrote in his diary: “I could hear something dropping in the middle of another regiment. I felt rather nervous. Another followed in a few seconds and she fell about 15 to 20 yards the other side of me.

“We all were laying down flat on the ground wondering where the next was going to drop.”

But it was on the following day, August 10th 1915, that the Quarry Boys fought their most terrible battle, charging ahead in full view of the Turkish guns.

Dennis Roberts, whose grandfather was a Quarry Boy1

Dennis Roberts said: “There was no cover, they had to cross a salt lake which in summer dried up. But the men were struggling to cross this lake, the mud was above their knees.”

Private Richard Jones wrote: “I could see one of the shells dropping in the middle of our boys and knocking about nine of them down.

“A little further on we came to a bush and we attended to some wounded here. Here I saw Sergeant Roberts, of Holyhead, he was shot through the leg. In about two minutes we had a few wounded behind this bush and I was thinking to myself that my last day had come.

“I saw Dick Williams wounded – a very bad wound, too. We put him to lay on one of the stretchers. The poor lad was shouting for his mother. There was poor hopes for him.”

By the end of the day it was clear the attack had not succeeded. But the Quarry Boys were ordered into battle again.

This time they had to make a bayonet charge up a hill.

They did what was asked of them – but the plan was a disaster and they lost their leader, Major Gus Wheeler, who in peacetime had been the quarry manager.

“I get angry,” Dennis Roberts said. “Those who led the lads down in Turkey – well, I don’t know what they were doing.”

Once again, after these initial attacks, the campaign developed into a stalemate.

In the dust and heat of the Turkish summer the soldiers were desperately short of water. In the early stages of the campaign all men could do was risk the local wells – but each of these was covered by a Turkish sniper.

Quarry Boy RJ Davies wrote in his diary: “There are dozens of Turkish snipers. They are painted green all over – the same colour as the trees. We shoot at every tree we see but we cannot get them. Some of them are women. Three or four dropped yesterday, one of them was a woman. They do a lot of damage to our chaps. There are a lot of dead lying close to every well.”

By January 1916, the campaign was over and the Allied soldiers had been evacuated. More than 1,300 men who served with Welsh regiments were dead.

Williams Jones served in Palestine but survived to return to work in the quarry at Penmaenmawr.

Sunday’s programme features a specially recorded ballad, using the poems of soldier WR Williams and an unknown comrade from Suvla Bay. It is sung by Conwy Museums Officer Helen Bradley and the music is composed by Neil Dunsire, of TAPE Community Music and Film, of Old Colwyn.

* ‘Quarry Boys: The Welsh at Gallipoli’ is due to be broadcast on BBC Radio Wales at 12.30pm on Sunday, April 26, 2015, and repeated at 6.30pm on April 27 and 5.30am on April 28.