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.
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”.
A big shout-out to photographer Susy Fernandes who is following the production of our short film This Is Not A Poem.
I’ve worked on dozens of productions but have never had someone taking photos during the process.
Being behind the camera one feels quite anonymous. Susy’s photos are putting the camera operator Paul Roberts and myself under her own kind of spotlight.
We chose Susy because she can immediately connect with our subjects of internationalism, understanding and tolerance.
She was born in Mozambique in 1974 in the year of The Carnation Revolution (Revolucao dos Cravos), to Portuguese parents.
To escape the riots her parents moved the family to South Africa. She lived there until she was 12 and then the family moved back to Portugal.
In 2005, she and her own young family left Portugal and went to England to work. They later moved to Wales.
In Wales, she decided to continue her studies at Cardiff and Vale College and joined a BTEC course in Fashion and Clothing. She is now studying a Foundation Degree in Photography with the USW at CAVC.
She says: “I believe that we are never too old to study and to dream. I’m doing all this so that my four boys can see me as a role model who, despite suffering from a chronic condition (Fibromyalgia), still has hope for a better future.”
We have engaged Susy to document our filming days.
The only thing we haven’t managed to do yet is get a photo of Susy herself!
We’re underway. My friend, Eric Ngalle Charles, and I have long-cherished a dream to turn his words and poetry into a film-hymn to tolerance and understanding.
Eric is a Cameroon-born writer who came to Britain as a refugee almost twenty years ago and has since become one of Wales’ foremost poets.
His writing is fearless and often funny, drawing on a rich history of sub-Saharan African folk tales and on his own incredible experience of being driven from his homeland and people-trafficked.
Eric has performed at the Hay Festival and held a series of writing workshops at the Dylan Thomas Centre in Swansea. The writer Owen Sheers, who is a keen supporter of Eric, has described his work as using “a unique theatrical language”.
For some time we’ve wanted to turn his work into a short film. Now, with the support of Arts Council of Wales and the Dylan Thomas Centre, we are.
We’ve worked together to edit and reshape many of Eric’s poems into a single narrative which describes why he left his homeland and how he came to settle in Wales.
And now filming has started. This blog will chart our progress.
The central theme of the work is identity and how we can all see ourselves as having several different identities at the same time: south Cameroonian, African, Welsh, for instance. Or English/Welsh-speaking Welsh, British, European.
The themes of the film are especially relevant because of the continuing national debate over immigration and Brexit.
The film will form part of a special event at which Eric will discuss poetry and his own thoughts on race and identity, and encourage discussion with the audience.
“We are all many people in one,” Eric says. “And the more we can understand ourselves, the easier it is to reach out to others and to understand them. Greg and I are committed to a message of bringing people closer together and making connections.”
Following its launch in September, the film will be shown at a number of venues around Wales and in Italy, where Eric has performed before.
That’s our camera operator, Paul Roberts, (centre above) carrying all the kit but still managing to keep ahead of us.
Please follow the ‘This Is Not A Poem’ Category and Tag to keep up with regular updates on the production.
Our photographs are from the fantastic Susy Fernandes and there will be more about – and from her – very soon.