In which The Author reads a brand new book about the Great War
In Never Volunteer, I outlined the research which my friend Geoff Evans has been busy with for the last year or more. I told you how I’d volunteered to proofread his text, and even showed you some of my own photos, which I’d taken as background material for that particular entry. At the time, Armistice Day seemed a very long way away.
To mark the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War, Geoff decided to set himself an unenviable task: to try and find out as much information as possible about the 222 servicemen named on the St Michael’s Chapel war memorial in St Elvan’s Church, Aberdare.
The end result, The Men Who Marched Away, is published today by the Cynon Valley History Society. Geoff has painstakingly combed through the microfilmed copies of the Aberdare Leader, the websites of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, and numerous other archives, to compile pen-portraits of the Aberdare men who gave their lives during the Great War. I’ve been fortunate to read the whole manuscript prior to publication. It’s a fascinating, moving and poignant account of a lost generation.
Neither the ‘cenotaph’ at Aberdare, nor Prof James Havard Thomas’s magnificent statue of Britannia at Mountain Ash, give us any idea of the sheer number of men who didn’t return from the Great War, or who died subsequently and are buried locally. There are no names on these memorials, so it’s almost impossible to appreciate the scale of the sacrifice involved.
However, there are individual names on the memorials at Hirwaun, Llwydcoed, Abercynon, Ynysybwl, and Penrhiwceiber. There are also numerous Rolls of Honour which list the names of the fallen. Like the St Elvan’s memorial, these really open one’s eyes to the extent of the tragedy which befell communities throughout these islands. There are well over a hundred names on the Abercynon memorial, and a similar number at Penrhiwceiber. Geoff reckons that, all told, nearly sixteen hundred men from the Cynon Valley laid down their lives in the Great War and its aftermath.
To see some of these men come back to life, as it were, with details of their families, civilian occupations, social activities, and often all-too-brief military careers, allows the reader of a century later to appreciate the impact that the War had on close-knit communities like ours. I imagine that most people knew someone who’d volunteered for the Front; many people, therefore, would be touched by the loss of a loved one.
The Aberdare Leader of a century ago was chock-full of content, covering the whole area from the upper reaches of the Vale of Neath, right through the Cynon Valley to Ynysybwl and Pontypridd. Although it ran to only eight pages – and the front page consisted entirely of advertisements – it still crammed more interesting information into seven pages than today’s local ‘news’paper prints in ten times that number (plus the numerous supplements.)
Can you even imagine today’s Leader printing a story about the declaration of war amongst the usual RCTCBC press releases and charity appeals? A hundred years ago, it was on page 4. Quite by chance, a local lady had been on holiday in Belgium just before the Germans invaded, and the Leader printed her eyewitness account of events on the same page. How about that for an exclusive, eh?
For the next few weeks, the paper printed stories about the unfolding events in Europe, the local battalions which had been formed, the Belgian refugees who had arrived in the area, and even this curious story about the plight of a German barber from Abercynon.
Having just mentioned the Belgians who sought sanctuary in the area, I’d like to tip my hat to Lieutenant James Windsor Lewis of the Welsh Guards, the owner of the Llwydcoed estate. He seems to have been an extraordinary man. He was privately educated, an Oxford graduate, and a pupil of the Inner Temple. You probably think he sounds like the archetypal chinless wonder. You couldn’t be further from the truth.
When times were hard, James Windsor Lewis would reduce the rents paid by his tenants; when the war started, he remitted them entirely. He also gave over some of the newly-built properties at New Scales Houses to displaced Belgian families. In spite of his privileged background, he seems to have acted warmly towards anyone he met. It’s clear from the tributes which followed his death at Ypres in 1916, aged just 39, that he was a popular and well-loved leader of men in the trenches too.
In 1910, Lt Windsor Lewis had donated a portion of land to the people of Llwydcoed as a public park. The village memorial now stands in that part, and his name is at the top of the list of the fallen. Until I read Geoff’s book, I had no idea about his background or his life. He’s since become something of a hero of mine.
As I’ve already noted, however, Lt Windsor Lewis and his fellow professional soldiers were in the minority on the front line. The overwhelming majority were ordinary men – miners, railwaymen, tram drivers, postmen, shop assistants, teachers, an international footballer(!), craftsmen, bank clerks, and even a church missionary – who had signed up, probably after seeing advertisements like these:
It didn’t take very long for news of the first casualties to reach Aberdare, as you can see from this brief item from October 1914:
Over time, the Leader‘s regular column headed ‘The War’ expanded to half a page, then a whole page.
An increasing amount of local news coverage was devoted to local men serving in the Army, the Royal Navy, or the recently-formed Royal Flying Corps. Some were on furlough; others had been invalided home; others were missing, or had been taken prisoner. An increasing number of reports, however, concerned those who had been killed in action. Geoff has painstakingly constructed pen portraits of over two hundred casualties of the war and presented them in his book.
Fortunately, many of their relatives forwarded their correspondence to the newspaper, and this was printed as part of ‘The War’ news.
Letters like these, by turns informative, humorous, charming, surprising and tragic, provide the raw material for a chapter entitled ‘Tales From the Trenches.’ Here, some of the men named on the St Elvan’s memorial speak in their own words from the front line. The correspondence paints a vivid picture of life during wartime.
By 1916, the whole of page 7 was filled with the names of those wounded, or missing in action, or killed. It seems as though bad news was coming in from across half the world, from France and Belgium to Turkey, Mesopotamia, East Africa and India.
The Leader also printed some of the official letters sent to the families of those who had fallen. Geoff and I were chatting over a pint a few weeks ago. He commented that the commanding officers must have spent every evening writing these awful notifications, all the while knowing they themselves were under ‘shot and shell.’
In the midst of the hardship, however, there are moments of light relief. One young man, writing to his mother, asks her to ‘Send me about half a million Welsh cakes.’ Another man sent home a remarkable account of the ruins at Luxor – half a decade before the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb sent the world crazy for all things Egyptian.
There are the terrific Boys’ Own exploits of Lt Clifford Stanton and his battalion. His father, C. B. Stanton, was the MP for Merthyr and Aberdare at the time. When was the last time a serving member of the UK parliament lost a son in battle, I wonder?
Another notable figure was Capt the Hon. Henry Lyndhurst Bruce, the son of Lord Aberdare, whose ripping yarns are worth highlighting. (In fact, his somewhat eccentric family are worthy of a book in their own right.) He died in action in 1914, having written several long letters to his father. You can read some of those in the book, too.
To put some perspective into the wide range of Aberdare men who lost their lives in the Great War, I’ll pick just two examples. The youngest man named on the St Elvan’s memorial, Ordinary Seaman William James Thomas was just seventeen years old when he died; one of the oldest, Sergeant Joseph Shannon, was aged 53.
William Thomas’ parents kept the Rhoswenallt Inn in Abernant. Their son was serving in the British merchant fleet when his ship, the SS Polesley was torpedoed by a German U-boat off the coast of Cornwall. Joe Shannon was past military age, but his skill as a rifleman had enabled him to enlist as a marksman instructor. He lost his life in France, to pneumonia.
O.S. Thomas and Sgt Shannon died within weeks of each other, in the final few months of the conflict which shaped the rest of the Twentieth Century.
In telling their stories, and those of the others who are commemorated in St Elvan’s Church, Geoff had in mind the words of Clive Aslet, the journalist and author of War Memorial:
There are said to be 100,000 war memorials in this country. They’re such a familiar feature in the landscape of our lives that we don’t always ask how they came to be created or what they mean. Everyone’s attention, though, will be focused on these monuments – many in association with churches – during the four years of the First World War centenary. They are public documents but so often we have forgotten the way to read them, because the people behind the names have been lost.
This book, by tracing the stories which lie behind the memorial in St Elvan’s Church, will enable some of the ‘people behind the names’ to be remembered once more.
The Men Who Marched Away by Geoffrey Evans is now available from Aberdare Library, The Book Station in Duke Street, Aberdare (opposite the bus station), or directly from the Cynon Valley History Society, priced £12.00