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
In which The Author goes above and beyond
the call of duty
In the last seven days I’ve acquired over a dozen new books, read most of an unpublished book in minute detail, taken over two hundred photographs, visited four war memorials, and been to church twice in as many days.
I’d been hoping for a fairly quiet week. Fat chance!
My friend Geoff Evans is a very keen historian with a broad range of interests. I told you about his enormous collection of theatrical memorabilia in Television Killed the Variety Star. I mentioned then that he’s been toying with the idea of compiling a book about the old theatres and cinemas of Wales, based on his extensive knowledge of the subject.
That’s just one publishing avenue which Geoff’s explored over the years. He’s contributed articles to the Cynon Valley History Society’s semi-regular journal Old Aberdare, and others to Merthyr Historian; he compiles Hanes, the society’s quarterly newsletter; he’s also written accounts of St John’s Church and St Elvan’s Church in Aberdare, a history of the Aberdare Rotary Club, and co-edited an anthology of writings about the Cynon Valley, amongst other things. As you’ve probably guessed, since his retirement, he’s been able to devote a lot of his time to his hobbies.
In For the Fallen I explored the myth about Aberdare’s so-called ‘cenotaph’, the war memorial in Victoria Square. Geoff and I were talking about that entry several months ago, and he told me that he’d been ploughing a similar furrow for some time. He was very grateful to learn that my correspondence with the War Memorials Trust had saved him from pursuing the same line of enquiry.
I didn’t know it at the time, but his latest project is a history of the war memorials within the Cynon Valley, designed to coincide with the centenary of the First World War. At some point during my visit to Geoff’s home in June, I seem to have (been?) volunteered to proofread the entire book.
In the meantime, my ongoing Vanishing Valleys project has taken me to towns and villages throughout South Wales. On my travels I’ve photographed numerous memorials to servicemen from the local areas. I’ve been familiar with a lot of them for years, of course; others are relatively recent discoveries. In particular, the ‘cenotaph’ in Aberdare and the Clock Tower in Hirwaun have been part of my mental landscape for as long as I can remember. However, it’s only recently that I’ve taken the time to take a close look at them, and others which I’ve passed hundred of times over the years.
The monuments in this first batch of photos were erected by public subscription, to honour the ‘lions led by donkeys’ who never returned home from the Great War for whatever reason. Most of them are in pride of place in the towns and villages; one or two are a little bit harder to find. They all have heartbreaking tales to tell, as I’ve been finding out for myself over the last month or so.
I know it’s not in the Cynon Valley, but this is one of my favourite recent discoveries. I love the understated dignity of the memorial at Trelewis, near Nelson.
This next one was new to me until a couple of years ago. The war memorial in Mountain Ash is especially beautiful. It’s some distance from the town centre, in Duffryn Woods, alongside the minor road to Cefnpennar. Surrounded by mature trees, approached by a narrow path from the Gorsedd Circle, it almost feels as though it’s been transported from the battle sites of France. Representing Britannia triumphant over ‘Might’, it’s a striking and emotive piece of work. Unfortunately, the bronze panels were stolen in 2008, and the restored version apparently does not reflect its original glory.
In addition to the ‘cenotaph’ and the local memorials, there are (or rather were) a number of rolls of honour throughout the valley. Some of them survive, but others have been lost over the years. Here’s one example:
The Aberdare Urban District Council & Education Committee Roll of Honour used to be on the frontage of the old town hall in High Street. I took the original photo when it was still there. When the building was being renovated a couple of years ago, it was relocated to the foyer of Aberdare Library.
Until I mentioned the subject some way into my Vanishing Valleys project, it hadn’t even occurred to me that Trecynon doesn’t have a conspicuous war memorial. It turns out that there’s a Roll of Honour in St Fagan’s Church, a few minutes’ walk from my house. I still haven’t been along to check it out. It’s on my ‘to do’ list – along with about three hundred other items. Priorities, priorities …
To my mind, though, Aberdare’s most impressive war memorial isn’t the one in Victoria Square. A six-metre slab of granite on a traffic island is all very well, but it doesn’t give you the full story. The memorial which really fleshes out the bones is in St Elvan’s Church, the magnificent Victorian Gothic edifice which dominates the skyline of the town centre.
I hadn’t been inside St Elvan’s for about thirty years, so when Geoff told me that he’d been researching the stories behind the memorial there, it piqued my interest. A week ago, I decided to call into the church. St Elvan’s has been open to the public on Saturday mornings throughout the summer, and it seemed like a perfect opportunity to see the memorial for myself.
By now, I’d enlisted Clint. Geoff’s own photos weren’t great (as he’ll readily admit), so I roped in our resident Photoshopper to lend a hand. We met up in the Chapel of St Michael and All Angels, which was added to the church in 1911 and formally dedicated as a war memorial chapel in 1919. Here, finally, I saw the inspiration for Geoff’s current project.
These great oak panels list the names of 222 men from the Parish of Aberdare who died in, or shortly after, the Great War. As Geoff himself has written,
The men … came from all sections of the community, and the list of casualties include coal miners, bank clerks, a solicitor, a cellist in the orchestra of a local theatre, a landowner, a local hairdresser, fondly known as ‘Snips’, teachers, tram drivers, local footballers, and four former public school pupils. These men once walked the same streets we use today, were members of local churches and chapels, sang in local choirs, took part in sporting activities, attended the town’s cinemas and enjoyed the society of local pubs.
Clint and I spent ages in the church, taking hundreds of photos between us and chatting to Fr Robert Davies and his wife Christina. I’ve known Fr Robert by sight for years, and we’ve shaken hands at a couple of funerals, but we’d never spoken in detail until last Saturday.
They’re a fantastic couple, very approachable and welcoming. They told us about their recent holiday in Greece, where they’d made a point of visiting the graves of three Aberdare men who fell during the campaign there. Christina studied photography at university, and we chatted for ages about the good old days, where we really had to be conscious of the cost of film and processing. Clint has missed his true calling; he should have been a crime scene photographer, as he found every nook and cranny of the church.
They gave us the run of the building, and Fr Robert even took us up a very narrow spiral staircase into the tower. Here, we came up close and personal to the clock and the eight mighty bells. You definitely need a head for heights to venture up there! Unfortunately, the clock mechanism is enclosed in a timber surround to protect it, but the resounding hollow ticking filled the small chamber.
Clint is a steampunk enthusiast, as I’ve mentioned previously, and Fr Robert is a SF fan too. Just the small part of the workings which we could see was fascinating, and strangely out of place in the year 2014. We were in the room as it chimed the quarter. It was quite thrilling to hear the hands move, and the steady winding of the chain to strike the bell. I’d like to record the sound there one day, as it’s a really atmospheric space.
After spending a good couple of hours exploring the church, Clint and I thanked Fr Robert and Christina for their hospitality, and headed back into town. When I got to the pub, I realised I’d left my glasses behind. I walked back round to the main gates, but they were locked. I rang the vicarage, explained what had happened, and Fr Robert offered to come back into town and help me search for them. Fair play to him. I told him there wasn’t any great rush, and arranged to meet him after the service on Sunday morning.
Thus it was that I paid my second visit to church, less than twenty-four hours later. When I poked my head in at lunchtime on Sunday, I thought the parishioners had decided to mark the centenary of the war by re-enacting the Battle of the Somme. A few people have told me that Fr Robert is keen on incense, but I hadn’t taken them at their word. I made my way through the clouds of smoke and greeted him as he was chatting to some of the older worshippers.
He ushered me in and I started retracing my steps through the church, but to no avail. I told him that they’d probably turn up, and made a note of my phone number in case someone handed them in during the week. While we were chatting, I mentioned that the only other place they might be was in the bell tower. The leader of the ringers happened to be within earshot, and said that he’d spotted a glasses case on the parapet of the bell room. He unlocked the door to the spiral staircase and returned a minute later, holding my glasses.
By now I’d written my phone number down, so I gave it to Christina anyway, in case she thought of anything which I needed to bring to Geoff’s attention. I might even have got the gig for proofreading the Parish Magazine – although, as my friend Gareth remarked when I bumped into him the next day, the compilers probably won’t change the habit of a lifetime.
On Thursday I made my way to Abercynon, back up to Penrhiwceiber, and thence to Mountain Ash. I needed to re-shoot the memorials which I’d lost in the Great Hardware Crash of 2008. I’ve also pencilled in a visit to Ynysybwl some time in the next couple of weeks, to check out the memorial there.
But not next Saturday.
On 13 September, Geoff’s giving a talk about his research, in St Elvan’s Church, Aberdare, at 2 p.m. It’s part of the Rhondda Cynon Taf Open Doors initiative, during which historic buildings throughout the county borough welcome visitors from near and far.
By then, Geoff, Clint and I should have a pretty much completed book to take to the printers. The Cynon Valley History Society have agreed to publish it, and it’s due to hit the shelves on 11 November, which is Armistice Day, of course. We’ll have to take a trip to Dinefwr Press at Llandybie to talk through the technical details, of course, but it’s great experience for us all. Clint and I will even get a mention in dispatches.
All I have to do in the meantime is to stop Geoff from adding any more new material. I’ve already promised to collaborate with him on a second revised edition, to mark the centenary of the armistice. At this rate, we might actually finish it by 2018. Watch this space…
Being a Non-Linear Account of the Life and Opinions of The Author, Cross-referenced and Illustrated, with Occasional Hesitations, Repetitions and Deviations.
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