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Remembering them..

I started looking into my Grandpa’s part in WW1 over twenty years ago, but with totally new ways of gathering information now available, the whole method of searching has changed beyond anyone’s imagination. Faced with the prospect of spending hours at The National Archives you get to spend unsociable and illicit hours at home in front of the computer. Just when you think you’ve drawn a line in the mud with the very last detail – something else feeds the urge to keep on digging.

I’d made a giant folder from the mountain of information I’ve found on him and his brothers. This grew in size to include men they knew and the background to events they were involved in. It wasn’t possible to build an accurate view of their story without including the details of others. From knowing next to nothing – I’ve now been able to literally walk in their footsteps, roughly a hundred years later.

p.s. I never intended to name the site after a Dire Straits album (I’m a Bowie man), and while it’s not great, it’ll have to do until I come up with something better..

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Some of the RWF buttons and badges he gave me to take home one day

Charlie’s centenary memorial

A year or so ago I was contacted by the CWGC to tell me that Charlie was now eligible for an official commemoration. His name carved along the side of his parents’ marble tomb has in time become too difficult to read. A century of Snowdonian weather has worn away his memory and so I was delighted to have the opportunity to apply for a “Gallipoli tablet.”

Unknown to my family, he had not been commemorated in the official records of The Fallen and only when starting out on my research did I make the incredible discovery that a group of dedicated volunteers had brought him “in from the cold” to have his sacrifice recognised in 2009.

“For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” Philippians 1:21

The date for the installation had to be delayed twice due to the Covid restrictions in Wales as an overnight stay was necessary for the CWGC team to fully carry out the work. Finally an email arrived along with a promised photo plus a huge sense of pride and satisfaction and many thoughts of what my Grandpa would have thought. Enormous gratitude to everyone involved.

I was looking again at his service record and noting that on his discharge from the army in 1918 he was still being recorded as “22”. Of course two years later when he died and the truth was allowed out – he was still 22.

In the same week I had another big find when a bit of online scrambling around revealed that according to the IWM records, Charlie was named on his old school memorial at the County School Caernarfon. Contacting the newer incarnation at a modern site I was thrilled to receive an image from the School Head. Again – a huge thank you to him and staff for making this happen, especially in these difficult times.

Pen and sword

The fairly recent discovery of Grandpa’s scratchy pen and pencil written notebook lists amongst his Gallipoli Camp equipment – his sword. It seems to have been acquired second-hand by “Evans” at the cost of £4 and 4 shillings.

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So it’s been a treat to be reunited with it after such a long time as it had been hanging in our family home for a many years. He originally gave it to me to take home one day after we’d found it in his garage amongst his impressive range of old fashioned woodworking tools. As I’m writing I can remember tiny little painted wooden boats he made for me to play in the bath.

Back in the early 1970s the sword was in a sorry state. The scabbard was falling apart and the weapon itself was a mass of rust. Unexpectedly a neighbour across the road asked if we’d mind if he did it up. It must have become a labour of love for him as quite some time later he returned it (he must have hated giving it back!) beautifully restored and quite beyond recognition. He had rebuilt the scabbard using as many of the original pieces as possible and burnished off all the rust revealing a shiny blade and hand guard in a stunning transformation.

Attempting to research it further it seems a fairly standard item, as expected. It bears a George V emblem fashioned into the hand guard and is more than likely to have been manufactured by Wilkinson Sword. However it’s great to see it up close after all this time and to see it with fresh and certainly more knowledgeable eyes.

Charlie’s war ends 100 years ago today

CR MorrisIt seems extraordinary to have finally reached this day. When I sat listening to my Grandpa talk about his experiences I could never have imagined that I’d be writing about it 45+ years later and having researched his memories in such depth. I was even invited on to BBC Radio Scotland to mark the centenary of Passchendaele.

On the 31st July 1917, Charlie and his 16th Battalion RWF, 113th Brigade, and 38th Division went over the top for the second time – and Charlie’s last ever military action.

“During the advance which was most gallantly carried out, opposition was experienced from machine guns and snipers, and several officers were hit. The majority of the enemy met were dispatched with the bayonet except those who gave themselves up”.

Hostile fire came from Zouave House but was easily overcome. By 5am excellent progress continued with 150 Germans taken prisoner and 50 “bitter” enemy killed. Fresh companies moved quickly through those in front to renew and sustain the attack. Machine gun fire poured out of Stray and Marsouin Farms while the advancing battalions moved dangerously close to their own creeping artillery barrage. Many officers were being lost so NCOs quickly took over their responsibilities “without hesitation. The behaviour of all ranks was excellent throughout”

The patriotic press and a number of books, including a well known account by Conan Doyle, would revel in the success of that day. The “heroic” Welsh who’d “swept over Pilckem Ridge” were embarrassed at their humiliation of the Kaiser’s favourite Potsdam Guards known as Cockshafers and regarded as “the best German Footguards on the Western Front”. A Welsh officer surrounded by loud and surrendering Cockshafers had threatened to punch one of them unless he “let him alone”. A Cardiff man described them “with their tails down” but also meek and amiable. German medics even treated the wounded Welsh in a large underground bunker already containing a 150 of their own men left behind in their rapid retreat.

By midnight the 16th RWF were relieved by the 15thRWF but were back at the Front Line near Stray Farm at 7am on 1st August. On the 2nd August they held the whole of the Front Line in their sector close to the Steenbeek River.

Records show that Charlie’s war ended that day on the 2nd of August. The Germans were already attempting a counter attack with their heavy artillery causing many casualties. Charlie would be included in the 183 “Other Ranks” wounded in the 16th RWF’s War Diary.

His available medical records detail a shrapnel wound to his right chest and a GSW (gun shot wound) to his shoulder. He would have been carried back to an Advanced Dressing Station and once well enough, moved to a Casualty Clearing Station. Research tells me this was likely to be at “Dozinghem”. The CWGC cemetery close to the site of the old hospitals includes graves of other 16th battalion men.

gosfHe was shipped home on 2nd September 1917 and taken to the Northumberland Hospital at Gosforth in Newcastle.

He left hospital on 29th December 1917 and was discharged from the army on the 2nd May 1918 under King’s Regulation paragraph 392 XVI being deemed No longer physically fit for War Service.

The 38th Division had finally avenged the criticism of Mametz Wood. Charlie’s suffering would continue until June 1920.

Artillery Brigade Diaries – a research revelation

I’d only ever seen a photocopy of one relevant page before which didn’t contain much more than a few simple map references. However discovering the collection online at the NA, it’s obvious that I’d seriously underestimated the detail and usefulness of these diaries.

As usual it’s not long before before the hunt to bring an even greater clarity and context to existing discoveries begins again.

I’ve learned that Bertie’s battery – the 1/1st Welsh Heavies joined the 23rd Heavy Artillery Group on their arrival in France and then transferred to the 16th HAG until 29th July 1916. Later it joined the 17th HAG followed by the 32nd HAG on 2nd December ’16, ultimately joining the 11th HAG in October ’17. Each of these Brigades has its own diary that precisely logs the type of batteries that form the Heavy Artillery Group plus the officers involved.

The information recorded over the battery’s activities has been more revealing than the units’ very own diary, providing details of the action – together with locations through pin point accurate map coordinates. Targets are named as well as the type and quantities of ordnance fired.

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My other “Holy Grail” of attaching names to my officer group photo in the hope of confirming Herbert Parker’s presence, has received a welcome boost. On 2nd December 1916 the five battery officers are named as Capt Brymer, Capt Dargie, Lt Morris, Lt Carder, Lt  Kidson, 2nd Lt Parker and 2nd Lt Smith.

names

‘The sun goes out’ at Mametz Wood

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Mametz Wood showing the site of Strip Trench hidden in the narrow line of trees

With the one hundredth anniversary of 1st July 1916 embedding itself in the consciousness of the nation, there’s another centenary event that has just crept in behind. The fateful attack on Mametz Wood by ‘Lloyd George’s Army’ which took place more or less between the 7th and 11th July.

rcIt would be the first time that Charlie and his battalion  went ‘over the top’. Amid much confusion and the loss of their C/O, Lt Colonel Carden, his battalion pushed forward with their bombers taking Strip Trench before moving into the wood to look for more of the enemy.

Before the whistles blew, Carden had held a short service for the 16th Battalion RWF telling them to make peace with God while the soldiers sang hymns. On the early morning of the attack he assured the men they would “take the wood” and tied a handkerchief to his baton as way of showing them where he was. It’s well documented that he was wounded very quickly and after making his way to the edge of the trees until he was fatally shot once again.

As David Jones’s 15th Battalion followed the 16th from the Queen’s Nullah down the slope to the wood, a shell lands nearby throwing up chalk particles in the summer morning light.

You drop apprehensively – the sun gone out,
strange airs smite your body
and muck rains straight from heaven
and everlasting doors lift up for ’02 Weavel.

You can’t see anything but sheen on drifting particles and
you move forward in your private bright cloud like
one assumed
who is borne up by exterior volition.

A morning that meant Charlie’s life and that of David Jones, or any of the men in the  attack that day, could ever be the same again.

1st July 1916 In the Field

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As much of the nation reflects on events 100 years ago, we attempt to get our heads around appalling statistics of losses and the shear scale of the event. Hundreds of thousands of men in a relatively tiny area inflicting appalling damage on each other. Moments of heroics soon to be snuffed out within hours.

The above is perhaps the most significant entry in Bertie’s unit diary. Brief on description but not on meaning. The arrival of “Z day” would mark the worst day in British military history.

The almost poetic words of Cpl Llew Edwards, their battery clerk, are as powerful and tragic as any others I’ve read.

“I saw from my post the first wave of troops scrambling out their trenches in the early morning sun. I saw them advancing rapidly led by an officer. I saw the officer reach a hillock holding his sword on high in the sunlight. He wavered and sagged to the ground, His men undaunted swept up the mound to be mowed down on reaching the skyline like autumn corn before the cutter”

Mametz Wood Centenary Commemorations

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It’s difficult to imagine a more significant anniversary, certainly in modern Welsh history, than the Mametz Wood centenary. The occasion is being officially marked by the Welsh Government with a service at the red dragon memorial on the 7th July. Very sadly unable to be there in person, I will certainly be there in spirit. I will thinking of Charlie and his pals of the 16th RWF as they gathered in the Queen’s Nullah, singing hymns before engaging in their first ever assault. After the failed attack of the 7th they regrouped and went over again on the 10th.

Closer to home – a lark ascends

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Ralph Vaughan Williams “on Ranmore Common”.

I’m lucky enough to live close to the Surrey Hills, spending most weekends on family walks in the quiet hills and woods away from everything else. A favourite spot is Ranmore Common on the North Downs Way, with its very fine views of Box Hill, Leith Hill and to the South Downs and beyond.

freybHowever, as with anywhere on our small isle, you’re never far away from a reminder of the Great War. St Barnabas church at Ranmore has a beautiful side chapel dedicated to the memories of Alick, Harry and Hugh Cubitt, great uncles of the Duchess of Cornwall, who were killed within 18 months of each other.

In the graveyard at the exquisite St Martha on the Hill lies Sir Bernard Freyburg VC – an absolute Boy’s Own character with a list of heroics to defy belief. He swam ashore alone during the Gallipoli landings, lighting flares to distract the Turks then returned safely to his ship. Later in France he organised an attack resulting in 500 prisoners and his VC. He went on to command the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force and took part in the action at Monte Cassino during WW2.

Something I didn’t know before moving here is that Ralph Vaughan Williams had lived nearby in the family home at Leith Hill Place. I knew him from school days and having to perform his Folk Song Suite with gusto on an annual basis in the school Concert Band. He’d volunteered at the age of 42 on New Year’s Eve in 1914 and served as a stretcher bearer in the Field Ambulance Service.

It was a surprise to discover that part of his training had taken place on the chalky slopes of Ranmore. He eventually took a commission in the RGA and having lost too many close friends, including George Butterworth, struggled greatly to come to terms with the impact of the war.

It’s difficult to walk these hills without seeing and hearing the sounds that would influence perhaps one of his finest compositions – The Lark Ascending. He started writing the piece before his service and completed it on his return.

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Leith Hill Place former home of Vaughan Williams

 

Marching in colour

marching-color

There are some excellent “colorised” WW1 photos around so I thought I’d have a go at a favourite of mine showing my Grandpa (top left) marching with his No3 platoon of the 2/5th RWF through the Essex town of Hadleigh. At the time he was training with this home service battalion, so I’m not sure how many of them made it overseas with him.

I took this to show off in a school history lesson when we were covering the origins of WW1 as part of our O level. The history master, an excitable Welshmen, (in an English school) prone to handing out beatings with a rubber tubing was cock-a-hoop with my contribution. However not wanting me to enjoy too much of my day in the sun, remarked that they looked rather scruffy and a bit of a rabble. “What were they by chance?” he asked. “Welsh” I replied.

Memoirs of an RFC man attached to the RGA

rfc

Researching someone from WW1 usually starts by hunting down their Medal Index Card and Army Medal Rolls in the hope of identifying the all important battalion number which takes you to an official War Diary. A bonus can be to find a Blitz surviving service record.

In my case, the diaries were sprinkled with names of the officers – Bertie (many times) Grandpa (twice) while Charlie, as a Corporal was lumped in along with 182 others as daily “O.R.”* casualty.

What I never expected to find, 97 years later, were the written words of two men who served with one of my Grandpa’s brothers. These memoirs, kept at the IWM, came from a battery clerk and an RFC wireless operator both serving with the 1/1st Welsh Heavy Artillery Battery.

It makes me realise that many of these men must have been motivated to record their memories – not to share with the rest of the world, but maybe in the hope that a descendant or two might be interested at some point in the future. Too long for an article and too short for a book, they however provide a fascinating insight into the daily life of these ordinary men and what they had to endure.

1st Class Air Mechanic William Manns spent an unexpected two years with the Welsh Battery revealing his fears of shelling and recounting memories of a happier time of a week by the sea. He recalls the last days of the war as welcome guests of a Belgian family, themselves tragically affected by four years of occupation.

He remembers their inauspicious arrival in Belgium, two days before Bertie was killed while attempting to relieve another battery.

“Several fellows did catch their feet on the treacherous wire and measured their lengths in the slime. Eventually I reached the tarpaulin and found 5 or 6 other men already there… News was received that tea was ready but we chose to forgo the tea rather than risk crossing the quagmire again.”

Read more..

*Other Ranks