Two WWI poets killed on the same day and buried feet apart

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 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” in recognition of Hedd Wyn’s being 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”. 

 

 

 

 

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The Death of Werner Voss

Werner Voss
                   Werner Voss

September 23 marks the anniversary of one of the most celebrated episodes of aerial combat.

It resulted in the death of German ace, Werner Voss, but not before he damaged all seven of the Royal Flying Corps aircraft trying to bring him down.

The rounds that finally sent his aircraft into the ground were fired by Arthur Rhys-Davids.

Voss’ skill earned him the complete respect of his foes that day in 1917.

Back at base, Rhys-Davids turned to his fellow ace, James McCudden, who also fought in the dogfight, and said: “Oh, if only I could have brought him down alive.”

Rhys-Davids was himself killed a month later. He, like Voss, was just 20 years old.

McCudden died the following year, aged 23.

Even the greatest airmen were unlikely to survive that first great air war of 1914-1918.

 

A small object from history poses questions about a bravery medal

DSC_0178What stories could simple objects tell? What have they seen? What hands have held them?

Among my collection I have this RAF mug from the years before World War 2.

It features an engraved message: “Presented to Officers Mess, Calshot, by Squadron Leader The Rev. R.N Shapley, March 1936”.

In truth, when I first bought it I knew nothing about Ronald Norman Calshot or Shapley. I’ve done a little research, but am always meaning to do a lot more. I’m quite sure there will be people reading this article who know more about them than me.

Inscription: to the Officers' Mess at RAF Calshot
Inscription: to the Officers’ Mess at RAF Calshot

Calshot, which is situated near Southampton, in England, was initially established as a Royal Flying Corps base in 1913. It was taken over by the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) during the First World War and became an RAF station on the formation of the service in 1918.

It was a seaplane and flying boat station, and was officially renamed as RAF Calshot in February 1922.

Calshot was home to the High Speed Flight as it prepared for the Schneider Trophy competitions in 1927, 1929 and finally 1931. Wikipedia states that Aircraftsman Shaw, also known as T.E. Lawrence, or Lawrence of Arabia, was detached to Calshot to help with the 1929 Schneider races.

During the 1930s, Calshot continued its development and training role. It featured a Navigation School (until January 1936). Squadrons based there included 201, which flew Supermarine Southampton flying boats and later Saro Londons. 201 Sq would have been there when the RAF mug was presented.

But what of Shapley? I found the following references in Flight Magazine:

December 15, 1927: Rev. R. N. Shapley is granted short service commn. as Chaplain, with relative rank of Sqdn.-Ldr. (November 11). To RAF depot Uxbridge.

April 24, 1931: The Rev. R. N.Shapley, M.C., A.K.C., is granted a permanent comm. (March 19).

December 25, 1931: Revd. R. N. Shapley, M.C. A.K.C., to No. 5 Flying Training School, Sealand ; 6.12.31.

October 19, 1933: vice Rev. R. N. Shapley, M.C. Rev. R. N. Shapley, M.C., to Station H.Q., Boscombe Down, 9.10.33, for duty as Chaplain (C. of E.) at Boscombe Down and Netheravon.

May 24, 1934: Rev. R. N. Shapley, M.C. Rev. R. N. Shapley, M.C., to R.A.F. Base, Calshot,9.5.34 for duty as Chaplain (C. of E.)

January 13, 1938: N. Shapley, M.C., to Headquarters, R.A.F., Palestine and Transjordan, Jerusalem, 22.11.37.

The mug is dated March 1936, a couple of months before Shapley took up his role as chaplain to Calshot. And he was gone from Calshot at the end of 1937. What then?

The website of the Gordonians, an association for former pupils of The Gordon Boys’ Home, The Gordon Boys’ School and Gordon’s School, in Surrey, lists Shapley as being twice chaplain to the school: between 1923 and 1927 and between 1947 and 1949. It says he was later Bishop of Windward Islands. That sounds like another interesting posting!

I am, of course, intrigued by the reference to the Military Cross in the Flight Magazine listings.

What did he get this for? And when?

Wikipedia gives some biographical information but not about the medal. Its link to The Times says Shapley died on St Lucia and left £13,743. He died in December 1964.

But, again, nothing about the medal.

Wikipedia says he served with the London Regiment during the First World War. I am certain this when he won his Military Cross. But was he a chaplain then? He was not ordained until 1920.

It’s just a mug, I know. An inanimate object which, although it cannot speak, poses so many questions.

What is the story behind Shapley's Military Cross?
What is the story behind Shapley’s Military Cross?

 

Quarry Boys: The Welsh at Gallipoli

This teddy bear at the Royal Welsh museum in Brecon belonged to a Welsh soldier killed at Gallipoli
This teddy bear at the Royal Welsh museum in Brecon belonged to a Welsh soldier killed at Gallipoli

One hundred years ago this weekend 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 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.”

William Jones
                     William Jones

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, and repeated at 6.30pm on April 27 and 5.30am on April 28.