Adam Somerset takes a look at a poignant story of two Welshmen who fought in the trenches of the Great War.
The facts of war have been prominent this November in the centenary commemoration of the Armistice. The schedules for radio and television have been filled with varied and considered programmes. The facts may be available but, as every commentator and presenter says with truth, the enormity of the era is accessible as knowledge but outside imagination. The oral tales passed on within families have diminished with the passing of the generations. The view of 1918 ever weakens.
History, the antidote to the loss of experience, is on display in the entry hall of Ceredigion’s central library. A display of books has been arranged; Sir Max Hastings, Christopher Clark, Allan Mallinson, amid the dozens of other historians, are worthy guides to the era. The library’s upper floor, home of the County Archive, provides another lens into the past. Its past is the one as experienced at the time. The lead story in the Cardigan and Tivy-Side Advertiser Volume 53 Number 2730 is the Armistice of three days before.
The newspaper itself is an item of history, its paper brittle in a format twice the size of its modern counterpart. It reports that the Armistice comprises 12 principal conditions, including the occupation of Heligoland and that the Allies hold the east bank of the Rhine at Koblenz, Cologne and Mayence. On the issue of captives the clause declares “Immediate return of prisoners from Germany (without reciprocity)”.
The story moves to the news as it was received in Cardigan. A telegram arrives at the Post Office at 11:30 a.m. and the raising of flags and bunting swiftly follows. The civic authority responds with alacrity. “Telegrams were despatched by the Mayor (Alderman John Evans) to H M The King and the Prime Minister (Mr D Lloyd George), expressing the town’s loyalty and appreciation.” This second, sent to Downing Street, expresses a “desire to convey to you their unbounded pride in you as our fellow countryman for the noble services rendered by you to your King and Country, and to mankind generally.”
The news spreads. By mid-day it has reached Eglwyswrw eight miles south. “Great was the rejoicing,” writes the journalist, “the Church bell was rung for an hour, and most of the parishioners were informed by this means.” In Cardigan itself the day moves to a climax. “In the evening a crowd of boys marched the streets with a lighted torch at their head, and the streets resounded with the clash of the drum and the side-drums.”
To the north the streets of Aberystwyth the streets were also transformed with decoration. The writer for the Cambrian News of November 15th 1918 has a more emotive tone than his counterpart in Cardigan. “It is over!” he writes, “Three short words, but so full of meaning! The hardship, the sorrow, and, above all, the soul-eating anxiety. All over. People could hardly believe it, and were hesitant to rejoice. The sorrows of four years could not be thrown aside in a minute. But the children, as usual, led the way. They knew not the sorrows, but they realised the occasion to rejoice. And they did it in a right royal manner.”
The Cambrian News also carries news from Germany. It reports that famine threatens and that the new Government is “particularly anxious for peace negotiations to begin at once.” From Munich there is news that on Wednesday a Republic has been proclaimed. “All the leading offices are being filled by newly-organised committees,” the story runs, “of workmen, soldiers, mine workers, and married women.”
The newspapers’ reporting of the war over the preceding four years is rich in local detail but the scale is beyond its suggestion. At Gallipoli the death toll on the Allied side was 56,700, of whom 21,000 were British. The Anzacs’ deaths numbered 11,430. Of the 8,556 New Zealanders who served 2,721 died. In a small reflection the Cambrian News of January 6th, 1916, the month of the evacuation, reports that Dr D Rhys Jones and Private Tommy Watkins have been in the retreat to Salonica. Private Richard Hughes, says the paper, “writes home that he does not know exactly where he is.” The landscape is “a mountainous district like Cwm Berwyn.” Meanwhile on the home front in Tregaron “all local men are daily remembered at home and the women’s knitting class continues to work hard for their comfort.”
A column in the Cardigan and Tivyside Observer of 7thJanuary 1916 is headed “War Items.” Private Llewelyn S Lewis and Private J Lambert have written from France to thank the Mayor, Mayoress and people of Cardigan “for parcels of comfort sent them.” Corporal T O Jones “has been mentioned in dispatches for conspicuous gallantry at the Dardanelles.” Lance Corporal D Morris Davies of St Dogmaels had been at Gallipoli since the 4thWelsh landed in Suvla Bay. He “is now in hospital in Malta suffering from frostbite.” Corporal Owen Emlyn Jones of Llandyfriog “was wounded in four places.” “He has been in hospital for four months and is now slowly recovering.”
There is no mention of wounding for Private E O Thomas of Tanygroes. After five months at Gallipoli he is home and “given a hearty reception by his many friends.” Another soldier is back home at Llandysul. At the Seion Congregational Chapel Vestry Room Private David Davies “was made the recipient of a purse of gold collected by the young ladies of the town.” The correspondence is marked by reassurance to the families back home. Sergeant George Thomas of Cardigan writes to his mother of the enemy “they will not come out in the open, but are like rats in the earth. Talking of rats, you never saw such rats as we have here. They are here by the thousand, as big as cats, and quite tame.”
Gallipoli features in Robin Barlow’s book Wales and World War One (Gomer, 2014). Chapter 5 is headed, “The Gorgeous East” sub-headed “the Gallipoli Campaign and the Experiences of Two Welshmen”. The title is taken from a letter from Prime Minister Herbert Asquith to Venetia Stanley on 26th February 1915. He saw troops being made ready for the new front. “How lucky they are,” he wrote, “to escape Flanders and the trenches and be sent to the “gorgeous east”. Barlow’s chapter is based on the letters of two combatants held in the Carmarthenshire Archives.
Cecil Phillips was a trainee solicitor from Llanelli, one of the thousand troops of the 4th Battalion Welsh Regiment. Lieutenant Robert Peel, from the Taliaris Estate near Llandeilo, was an officer in the 58th Brigade, Royal Field Artillery. The words of both are imbued with an appalling quality of evocation. The sea journeys for both men soon turn unpleasant. Phillips suffers, like most of the ship’s company, from seasickness. The heat at the stopover in Alexandra has him soaked in perspiration “till my thin outer clothes are soaked through and look as if I had fallen in a bath of water.”
Peel lands on the shores of Gallipoli on 4.00 a.m. 10th August, 1915. An entry in his diary records the disorder. “We were directed by a New Zealand guide. He led us wrongly and all today we had to lie low in a dried up river bed.” This was in an August temperature for which the attackers had had no preparation. By the end of November he is recording “Thunderstorms, torrential rain, blizzard and frost; great suffering among infantry…there being no overhead cover available.”
Phillips describes the stalemate that soon ensued. August 15th: “As I write in a rough trench we have made and have not moved from here for three days, the bullets are passing and I could not put a finger up without getting it; besides shrapnel is falling all around.” At the beginning of September: “the heat here is terrible and we have but a little water allotted to us per day… All day lying under a blazing sun with no shelter but what we carry up, and we must make it invisible, otherwise aeroplanes will sight it.”
Sickness at Gallipoli was rife with 145,000 British victims. Dysentery was in the forefront but frostbite from the bitter November weather claimed its sufferers by the thousand. Phillips writes of the extremes of climate. “At night we have a very heavy dew which soaks everything and it is frightfully cold. Every night one longs for the morning and when the light comes one prays for sunset.” The clouds of flies, the open exposure of the food and the total lack of hygiene were cause of the endemic dysentery and diarrhoea. “If you could only see the way my pencil is steering on this paper through dozens and dozens of flies you would shudder.”
Phillips had no illusions about the danger. He had written to his father in a spirit of farewell: “Though I have my faults and weaknesses I have always tried to be unselfish and can honestly say that I have never done anything very bad.” In the event he survived. Cecil Phillips received the Military Cross for bravery in rescuing four wounded men. He returned to Llanelli and completed his training as a solicitor. Robert Peel survived the months of Gallipoli but died on September 3rd 1917 at the Third Battle of Ypres.
The letters of the two men haunt in their immediacy of evocation. Lloyd George came to rank Gallipoli alongside the Somme and Verdun. “The most gigantic, tenacious, grim, futile, and bloody fight ever waged in the history of war,” he called it. As for the qualities of the military leadership his view was stark: “stubborn and narrow egotism, unsurpassed amongst the records of disaster wrought by human complacency.”