Sassoon’s Ape Part 2: The Lost World of Richard O’Brien

Michael Poole explores the life of Corporal Richard O’Brien, a prominent figure in the work of first world war poet and writer, Siegfried Sassoon, and a poignant figure of Welsh History. In the second and final part of this series, Poole focuses on O’Brien’s personal history in Cardiff that led to him to the front line and his ultimate death in May 1916. 

SassoonToday the area to the north of Bute Terrace is a sprawl of retail and leisure development dominated by St David’s shopping centre and the Cardiff Arena. In the 19th century it was a tight tangle of streets and huddled terraces of mostly sub-standard housing, much of it rented accommodation given over to multi-occupancy. This was the site of the original Irish settlement in Cardiff. Bounded on three sides by major transport arteries built to export coal – the Glamorganshire Canal to the west, the Taff Vale railway to the east and the port system to the south – its lodging houses were home to many of the workforce employed in the nearby docks. In 1891 the Cardiff Argus described one of its byways, Stanley Street as ‘only a few feet wide, having in the centre of it a narrow channel into which is poured all the liquid refuse, slops, etc. from the houses on each side. The stench from the lower portion of this open gutter is in summer often abominable.’ Overcrowding and inadequate sanitation of this sort led to outbreaks of typhus in 1893, the year before Richard O’Brien was born at 22 Ruperra Street to Ellen Welsh, as one of ten children. Her husband Timothy O’Brien was from the second generation of an Irish family that came to Cardiff, probably from the Cork area, to escape famine in the late 1840s. Records indicate that Timothy O’Brien seems to have spent most of his life within a radius of less than one mile of the surrounding streets, close to St David’s Roman Catholic church and school.

The heavy concentration of inhabitants of Irish heritage in such districts had produced tensions at various points in the city’s history. The Marquess of Bute, for instance, had imported Irish labour to help build his first dock installations and competition for jobs and perceived undercutting of wages by the new arrivals, combined with cultural and religious differences, had on occasion resulted in violent incidents. One of the most notorious took place in Stanley Street in 1847. Following a verbal altercation, a certain Thomas Lewis was knifed to death by John Connors, who then fled the scene. He was eventually arrested in Pontypridd and tried for murder. In court, Connors’ defence was that he had been provoked by what he saw as racially motivated taunts about being Irish. The jury believed him, the charge was reduced to manslaughter and instead of being hanged he was transported to Australia. The precise details of the sequence of events that led to the death of Thomas Lewis cannot be known, but the case seemed to show that in the words of one Victorian commentator,  ‘physical force was the predominant factor in determining relations betwixt Brothers Celt – the stalwart Irish and the wily Welsh’.

In the coalfield to the north of Cardiff there were serious anti-Irish disturbances in 1853,1857 and 1866 as miners tried to exclude migrant workers from the Rhondda valley, partly in an attempt to preserve jobs for themselves, but also in protest against the bringing in of strike-breakers. Similar ethnically charged clashes occurred in both Tredegar in 1882 and Mountain Ash in 1890. Some of this no doubt amounted to crude Anti-Catholicism, but such instances were rare and surprisingly so given the dominance of Protestant Nonconformism throughout the South Wales region.

By the time Richard O’Brien was old enough to attend school, the family had moved to adjoining Tredegar Street, a few hundred yards from St David’s R.C. Infants School, where he was enrolled in June 1897. This was a parish school for boys and girls run by the Catholic Church and very much geared to providing a denominationally based education. Religious observances unique to Catholicism meant that children enjoyed extra time off to celebrate Holy Days such as those of the feasts of St Patrick, Corpus Christi and the Ascension. St David’s had once been the largest school of its kind in Wales, but in 1900 the building was condemned and pupils had to be taught in temporary accommodation until a school building fund had raised enough money to erect a replacement. When it opened in 1902, Richard O’Brien had moved up into the single-sex Boys School. There he was taught a mix of writing, reading and arithmetic, composition and grammar, geography and history, along with vocal music. Every day started with an hour devoted to catechism and the New Testament. To instil discipline the school employed a ‘drillmaster’. Expectations were low, with boys being encouraged to follow their fathers into manual work. There being no provision of a Catholic boys’ grammar school in Cardiff, even the more able pupils simply had to leave at 14 – something that would only change after the First World War with the founding in 1924 of St Iltyd’s College. O’Brien’s options were limited, then. Following his father into dock work, though, was open to him.

Networks of affiliation

sassoonGetting a ‘docker’s ticket’ was easier if you had a family connection. Dock labour was hired on a casual basis, with workers being required to present themselves each day to ‘calling on stands’ where they were either signed on to work or turned away. Such a system was open to nepotism – favouring family or friends or broader networks of affiliation; and corruption – bribing with cigarettes, say, or beer. This didn’t just affect earning power but bred resentment, which in turn often erupted into physical fights at the gates. Those not chosen were said to have been ‘blobbed’. Even those hired for the day were further divided into those doing ship work, such as trimming cargoes, and those doing dock handling work, involving the warehousing of goods. The former being paid more than the latter.  All were equally exposed to unsafe working practices that regularly led to industrial accidents, many causing serious injury, disability or death. To this picture of precarity has to be added the refusal of the dominant employer, the Bute Dock Company, owned by the aristocratic Crichton-Stuart family, to recognise trade unions, further fuelling the fractiousness of the working environment. There were unsuccessful strikes in both 1911 and 1912.

For all that, the centrality of Cardiff to the coal economy meant there was always likely to be a ship which needed loading or unloading – and Richard O’Brien seems to have made a living from it, albeit an insecure one. An estimated 250 tramp steamers were available for hire in Cardiff at the time, cargo vessels leased out individually to carry coal all over the world. Ships returning from timber producing regions such as the Baltic would fill their empty holds with wooden pit props destined for the Welsh coalfield in the port’s hinterland. Dockers who worked these vessels were known as ‘deal runners’. At the centre of this huge ‘Coalopolis’ sat the Coal Exchange on Mount Stuart Square, with its trading floor on which the global price of coal was set by shipowners, coal owners and their agents. The place that one way or another determined the terms on which O’Brien and his father and thousands like them worked or did not work.

There is some evidence that the O’Briens as a family may have been struggling in this period and sought help by moving in with relatives. The 1911 Census returns show them sharing accommodation with Richard’s maternal grandmother Elizabeth Welsh and other extended family members. Among those living communally in four cramped rooms was his sister Nora, described in the obsolete medical classification of the day as an ‘imbecile’.  The address is given as 42 Millicent Street, one street away from the house in Little Frederick Street at which the 1901 Census had logged Timothy and Ellen O’Brien living as a nuclear family with Richard and two sisters, the only three of the ten O’Brien children still surviving.

Millicent Street enjoyed a dubious notoriety as one of the streets with the most public houses in the city. In the space of its relatively short length of about 130 yards there were five drinking establishments: the Royal Glamorgan, the Rose and Crown, the Princess Royal, the Bush and St Dogmaels. We know this because the municipality of Cardiff in 1903 commissioned an inquiry into the extent of the licensed trade in its area amid concerns about the prevalence of street drunkenness. Its findings reveal that in a city of 164,333 inhabitants there were 274 pubs. Particular attention was paid to the distances between these drinking premises. In the case of Millicent Street, we learn that the Rose and Crown was just eight yards from the Royal Glamorgan on one side and another eight yards from the Princess Royal on the other. These were small establishments with one or two spaces open to their clientele, referred to as ‘smoke rooms’ or ‘public rooms’. While, undoubtedly at times the scene of heavy drinking and no end of rowdy behaviour, they were also an important social resource, places of conviviality and support, where traditional Irish singing and storytelling offered a connection back to the old country and a reservoir of solidarity to be drawn on. They would therefore have been frequented by a wide range of customers, but their proximity to the docks meant that they were especially patronised by thirsty dockers returning from long, arduous and demanding shifts handling heavy cargoes.

If there was something distinctive about ‘Irish’ pubs – arguably true to this day – then this was also the case with certain other pursuits evolving at the time, notably in the field of sport. Emmets may sound like the name of a bar, but was in fact a Gaelic football club founded in Cardiff in the early 1900s. Gaelic football and its counterpart hurling were the sporting wing of the wider Gaelic Revival movement then witnessing its heyday in Ireland. Both games were physically bruising affairs with ancient roots that, having only just recently been codified, were more than a little rough at the edges and demanded a devil-may-care courage of participants. The Gaelic Athletic Association had branches in all of Britain’s larger Irish communities, with towns and cities, including Cardiff, playing each other competitively in regional leagues. From what we know of Richard O’Brien’s physique, occupation and character, it seems likely that he would have played Gaelic football or hurling at some point during this period in which both games enjoyed their most buoyant era outside of Ireland.

The fighting Irish

sassoonThe sport most associated with Irish Cardiff was boxing. Although even here there is a strong pub connection, with many hostelries providing training rings for local fighters like Jim Driscoll and his sparring partner Badger Brien. Driscoll’s uncle ran the Duke of Edinburgh in Newtown, the most ethnically Irish district in the city on the very edge of East Bute Dock. His first manager was Bob Downey, landlord of the Bute Castle in Angelina Street, who organised bouts in the room above the bar there. Downey was said to have had a monopoly of the sawdust trade in the docks in order to mop up the blood as well as the beer. As Driscoll became more successful, he would prepare for championship fights by taking up residence in one of these establishments. In 1906, training for a bout at London’s National Sporting Club, he was to be found at the Cape Horn Hotel, where the landlord was his stepfather, Frank Franklyn. To fortify himself, Driscoll would begin his days with port-wine and eggs, followed by a steak and a brisk walk of an hour before engaging in ball-punching and shadow boxing sessions. By 1908, Driscoll had made a 9-fight tour of the United States, acquiring in the process an appreciative following among America’s fistic cognoscenti and was widely regarded as one of the most stylish boxers in the world. Fabled for his ‘peerless’ ringcraft, he was a legend in his own city, not least among the dockland Irish community where he had first acquired the rudiments of the fight game. As with many other working-class fighters, boxing had been a way out of poverty for Driscoll, but beyond that there were special resonances in his success for the Cardiff Irish who saw in it a vindication of their own backs-to-the wall, underdog status. A validation, too, of the qualities demanded by lives necessarily spent in relentless, physical labour – toughness, endurance, courage, standing your ground.

That ingrained pride in one of their own would be particularly in evidence on the night of 2 December, 1910 when Driscoll fought a grudge match against one of his major domestic rivals. Pontypridd’s Freddy Welsh was a much more rugged, all-action fighter with tenacious staying power and the instincts of a brawler. The venue was Cardiff’s American Roller-Skating Rink, a vast corrugated iron structure in Westgate Street. Even before the fight began there was a raucous atmosphere among the baying crowd of 10,000. The contest itself was ugly, with Welsh cannily drawing Driscoll into a niggly, dirty fight that he knew he was better equipped to prevail in. Frustrated by his opponent’s spoiling tactics and by what he saw as the number of illegal kidney punches being thrown, Driscoll boiled over in the 10th round and headbutted Welsh. When the referee stepped in to disqualify Driscoll there was a brief moment of confusion before the two fighters’ seconds began trading punches in the by now crowded, jostling ring. Pandemonium spread to the arena as fighting broke out between rival groups of supporters. With scuffles quickly overflowing into the surrounding streets, the police were forced to intervene to prevent a major disturbance. Few who witnessed these warring scenes between ‘green’ and ‘red’ could have failed to notice an ethnic component in the insults being traded and the animosities being laid bare by what had begun as a sporting event.

There is no way of knowing if Richard O’Brien was there that night or whether he ever saw Jim Driscoll fight in the ring. He would certainly have known of him and his pugilistic exploits. Nor can we say if O’Brien himself ever boxed in some long-forgotten pub backroom or boys club. But there must be a strong chance that he did and that boxing’s more martial elements went on to influence his later conduct as a soldier.

Boxing and the bayonet line

There is a further dimension to the role played by Jim Driscoll as Wales’ leading Hibernian figure. His career both in and out of the ring helped, perhaps more than any other single factor, to bring about the integration of the Irish fully into Welsh life. The final piece of cement was provided not by the European Featherweight Title, won in 1912, but the fighter’s decision to join the British Army in December 1914. Although originally recruited to the Welsh Horse, Driscoll was soon serving with the Army Gymnastic Staff as a physical training instructor. Initially, this meant putting on morale-boosting exhibition bouts for troops in which Driscoll would take on all-comers in front of large crowds. It is thought he could have fought up to 12,000 of these during the course of the war, some on the Western Front where he was posted in 1917 to serve at the Physical Training and Bayonet Fighting School at St Pol in Artois. Now a Sergeant-Major Instructor, Driscoll taught hand-to-hand fighting drills, working alongside other well-known enlisted boxers such as ‘Bombardier’ Billy Wells and fellow Lonsdale Belt holder and Welshman, Johnny Basham. The training school was known for its no-holds barred bayonet fighting course presided over by commanding officer Major R. N. Campbell, a former Army middleweight boxing champion. Campbell saw boxing techniques that had been honed to target the most vulnerable parts of an opponent’s body – such as the jab and the upper-cut — as a useful way to instruct soldiers in the optimum use of the bayonet. The thrust zone of the different punches, it was taught at the school, coincided with what was known as ‘the bayonet line’. ‘Ronnie’ Campbell had an overpowering personality and would deliver a bloodthirsty lecture on ‘the spirit of the bayonet’ to each new intake. One soldier took notes, and later recalled phrases like: ‘Stick him in the eyes, in the throat, in the chest…Kill them, kill them, the only good Bosche is a dead ‘un.’ The soldier in question was Siegfried Sassoon, who had attended the course one year earlier — when the training school was based at Flixecourt on the Somme — in May 1916 just days before Richard O’Brien was killed.

It is tempting to speculate that Driscoll’s war service encouraged many Irish Catholics to join Welsh regiments to fight a war they may otherwise have felt was not theirs, given the very recent failure of the British government to grant Home Rule to Ireland when it had the opportunity in 1913. Did O’Brien fall into this category? The fact that his father may have briefly served in the British Army at Raglan Barracks in the 1890s suggests not. This could further indicate that as a family, the O’Briens conformed to a wider pattern of deference to more conservative values in Wales as a way of fitting in. Intriguingly, the records of St David’s School reveal that in March 1902 the children were given a day off to greet and wave home Welsh Militia returning from the Boer War. Was there something about the spectacle that so enthralled the seven-year-old O’Brien that it stayed with him and somehow influenced his decision to sign up in October 1914? The fact that he volunteered within two months of the declaration of war, together with all the evidence of his war service suggests that O’Brien was a more than willing soldier.

A farewell to arms

This, then, is what we can deduce about the life of Richard O’Brien from the sparse traces he left. It is very far from being anything approaching his full story – neither in Cardiff before the war nor as a soldier on the Somme – both of which died violently with him on the night of 25 May, 1916. It does, however, begin to fill a gap in another less than full story – that told by Siegfried Sassoon about the man he chose to call ‘Mick’ O’Brien. A gap that needed to be filled because, for all his skills as a writer and the observational verve of his many accounts of the experience of war, Sassoon had his limitations and the figure he presents to us is not really an individual so much as a type. O’Brien became Sassoon’s ape not out of any malice on the author’s part, but because he had no real knowledge of people like him or where he came from. All this matters since the very qualities Sassoon admired most in his Corporal – his cheerfulness, his devil-may care attitude, his resilience, his courage – can in large measure be said to have been a product of a specific place at a specific time. O’Brien was not a big, bulking Irishman somehow pre-programmed by his sheer physique to cold-bloodedly put his life on the line by going on lethal trench raids. He was a Cardiffian, whose mother was Welsh. He spoke in the accent of his native city with its characteristically fast, sharp drawl and ‘wordy hardness’, as writer Gwyn Thomas described it. How could Sassoon not have heard this?

His name was Richard not Mick.  He had grown up in a community set apart, aware that the lethal diseases of poverty threatening it from inside were often matched by the violent prejudices of bigotry menacing it from outside. He had worked as a docker, a precarious and hazardous occupation with poor safety standards in which accidents, severe injuries and fatalities were common. Like the revered boxers he lived around, he knew how to take a blow and still move forward, he was prepared to fight against the odds and gamble on a big punch in extremis. He was, in short, someone who had learned from a young age how to deal with risk, how to confront danger, how to cope with an uncertain future and – perhaps especially – how to keep going in the face of death.

While the botched raid on Kiel Trench saw Richard O’Brien finally counted out, Siegfried Sassoon was more blessed. He would have many comfortable years of future life to fashion and re-fashion his experiences on the Western Front into various literary narratives. But not before one last incident linked to the death of O’Brien. One day in 1917, invalided back to the RWF’s Litherland Depot and disillusioned with the conduct of the war, Sassoon, as he recounts it in Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, threw the ribbon of the Military Cross he had been awarded for his part in the 25 May action into the river Mersey in a fit of anger. Soon after, he was sent to Craiglockart Military Hospital near Edinburgh to be treated for neurasthenia by psychiatrist, William Rivers — the only figure other than O’Brien to whom Sassoon would assign his real surname in any of his three autobiographical novels. The symbolic discarding of the trappings of the medal has often been seen as a gesture of defiance, a dramatic extension of the anti-war stance that so animates Sassoon’s poetry of the time. There is another possible explanation. Might he have got rid of the ribbon in a moment of disgust, remorse even, at his role in encouraging O’Brien to participate in dodgy raids that lacked real military objectives and ended in his futile and needless death? However, for this to be true we would have to ignore what happened when Sassoon returned to fight on the Western Front in the summer of 1918.

Seeing double

sassoonTaking command of a section of RWF trenches in the St Floris sector, the first thing Sassoon did was to conduct a night sortie to draw up a plan of the German positions opposite, ‘an easy iron shot away’, as he put it. When he showed this to his superior officer, Vivian de Sola Pinto – who was later to become a leading literary critic — he was informed that no company commander should go ‘outside the wire’ without explicit orders to do so. Despite this, within days Sassoon had enlisted a young RWF Corporal to accompany him on a night raid, just as O’Brien had two years before. In the early hours of 13 July they crawled out well beyond the wire and threw grenades at a German machine-gun post 50 yards away. In the fictionalised version of the action described in the novel Sherston’s Progress, Sassoon says ‘there was more bravado than bravery about it’. One of his fellow officers, Wintringham Stable recalled that on the night in question Sassoon had bizarrely even been wearing his MC ribbon, presumably a replacement one.

At least ‘Corporal Davies’ survived; Sassoon almost might not have. Returning to the RWF positions along a sunken road, he was shot in the head by one of his own men. This ‘friendly fire’ incident, which only resulted in a scalp graze, is brushed off by Sassoon and put down to over-eagerness on the part of a ‘Sergeant Wickham’, who he says must have mistaken him for a German. One of his biographers, however, goes further and suggests that it might have been a more junior soldier who pulled the trigger. That Sassoon’s diaries, usually so voluble, remain entirely silent on the whole episode of the raid has prompted speculation that what occurred was less than straightforward.* Might Mad Jack have been shot deliberately by someone who knew he had previous form, so to speak, someone in the RWF who knew O’Brien and who knew what had befallen him on another vainglorious, ill-thought out sortie?

Raising the ghost of O’Brien over these events would be unfair to Sassoon had he himself not done something similar in Sherston’s Progress, where the details of the 1918 raid with Corporal Davies are related in a way that unmistakably mirrors the 1916 raid with Corporal O’Brien. The same jarringly out of place epithet ‘cheerful’ is used of both men; and Sassoon again declares that he is ‘looking for trouble’. Writing from the considerable distance of 1936, he seems compelled by some long-suppressed urge to adopt a confessional tone: ‘It was the old story; I could only keep going by doing something spectacular.’ The overall effect may be more that of an apologia than an apology, but it is nonetheless possible to see Sassoon as belatedly grappling with a species of guilt here, finally acknowledging a fatal insouciance on his part.

Forty years after Siegfried Sassoon’s own eventual death in 1967 his Military Cross turned up for sale at an auction of military memorabilia, put on the market by a relative strapped for cash. If that was not irony enough, there had been one more. As Sassoon’s biographers sifted through his voluminous papers, they discovered that late in life he had undergone a religious conversion. Sassoon had taken instruction from a Benedictine monk who taught at Downside Abbey, a leading public school in Somerset and one of the bastions of English upper-class Catholicism. The ageing writer had become a Catholic, one whose faith no doubt was far removed from the proletarian pieties of the boy from St David’s Secondary School. In this, as in everything else, he and Richard O’Brien were destined to remain of a different stripe, forever poles apart.

*The Man Who Shot Siegfried Sassoon, a 2018 novel by John Hollands, claimed to be based on real testimony, presents a blue-on-blue incident involving Sassoon as an act of revenge carried out by an RWF private.The soldier in question blames Sassoon for the death of his twin brother. The dead man, described as an autistic savant, is said to have been Sassoon’s batman and to have memorised and made fair copies of some of the writer’s anti-war poems, which he then distributes in the trenches. Court-martialled for ‘subversive and seditious’ activities, he is shot by firing squad. When the attempt to assassinate Sassoon fails, the would-be killer is rendered unable to speak, leaving him a mute for life.


Michael Poole is a documentary producer and writer, who has also taught film-making at the University of South Wales. His many television programmes and series as a BBC Executive Producer include the BBC2 film War of Words: Soldier Poets of the Somme, which first alerted him to the events linking Siegfried Sassoon and Richard O’Brien. He has recently completed the feature-length documentary Kekee Manzil: House of Art, which tells the story of the Modern Art Movement in India.