PRIVATE ELLIS HUMPHREY EVANS, 15TH BATTALION ROYAL WELSH FUSILIERS.
For this edition of Brumration I return to the current exhibition, Fallen Poets, at The National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth. The other poet featured alongside Edward Thomas is Ellis Humphrey Evans, known as Hedd Wyn, who like Thomas was a poet who went to war. Other than that, and their links to Wales, they have very little in common, and their journeys to war were very different.
Ellis Evans was born at the family farm, Yr Ysgwrn, in Trawsfynydd, Gwynedd in 1887, the eldest of eleven children. He had only eight years of formal education, leaving school at 14 to join his father on the farm, working largely as a shepherd. He was already writing poetry and the work he was to create indicates his great knowledge and understanding of his subject and the language. In addition a great level of technical skill is required to create a work capable of winning a ‘Chair’ at a Welsh Eisteddfod. He won his first Chair at Bala in 1907, and was to win four more before coming second in the National Eisteddfod in Aberystwyth in 1916.
With the outbreak of war the tone of his poetry changed to reflect his views on the horror of war, and he wrote a number of poems in memory of friends who had died on the battlefield.
Farming was considered to be work of national importance, but the Evans family were required to send one of their sons to enlist. Ellis went rather than his younger brother Robert despite the fact that he was a Christian Pacifist and had not enlisted previously, feeling he could never kill another human being. Welsh non-conformists were deeply divided on the issue, and traditionally had not been comfortable with the idea of warfare. There was a clash between those who backed military action, and those who adopted a pacifist stance on religious grounds.
I have rarely come across a Welsh village without at least one chapel, and equally rarely come across a village without some sort of war memorial. Trawsfynydd had a population of 800 before the war broke out. Its war memorial remembers 30 from the village that lost their lives and three from the nearby Army Training Camp.
On being conscripted into The Royal Welsh Fusiliers, Ellis was sent to Litherland Camp in Liverpool, but like many farmers he was released in March 1917 for fourteen days to go and help on the farm. The work had been delayed by the particularly wet weather, so he stayed for an extra week. According to a relative he was picked up by the military police for being absent without leave, and taken from the hayfield to custody in Blaenau Ffestiniog.
Evans left in such a hurry that he left behind the poem he had been composing on the kitchen table. He wrote it again on his journey back to Camp, which is why there are now two copies of the poem. One is in Bangor and the other in the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth.
In June 1917 he joined the 15th Battalion, Royal Welsh Fusiliers (part of the 38th Welsh Division) at Flechin. He wrote ‘Heavy weather, heavy soul, heavy heart. That is an uncomfortable trinity, isn’t it?’ It was at Flechin that he put the finishing touches to his poem Yr Arwr (The Hero) and it was from there that his entry for The National Eisteddfod was posted in early July 1917.
At the end of July 1917 the 38th Welsh Division marched towards the major offensive which would become known as Third Ypres. It would be yet another attempt at a breakthrough. On 31st July at 3.50am the battle began with the attack on Pilkem Ridge. What had been on paper a carefully planned operation with precise timings for the advance were made extremely challenging by the conditions which the soldiers faced. Each man was bowed under the burden of 80lbs of equipment, and the heavy rain and constant shelling had turned the battlefield into a quagmire.
In an interview conducted in 1975, a veteran of the 15th Battalion who had been alongside Ellis Evans described how they had started the attack over the canal bank opposite Pilkem Ridge. They had not gone far when he saw Ellis collapse holding his stomach. He was convinced he had been hit by a ‘nose cap shell’. Despite the conditions the ridge was captured and the 38th Division who then advanced east under heavy machine gun and artillery fire towards the German ‘Iron Cross ‘stronghold.
Ellis Evans was collected by stretcher bearers but died at about 11.00am at a nearby Dressing Station. He was buried at Artillery Wood Cemetery near Boezinge.
The National Eisteddfod of Wales was held in Birkenhead Park in 1917. This was the third time that the Eisteddfod, which has an ‘all Welsh’ rule, had been held across the border. (I cannot recall this happening in more recent times)
The Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, was present for the ceremony of the Chairing of the Bard; the winner was announced as Fleur de Lys, the pseudonym of Hedd Wyn. He had died six weeks earlier and the empty chair was draped in black. For many the ‘Black Chair’ came to symbolize those many empty chairs which were to be found in homes across the country.
The Chair that year, in an ironic twist, had been produced by a Flemish craftsman, Eugeen Vanfleteren, from Mechelen in Belgium. He had fled to England on the outbreak of war and settled in Birkenhead.
After the war the Commonwealth War Graves Commission was petitioned and the headstone of W.H.Evans was given the additional words, Y Prifardd Hedd Wyn (The Chief Bard Hedd Wyn). In more recent times his home Yr Ysgwrn, with help from the Snowdonia National Park Authority, has been restored as a memorial to the Bard. In 1992 a film on the life of Hedd Wyn was nominated for an Oscar. His 85 year old uncle, who is the custodian of Yr Ysgwrn, said that the film contained far too many women and too much drinking.
On 9th July 1917 HMS Vanguard was anchored in Scapa Flow. In a matter of seconds a devastating explosion destroyed the ship killing all but two of the 845 men on board.
It was the result of an internal explosion of faulty cordite. A survey carried out in 1975 confirmed the explosion destroyed virtually all the explosive ordnance on board and blew the ship apart.
The bodies that could be recovered are buried at Lyness Royal Naval Cemetery, Hoy. The wreck is a protected site: