Archive for 2016
Back in May I spent an afternoon filming with Yellow Duck Productions for their hit BBC Wales genealogy series, ‘Coming Home’. The programme, which was shown on at 9pm on BBC One Wales on Wednesday 21 December was an hour-long special, looking at the family history of Hollywood actor Ioan Gruffud. Whilst it unlocked stories of Ioan’s royal connections it was his Great Great Uncle Rees (known as Rhys) Griffiths’ service in the Great War which I had been asked to research and explain.
Rhys was the son of David and Anne Griffiths, of Meilog, Pontyberem. A keen churchgoer, at the outbreak of war he was studying to enter the ministry. He enlisted at Carmarthen in the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) and was posted to 106 Field Ambulance, part of the 35th Division (made up of ‘Bantams’ who were all under the normal regulation minimum height of 5’ 3”). With his unit, he moved to France early in 1916, occupying positions in the trenches in French Flanders and Artois. Sadly, there is no surviving service record for Rhys and so his day-to-day movements can only be pieced together from his unit war diary.
The war diary for 106 Field Ambulance is often short and functional, describing the routine of the subsequent months with little elaboration but noting issues involving latrines, dung heaps, a lack of coal for hot baths and too few disinfectors to help prevent scabies and lice. At the end of May 1916 this period of relative calm ended abruptly.
On the night of 30 May 106 Field Ambulance are serving in the Rue du Bois sector between the villages of Neuve Chapelle and Festubert. At this time these villages, both heavily fought over in 1915, were considered a relatively ‘quiet’ sector.
At 7.20pm that night a heavy German bombardment falls on the frontline trenches around the salient around S10.5, destroying 250 yards of breastwork trenches. Further artillery fire falls on support positions, ‘bracketing’ the area and preventing British reinforcements getting through. Under this bombardment the infantry holding this sector, W Company of 15th Sherwood Foresters, suffer heavy casualties and it is reported three officers are wounded. One of these, Captain Ralph Ainsworth is wounded twice.
The barrage is a precursor to a highly successful raid by the enemy. By 8.40pm, with positions destroyed and most of the Sherwood Foresters wounded, German troops attack, penetrating the right flank of the position and taking a number of men prisoner. By 10.10pm men of the 14th Gloucesters and 18th Lancashire Fusiliers had re-established British control of the salient.
By then, Rhys had been killed. The exact circumstances surrounding his death are provided by a letter written by Frank Fairfax, the Chaplain of the Field Ambulance, to Rhys’ father which was later published in The Carmarthen Journal and South Wales Weekly Advertiser of 8 September 1916:
Dear Mr Griffiths, I have to break the sad news to you of the death of your son, Rhys, on the night of 30 May. In the bombardment of the trenches there were many wounded, and he and his friend, Dugdale, were together giving first-aid and carrying the wounded back to safety. As I understood it was while Rhys and Dugdale were attending the wounded officer that a shell burst which killed Rhys, but left Dugdale unharmed except for a severe shock. When he is well enough he will be writing to tell you about it. But there is no doubt that Rhys showed great bravery, and thought not of himself in his noble devotion to duty. I knew him and loved him. He was known to be a splendid comrade and a true Christian. Often he would sing to us his Welsh songs and hymns.
The German raid was very well planned and executed. Raids such as this were a common enough event, even in ‘quiet’ sectors. Their usual aims were to kill the enemy, gather intelligence on defences and, if possible, capture prisoners who could be interrogated for additional information.
A report written the following day by Lt Colonel RNS Gordon, 15th Sherwood Foresters details two Officers and thirty-four Other Ranks still unaccounted for. A subsequent report provides a detailed narrative of events and lists Officers and men who showed gallantry during the raid. First on the list is Captain Ainsworth (the twice wounded officer) who the report describes as ‘although wounded twice refused to be moved and stayed with his Company until the end. He displayed remarkable coolness and apparently only gave the orders to withdraw to the flanks as a last expedient.
He further took steps to see that all documents and the logbooks were sent to Headquarters on realizing the gravity of the situation.
He is, I regret, still missing.’
In fact, he stayed missing – at least to the British. Records show Captain Ainsworth was captured by the raiding party. He was held by the Germans in Officers’ Detention Camps at Crefeld and Holzminden until April 1918, when he was transferred to Holland, finally being repatriated in December of that year. Notification of his transfer to Holland reached the Nottingham press on 22 April (shown to the left). A Facebook page ‘Small Town, Great War. Hucknall 1914-1918’ gives more detail on Captain Ainsworth here.
As the chaplain’s letter describes Rhys and Dugdale attending a wounded officer when Rhys is killed, there is a good chance the officer was Ainwsworth. The letter also describes Rhys’ RAMC comrade, Private Robert Dugdale, being severely shocked. Dugdale’s pension record survives and confirms the chaplain’s description of events. He was admitted to the Field Ambulance as a casualty that night, suffering with neurasthenia. Dugdale makes a full recovery, serves through the Somme, Passchendaele and the 1918 battles, ultimately surviving the war. Having served nearly four years he was discharged in July 1919. Dugdale was awarded the Military Medal in January 1917, probably for good work during the Battle of the Somme.
Rhys Griffiths was the first death suffered by 106 Field Ambulance since their arrival in France. The other two men known to be associated with his death, Private Robert Dugdale and Captain Ralph Ainsworth, both survived the war. Such is the way luck can play a part in surviving time in the trenches. Despite it being a tragic story, it was a satisfying experience to talk Ioan and his father Peter through Rhys’ all too brief period of time on the Western Front. Another family now aware of their link to the Great War.
Rhys is buried in St. Vaast Post Military Cemetery, Richebourg L’Avoué alongside the men of 14th Gloucesters and 15th Sherwood Foresters who also died on 30 May 1916. Remembering them all.
Link to BBC Wales ‘Coming Home’ page: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b086xl8v
For the past 12-18 months I have been working as Historical Consultant on the three part BBC2 series, ‘The Somme 1916 – From Both Sides of the Wire’. Written and presented by my colleague Peter Barton, the series aims to show a previously neglected corroborative view of the battle, using material from the vast and mainly untapped German archives.
Programme website: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07lst9b
The first programme is tonight at 9pm on BBC2 with the other two at the same time on 25 July and 1 August.
Monchy-le-Preux has long been one of my favourite spots on the battlefields. The tale of its capture and subsequent defence make fascinating reading. As such, I was delighted to take my group of battlefield clients to attend the unveiling of a new memorial to the 1st Essex Regiment and Essex Yeomanry in the village square on Saturday 21 May 2016. The memorial is the brainchild of Dr Ted Bailey, whose grandfather served in the 1st Essex Regiment.
Monchy was chosen as the site for this memorial as it is forever associated with the losses sustained by the cavalrymen of the Essex Yeomanry who aided the capture of the village on 11 April 1917. During this action, Lance Corporal Harold Mugford held back the advancing enemy singlehandedly, although seriously injured. For his actions he was awarded the Victoria Cross. Three days later the 1st Essex Regiment and Newfoundland Regiment launched an ill-fated push eastwards up Infantry Hill. The Newfoundlanders losses are commemorated with one of their five caribou in the centre of the village. Dr Ted Bailey has sought to redress this imbalance with a memorial to the memory of the Essex Regiment and Yeomanry.
The press release distributed prior to the unveiling provides additional detail on the two actions of the Essex Regiment and Yeomanry at Monchy:
On 11 April, the Essex Yeomanry, as part of a mounted division, bravely attacked Monchy in a snowstorm, galloping into the village but were met with heavy fire and lost 135 men, 29 killed in action, and most of their horses. Machine Gunner Lance-Corporal Harold Mugford doggedly defended the position under severe enemy pressure although severely wounded in both legs which were subsequently amputated. He was awarded the Victoria Cross and survived the war with distinction.
On 14 April, the 1st Battalion Essex Regiment attacked east of Monchy into a wooded area aiming for their objective, some high ground known as Infantry Hill. Initial success, with ground captured and prisoners taken, was reversed by a heavy German artillery barrage plus a simultaneous counter attack by the 3rd Bavarian Regiment, one of the enemy’s finest fighting units. The battalion suffered 661 casualties, so many that a temporary battalion had to be formed with the Newfoundland Battalion, named the ‘1st Newfoundessex’, comprising only 400 men.
Other Essex Battalions were also in the vicinity during this larger Arras engagement. The 2nd Battalion was in action on 9 April losing 78 men whilst the 9th Battalion lost 163 men.
The unveiling ceremony was very well attended with a long list of dignitaries from the UK along with a great many locals. The memorial can be visited in the square outside the church just off the Rue de la Chaussy. It stands a mere 50 metres away from the Newfoundland caribou.
Through my work for Historic England I have come to know many stories of Bristol’s soldiers in the war. A few years ago I met Clive Burlton, a local historian and writer with a superb knowledge of Bristol’s role in the war. Clive and I have given talks at the same venue on a number of occasions and over a post-talk beer often discussed the possibility of running a coach tour to the battlefields for people who want to find out more about Bristol’s wartime story.
So, here we are! I am pleased to announce that, with our partners at Bakers Dolphin, we are running a special tour:
The three night, four day tour will visit key sites where soldiers from Bristol fought, earned bravery awards and lost their lives.
Travelling by executive coach we will depart from Bristol on 7 October and travel to the sacred Ypres salient, the wartime cauldron for so many of Britain’s soldiers. That evening we will attend the Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate that night. The next day sees us visiting sites around the salient including Ploegsteert (known as Plugstreet to the Tommies) to see where Bristol’s Territorials first went into the trenches before heading south to Arras, our base for the remainder of the trip.
On Saturday 9th we will spend a day on the Somme battlefields, visiting key sites such as Newfoundland Memorial Park, Thiepval Memorial and the Lochnagar Mine Crater. We will also look at the story of the 12th Gloucesters (Bristol’s Own) in their actions at Longueval and Guillemont. The morning of our final day will be spent on the Arras battlefield, looking at the events surrounding the 12th Gloucesters (Bristol’s Own) action at Fresnoy on 8-9 May 1917.
Accommodation is based at the following 3-star hotels – Novotel (Ypres) and Holiday Inn Express (Arras). Evening meal and continental breakfast are included. If there is demand then I will give a talk on the tunnellers’ war after dinner one night and Clive on a particular Bristol story the next night.
Individual visits can be accommodated if time permits and locations are close by.
The cost is a competitive £560pp, based on a shared room. For more details please contact me HERE or Mandy Havill, Group Travel Manager on 01934 415 000. I look forward to meeting you on the tour and sharing in Bristol’s fascinating history.
I have been working with the schoolchildren from a local Bristol school, Fishponds Church of England Academy, for the past couple of years as part of my work with Historic England’s ‘Heritage Schools’ scheme. This has involved taking them on First World War themed heritage walks around the local area, including visits to the nearby local war memorial and the Glenside Campus of University of West of England (UWE), the former mental asylum which, in its wartime guise at Beaufort War Hospital, had over 30,000 wounded service personnel pass through its gates.
During this period it was discovered that the striking Fishponds War Memorial was not ‘listed’ by Historic England. The idea was formed to engage the local schoolchildren to work on getting their memorial listed. If successful, it would be the first time schoolchildren would play such an active role in this process. Furthermore, it would be a wonderful way for local children to engage in their community. The project began with high hopes as Historic England has pledged to protect 2,500 war memorials by 2018 to mark the centenary of the First World War.
In November 2015 I accompanied Michael Gorely, who manages the ‘Heritage Schools’ programme for Historic England, and a number of Year 6 children to the war memorial. The task was to carry out a condition survey; recording factual details such as the memorial’s physical appearance, what materials it was made from, its shape, size, setting and any changes from its original design. Also noted were details of plaques and additional inscriptions. The children also researched its history and wrote persuasive letters asking the memorial be listed to the Designation Department at Historic England. It was the department’s decision whether to grant listed status with the final ratification made by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. A selection of comments from the children’s letters can be found below.
“When we went to see the site, everybody had a fantastic time learning about it.”
“It is a great piece of history and most people would agree that it should be listed.”
“People would be devastated if anything happened to this historical memorial.”
“This amazing piece of history means something to everybody even if their family did not go to war…”
“Our memorial is a unique statue with lots of names carved down on it.”
“It is a part of the local community and we want to remember those who died for us.”
In March we heard the news their appeal had been successful; they are the first school in the country to achieve this! I was invited into the school on 22 March for a special assembly followed by a small wreath laying service at the memorial attended by standard bearers from the local Royal British Legion. The story made the Bristol Evening Post and we gave some interviews for BBC Radio Bristol’s breakfast show. The newspaper article can be read here: https://twitter.com/heritagemikeg/status/713032323537707011
The original memorial had been designed with a bayonet on the end of the soldier’s rifle but had been repeatedly vandalised. As a consequence the bayonet was eventually removed. The children and staff at the school are now working on getting a replacement bayonet added. Ironically, this is much harder now due to the memorial’s listed status!
A small number of Fishponds Church of England Academy children will be visiting the Houses of Parliament next week to speak to an All-Party Group about their success.
I have also recently heard that I heard yesterday that Historic England’s ‘Heritage Schools’ scheme has won the European Union Prize for Cultural Heritage at the Europa Nostra Awards 2016. Press release: http://www.europanostra.org/awards/209/
Everyone who has been involved with this scheme has played a part in ensuring that pupils can learn about, connect with and enjoy their local heritage. So, let’s hope it continues and more children reap the benefits. And a huge congratulations from me to all of the children involved.