Carrying, caring, comforting: the people behind medical evacuations

In this guest blog, Jessica Meyer introduces the many people a wounded soldier would meet on his evacuation from the front.

A regimental aid post somewhere on the Western Front during World War I. Wellcome Library. CC At 2.0.
A regimental aid post somewhere on the Western Front during World War I. Wellcome Library. CC At 2.0.

The first people a soldier was likely to encounter after being wounded would be very familiar. Regimental stretcher bearers were drawn from combatant units and were trained in basic stretcher drill and first aid.  During action, they exchanged rifles for stretchers and stood ready to bring wounded men in from No Man’s Land. They would help apply field dressings, and carry the injured to the Regimental Aid Post. The men there would, again, be familiar figures as part of the man’s regiment. The Regimental Medical Officer, a Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) officer, was the military equivalent of the GP, dealing with day-to-day illnesses and accidents as well as wounds sustained in action. Servicemen regularly encountered their medical officer and the orderly who accompanied him on sick parade or during inspections for trench foot and the like.

From there, the wounded man would be entrusted to a less familiar group of men, the stretcher bearers supplied by a field ambulance.  These men were members of the RAMC rather than a combatant unit, and their wartime role revolved entirely around the transport of sick and injured men. They had better levels of training in both wound care and stretcher drill than regimental bearers.  Indeed, as Emily Mayhew has argued, by the end of the war they had developed what might be defined as a professional identity as care providers, something they took great pride in (Emily Mayhew, Wounded: From Battlefield to Blighty 1914-1918 [London, 2013], 6). George Swindell, for instance, recalled in his memoirs the experience of transporting a man with an abdominal wound for two hours, only for him to die within ten minutes of arriving at an aid post when an infantry sergeant gave him water:

‘on our way back we looked up the men who had shouted at us, and told them we knew our work, that was why we were there, and as the result of an individual, who did not understand, that case was lying dead, we told them how his life would probably have been saved, but for the water opening up the wound again, and we also asked them to help us in future, not hinder us’

George Swindell, In Arduis Fidelus: Being the story of 4 ½ years in the Royal Army Medical Corps, Ts. Memoir, Wellcome Library, RAMC 421, p.151.

The stretcher bearers transported men to the aid posts where they were treated by RAMC officers and tent units of a field ambulance. Tent orderlies increasingly developed care-giving expertise with a focus on wound care, first aid and the dispensing of pain relief.  Like the stretcher bearers, they served under the authority of officers who were all medical professionals drawn from civil practice and the medical schools.

Women Urgently Wanted for the WAAC (IWM PST 005476)
Women Urgently Wanted for the WAAC (IWM PST 005476)

From the dressing stations, transport shifted from manual bearing to vehicles.  Motor ambulances replaced horse-drawn ambulance wagons in the early years of the war, resulting in a change in the character of the transport providers.  Instead of drivers drawn from the ranks of the RAMC, motor ambulances were primarily provided by the Motor Ambulance Convoys. Established in 1915 drivers had as much mechanical as medical knowledge.  From 1916, as the war went on, and the manpower shortage grew more acute, female drivers from the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps increasingly replaced male ambulance drivers.

At the Casualty Clearing Station (CCS), the next stop along the line of evacuation, the wounded man would again encounter medical officers and tent orderlies.  This was also the first place he might expect to encounter female nurses, exclusively professional nursing sisters serving with the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Nursing Service. As the war progressed, he might also encounter female anaesthetists and radiographers, as medical dilution in response to the army’s demands for manpower brought more women into these roles.  In exceptional cases, a man might find himself in one of the few hospitals run entirely by women, such as those provided by the Scottish Women’s Hospitals, although these units were under the authority of the British Red Cross or allied military commands, rather than the War Office. Indeed, Dr Elsie Inglis, who led the Scottish Women’s Hospital, was famously told by the War Office to ‘go home and sit still!’ when she offered her services to the war effort. The role of women working close to the front line remained a deeply contentious issue for British military authorities throughout the war.

British army operating theatre at Wimereux, near Boulogne. Wellcome Library.
British army operating theatre at Wimereux, near Boulogne. Wellcome Library CC At 2.0.

It was on the next stage of his journey that the wounded man would be treated predominantly by voluntary, as opposed to military, medical units. The British military regarded medical volunteers, who did not come directly under their authority, with some suspicion and did not allow them too near the front line. Voluntary units did, however, provide staff for the hospital trains, barges and motor ambulances which transferred men between CCS and Base hospitals.  These included both male units, such as the Friends’ Ambulance Unit, often formed of conscientious objectors, and female units of nursing Voluntary Aid Detachments. In 1914 there were 551 male detachments, as well as 1,823 female detachments; by 1918, there were 836 male and 3,247 female detachments. These units also served aboard the hospital ships, and volunteer units also provided ambulance transport between trains and hospitals in Britain, a service described as ‘a double role which truly merits the country’s admiration’, as it was carried out in addition to whatever regular work the volunteer did. (Ward Muir, Observations of an Orderly: Some Glimpses of Life and Work, in an English War Hospital [London, 1917], 207.)

In military hospitals, volunteers might provide nursing and general service, the latter performing the tasks of cooking, cleaning and mending that allowed the hospital to function while the former aided professional nurses and doctors in providing medical care.  Red Cross hospitals were supervised by professional nursing sisters and all doctors were honourary officers.  Those serving in home hospitals had probably been judged as unsuitable in some way for overseas service.  This could be related to age, health, areas of expertise (in the case of medical officers) or character (often cited in relation to volunteers).  As the war went on, home hospitals became increasingly feminine spaces, as women took on the roles of male orderlies who were increasingly combed out for combatant service.  At Base hospitals, men deemed unfit for frontline service, often having suffered wounds or illness, were substituted for fitter orderlies.

In Britain, further social care was offered. Groups of women provided the food and cigarettes at train stations, similar to the comforts, while committees such as the Leeds War Hospital Entertainment Scheme, founded in 1916, provided entertainment to men confined by the tedium of recovery.  The ‘lady visitor’ was mocked in hospital journals, personifying civilian ignorance and inconsequentiality.  She was, however, only one of the many people who cared for wounded men both medically and emotionally on the long journey from battlefield to hospital.

Find out more about how the line of evacuation functioned in another post on this blog.


‘The Angels of Mons’

To mark the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Mons, the first major action for the British in the First World War, Meic Stephens explains how people came to believe that the reality of war was as strange as fiction.

The curious incident of ‘the Angels of Mons’ is not easily explained. In fact, although many believed the story to be a true account, it didn’t happen. But in the fraught atmosphere of war-time, jingoistic London in late 1914 it was very difficult to prove that the whole thing was fiction. Even the writer whose work had caused the misunderstanding in the first place was not believed when, as the author of a short story that had given rise to the popular misconception, he pointed out that it was the product of his fertile imagination. The great British public wanted to believe that the story was based on historical truth: to doubt it was somehow unpatriotic.

Arthur Machen (Arthur Jones; 1863-1947) was a Welsh prose-writer and literary journalist whose stories of the occult and supernatural, such as The Great God Pan (1894), had struck a chord with the reading public and brought him a reputation as a prose-writer of distinction. The story in question was ‘The Bowmen’, which had appeared in The London Evening News, for which he worked, on 29 September 1914. The idea had occurred to him while reading in his Sunday newspaper, The Weekly Dispatch, about the retreat from Mons in the previous August. On his way to church, he began thinking of the young soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force who even then were thronging up the streets of Heaven and mingling with the heroes of old: ‘I seemed to see a furnace of torment and death and agony and terror seven times heated, and in the midst of the burning was the British Army: in the midst of the flame, consumed by it and yet aureoled in it, scattered like ashes and yet triumphant, martyred and for ever glorious. So I saw our men with a shining about them, so I took these thoughts with me to church, and, I am sorry to say, was making up a story in my head while the deacon was singing the Gospel.’ He also had in mind the Welsh archers whose part in the battle of Agincourt had secured a victory for Henry V against the French in 1415. Machen had used this historical fact in a fictional account of how, at the battle of Mons, the archers’ ghosts, led by St George, had come to the aid of a British company by firing their arrows against the German positions. They were described as ‘a long line of shapes, with a shining about them’, and their arrows were said to kill without leaving visible wounds. It was this last touch that helped to fix the story in the popular imagination.

‘The Bowmen’ had appeared in print at a moment when people were looking for a miracle after the rout by the German Imperial Armies at Charleroi and Mons. Not only did journals such as The Occult Review fasten on it, but within a week it had been taken up by parish magazines all over the country. Correspondence flowed into the offices of The Evening News from those who claimed to have seen the Angels or met those who had done so. What’s more, people came forward to say they had friends and relatives who had seen the Angels with their own eyes: clearly, the story brought consolation and gave hope to people in need of them after the disasters that had befallen the Army. The defeat was the first indication the British public had that defeating Germany was not going to be as easy as some had thought. bowmen-250

Published as a booklet in August 1915 and then included in an expanded version in Machen’s book The Bowmen and other legends of the war soon afterwards, the story had sold more than a hundred thousand copies by the end of 1915 and its author, for the first time in his life, a famous writer. But the story’s reception caused Machen great distress, for what he had written as palpable fiction had been credited as incontrovertible fact. He was even rebuked in the popular press and by religious bodies for claiming the story was entirely his. His rueful comment was, ‘If I had failed in the art of letters, I had succeeded, unwittingly, in the art of deceit.’ He made very little money from the story. Even so, he was lured thereafter into repeating ever weaker versions of the same theme. If Arthur Machen’s name means anything a hundred years later, it awakens the memory of this one remarkable story and the controversy it caused.


Co-ordinating Centres

The Fight for the Rank and File: Birmingham’s Hall of Memory

In this guest post, Emma Login, a University of Birmingham PhD student who is part of the Voices of War and Peace research network, reveals the ideological wrangling behind one of Birmingham’s war memorials. This post first appeared on the Voices of War and Peace blog.

The Hall of Memory has been an integral part of the Birmingham landscape for nearly 90 years. Originally surrounded by extensive memorial gardens and accompanied by an impressive colonnade, the Hall has clearly undergone multiple revisions since its construction. Yet, these changes are small scale compared to those undertaken throughout the memorial’s planning stages, as citizens debated exactly who and what should be remembered.

Discussions regarding the most appropriate way to commemorate Birmingham’s contribution to the First World War began whilst it was still being fought. Based on commemorative responses to earlier conflicts, few believed that the remembrance of the Great War would have any form of longevity. Sir Whitworth Wallis, Director of the Municipal Art Gallery writing for the Birmingham Gazette in 1917 pessimistically predicted:

We no doubt imagine that the shining events of this war will never be forgotten and that the names of those who have fallen will never pass into oblivion- judging by the past these are vain hopes- a few of the important battles will doubtless be remembered, […] a few distinguished generals, famous deeds of a few winners of the Victoria Cross will be recalled from time to time, but the millions of the rank and file will cease to be remembered. (Birmingham Gazette 17/11/1917)

As a result of these cynical projections, initial proposals were for practical memorials and focused on the battles that were fought and the weapons used to fight them. Original suggestions included a large memorial museum to be constructed “if possible in one of the parks, preferably Cannon Hill Park, which contains the Boer War memorial” and which should be “dignified, spacious, top-lighted, […] and on one floor level so as to permit easy extension” (Report of the Honorary Director January 1919). But, these plans were not well received by the people of Birmingham. The prioritisation of the memory of the conflict above that of the dead attracted widespread criticism within the local press, and as a result the scheme was swiftly dropped (Chamberlain and Francis 1919).

Birmingham Hall of Memory, 1931 [Library of Birmingham: WK/B11/169]
Birmingham Hall of Memory, 1931 [Library of Birmingham: WK/B11/169]
Despite this, Birmingham’s War Memorial Committee remained ardent that any memorial should be of practical benefit to the people of Birmingham. Subsequent suggestions included an imposing town hall, “with seating for 3,600 people, 50% more than the existing hall.” But, this time provisions were made to include the memory of the common solider through the addition of a Hall of Memory “intended to perpetuate the memory of the heroic dead” (Brooks et al, Birmingham War Memorial Committee). Yet, continued criticisms within local newspapers of a memorial not wholly based on commemoration and the failure to raise the £300,000 necessary for both structures resulted in one final revision to the scheme.

All practical elements were dropped and it was decided that just the symbolic Hall of Memory would go ahead. Thus eventually, after months of discussions, it was the memory of the ‘millions of rank and file’ that triumphed and which continues to provide the focus of Birmingham’s wartime commemorations today.


vwp-t-r1‘Voices of War and Peace: the Great War and its Legacy’ is a First World War Engagement Centre funded by the AHRC and in partnership with the Heritage Lottery Fund. The University of Birmingham Centre is a joint initiative across the Midlands with Birmingham City University, Newman University, the University of Wolverhampton and the University of Worcester, and further afield with the University of Glasgow, Manchester Metropolitan University and Cardiff University.The Engagement Centre will support a wide range of community engagement activities, connecting academic and public histories of the First World War.


Soldiers as victims? Futility and the First World War

In this guest blog, Roger Deeks considers how we have come to view the First World War as futile.

One of the shifting narratives of the First World War has been the explanation of why soldiers, particularly those on the Western Front endured the experience as long as they did. Scholarly work has increasingly looked at this question in the context of the British Army and also comparatively in terms of the other armies. Those keen to advocate for how well the British Army performed point out that with the collapse of German morale in late 1918, the British Army fared better than most of those who first met on the battlefields of 1914. There are various explanations for this and my own sits with the performance of the British Non Commissioned Officer, the NCOs who ran the British Army on a day to basis. The traditional idea, very much based on a belief in Noblesse Oblige, places the emphasis on the quality of officer-man relations. This idea has deservedly come under scrutiny; were the working and upper classes so closely bound by this chivalric ideal that they endured together, fought together and died together?

In the immediate aftermath of the War it was believed that the War had a purpose, an idea that was also popularly thought to have some sway with the soldiers who fought the War. However before long, and particularly after the Second World War became necessary, the War took on a sense of futility. Futility, a lack of purpose or meaning, took a stranglehold over the memory of the First World War in the late Twentieth Century, both about the purpose of the War and the perceived attitude of those who fought it. The development of the ‘Lions led by Donkeys’ thesis set apart the villainous generals from the venerated dead of the battlefield but compounded an increasingly difficult question in the public mind if the mythology of the first World War was to have coherence; why were the soldiers of the First World War prepared to go ‘over the top’ if it was futile?

Blackadder Goes Forth (1989)

Blackadder was able to explain this. The finale to the TV series set it out very clearly. Firstly, it was ironic and very British to get yourself killed for no purpose. Secondly, and particularly in the case of Blackadder it was a British Officer’s duty to obey orders, however stupid, and you had  a moral obligation to your soldiers to do what you were asking them to do, and get killed. The Blackadder ‘view’ took such hold that it is now how many people imagine the War was experienced by the participants. It contains some strands of what we recognise from research. British humour was important, trench newspapers tell us that irony and self-parody were common place and generated comradeship. Loyalty and obligation to comrades was a key factor in many soldiers overcoming their fear. However, there was clearly a belief in many cases that objectives on the battlefield could be achieved and that the War had a purpose, and one worth fighting for.

Four Lions (2010)

I heard Helen McCartney (King’s College, London) raise some of these issues recently and it reminded me of a film I had recently seen. Four Lions is described as ‘the story of a jihad satire following a group of home-grown terrorist jihadists from Sheffield, South Yorkshire, England’. This comedy has several difficult moral problems to contend with in achieving its aim of making people laugh. One of them is the idea of the suicide bomber, a concept that to the secular thinking British viewer is something difficult to grasp. In the film the question and representation of the purpose of the Jihadist mission is gently dropped as the story unfolds and the troop begin to take on the characteristics of the caricatured ‘Blackadder’ British Army section in the First World War. Outnumbered and doomed from the start they bumble forward led by Omar, their subaltern, and whose one wish is that his sacrifice is not futile. Of course in the end he has a futile death necessary because of comradely loyalty. This reflected for me the depth to which the ‘futility narrative’ emerging from Blackadder and other First World War portrayals has permeated popular culture and can be transferred to new settings.

FW Harvey

We know that most British soldiers entered battles quite purposefully committed to what they were doing. The infantry and artillery officers in the field were increasingly well trained as the First World War progressed and most accepted their orders and saw their battlefield objectives as achievable. There were instances when orders were thought impracticable and sometimes suicidal. Stoicism was common in the face of the adversity and horror of the battlefield but one has to doubt that a sense of futility pervaded the trenches. In 1935 reflecting on these ideas F.W. Harvey, the poet, wrote: ‘The truth will permit no question of these men going sorrowfully to war, driven like sheep to slaughter. That is a false modern idea’. The motives for enlisting were varied but most British soldiers felt they were fighting for a just cause and some passionately believed that winning was important. However much we regard the outcome of the First World War as futile we should resist the portrayal of the participants as victims. Reversing this idea is one of the most difficult historians face in dealing with representations of the First World War.

BBC WW1 at Home Research

The Shock of the New: Women in Trousers?!

In this guest blog, Caroline Nielsen explores how war changed the lives of women on the home front not just in terms of their daily work, but in the clothes they wore to do it.

One day in early 1915 in the pit village of Horden, County Durham, 22 year-old Elizabeth “Lizzie” Holmes set off to post a letter for her father-in-law. She was on her way home from work, and the Post Office was on the way. This seemingly innocuous errand ended with her being mobbed by children.

Two female bag fillers use two short poles to assist a female coke heaver as she hoists a large sack of coke onto her back. © IWM (Q 30859)
Two female bag fillers use two short poles to assist a female coke heaver as she hoists a large sack of coke onto her back. © IWM (Q 30859)

Why did Lizzie inadvertently become the centre of attention that day? Lizzie was wearing men’s work clothes. Her heavy shirt, leather trousers and boots was the standard gear of all above-ground pit workers. Along with a number of her friends and neighbours, Lizzie had taken a labouring job at the local pit operating the coke ovens. For the first time, the children were confronted with a woman wearing an outfit that they had previously only associated with their fathers, grandfathers and older brothers. For one brief moment, Lizzie reminded all who saw her that the war had changed fundamentally changed British industry as they knew it. Women were taking men’s jobs in all industries, including in the male-dominated coal industry.

That the simple act of wearing men’s work clothes was evidently so shocking seems odd to modern audiences. But in 1915, trousers were an exclusively male garment. That doesn’t mean that women did not periodically wear trousers albeit in very limited contexts. Women’s fashion had toyed with the idea of trousers for at least three decades before Lizzie set off on her errand. A small number of Victorian and Edwardian ladies adopted baggy trousers and “bifurcated skirts” (long culottes) as part of their campaign against the restrictive fashions of the time. In spite of their efforts, trouser-wearing was not widely adopted until the late 1920s and 1930s when masculine tailoring became a staple of haute couture. Even the sportiest Edwardian lady pilots and racing-car drivers preferred to tie their long skirts modestly around their ankles.

This caricature of the 'new woman' as a mechanical toy shows a version of 'rational dress', which evolved in protest against the tyranny of traditional physically-restricting fashions for women. National Archives: COPY 1/174 no.312 (16 Jan 1901)
A caricature of the ‘new woman’ which shows a version of ‘rational dress’, which evolved in protest against physically-restricting fashions for women. National Archives: COPY 1/174 no.312 (16 Jan 1901)

Male impersonators were also a regular feature on British music hall circuits where performers like Vesta Tilley drew large audiences. These women performed risqué songs while dressed as young men. Part of the thrill was that audience could see their legs! Lower-class women had, of course, been wearing work trousers for centuries. During the Victorian era, leather trousers were associated with the “pit brow lasses” of Lancashire. Women who chose to wear “men’s clothes” outside of these contexts risked a more negative response from their communities. Cross-dressing was a moral issue. By the early twentieth century, dressing in masculine clothes was gradually being associated with lesbianism. Trousers were associated with clear contexts: politicised fashion and distinct regional trades. They were not associated with respectable miner’s wives, at least not in the Durham area. The fact that it was Lizzie, a woman who may have already attracted negative comments from her community, probably added to the children’s response.  She was an extrovert and in her own words, “a bit rough and ready”. She had tattoos, liked a drink, and on at least one occasion ended up in a fight, an event which she enjoyed describing when she was interviewed in her mid-80s.

Lizzie revelled in the notoriety of being proclaimed “the first woman in Horden to wear trousers!”. We will never know if this title was truly deserved. However, her story demonstrates how the First World War expanded the employment opportunities available to women. Lizzie was offered the opportunity to work in a trade that had previously been barred to her as a married woman in a County Durham village. The Northern Coalfield was almost exclusively male.  The 1911 census shows how shocking the arrival of female coke oven workers would have been in Horden: officially there were only 13 female coke workers recorded in the entire Durham area. While this figure was definitely an under-estimate, it explains why the children were so surprised!

Lizzie’s time in the coal industry was short-lived. Like most women who joined heavy industry during the First World War, Lizzie saw her wartime job as a temporary expedient. She expected to leave the job once her miner husband came home from the front. The majority of married women never entered the labour market during the war, believing that their place was at home with their families. The Government, trade unions and employers similarly saw women’s employment only as temporary. The end of the war saw the mass withdrawal of women from the labour market. Some went voluntarily like Lizzie. Many others were summarily dismissed. Some trade unions began lobbying for a ban on the employment of married women, concerned that the war had all too readily demonstrated that women were able to compete with their male counterparts. Women were encouraged to return to more “gender appropriate” trades like domestic service. Lizzie spent the rest of her working life as a charwoman, raising her family and caring for her wounded husband Jimmy.

Click here to view an image of Lizzie (front row, far right).

Lizzie was interviewed in 1976 as part of the Peterlee Development Project, a collaboration between the artist Stuart Brisley, Peterlee Council and the Artists Placement Group. Some of the materials from this are now available on through Durham County Records Office and their People Past and Present Archive.

BBC WW1 at Home

New Zealanders in Britain during the First World War

Much of the focus in this week which marks Britain’s entry to the First World War has been on the experience of British politics, of British troops, and British people. Yet, the implications of Britain’s decision were also felt over 11,000 miles away in New Zealand. The New Zealand government followed Britain’s lead and declared war the day after, the 5th August 1914. While New Zealand’s men mainly served in the Middle East, on the Western Front, and in Samoa, many arrived in England for training and convalescence.

Thousands of soldiers of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade (NZRB) arrived for training at Brocton Military Camp on Cannock Chase in Staffordshire. Their presence there would leave a lasting impression on the local people in the area. They became much loved. The men enjoyed a good relationship with locals in the area and enjoyed visits, concert parties, musical concerts and tea dances. Some of the rifle brigade even ended up marrying local women before heading back to New Zealand.

In June 1915 200 soldiers arrived at an army camp near the village of Chickerell in Weymouth. These wounded soldiers were the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps – and most of them were survivors of the disastrous Gallipoli campaign. They’d come to Weymouth to convalesce, and by the end of the war over 105,000 had stayed and recuperated in the area. The Anzacs were welcomed by local people. The womenfolk of Chickerell organised a huge strawberries and cream tea.

Eighty-six Anzacs were never to see their homeland again and are buried in Weymouth and Melcombe Regis cemeteries. Weymouth observes Anzac Day on the 25 April every year with a service at the Anzac memorial along the esplanade.

Bulford,_England._Chalk_Kiwi_from_Postcard,_c.1918Elsewhere in England, the Ministry of Defence still maintains a chalk kiwi carved into a hillside in Wiltshire near to Bulford. The carving entertained troops after the war while they waiting for the troop ships to take them back home.
Find out more about how the war involved soldiers from other counties with the BBC’s World War One at Home collection.


Jessica Meyer’s Letter to an Unknown Soldier

14-18 NOW are asking members of the public to write a letter to an unknown soldier. In this guest post, marking the British declaration of war on 4th August 1914, Dr Jessica Meyer of the University of Leeds addresses herself to the unknown soldier in the statue at London Paddington, and to the many others who lost their lives in the conflict.

Dear Bill, or is it David?

It could be either, couldn’t it: ol’ Bill, still and stoical in his endurance of all the laughable horrors that war throws at him; young David, so beautiful in his youth and ‘all the glory of his joy’ and sacrifice. You might be either, or indeed both.

Is that too simplistic, asking you to stand for two figures emblematic in their own right? How can we ask you to embody the experiences of 5 million men, the rich and the poor, the educated and the ignorant, those who served on the front lines and those who worked behind them, those who survived and those who didn’t? As has been pointed out to me, and as I fully acknowledge, speaking of the men of this war only in terms of unity can never be a full reflection of the huge variety of the experiences encompassed by so many men over four and more years of a world war.

And yet… And yet, after a decade and a half reading the words you wrote, in letters, in diaries, in memoirs, some intended for public consumption but most written only for the loving, private eyes of friends and family, your voice speaks to me in tones at once both varied and familiar. Each fragile sheet, telling its unique story, does so in a voice so completely of its time that I could not mistake it for anything else, that I recognise it the moment I see it, scribbled in indelible pencil, poorly typed on flimsy forms, etched in elegant ink penmanship. Its tones, by turns mundane, flippant, horror and grief struck, or simply relieved, groping for words to describe the previously indescribable or relishing the simple pleasures of life as only young men can, has invaded my own, shaping my thinking and my writing as surely as the images described have shaped my understanding of war and how it was experienced.

I do not always like you. You are, inevitably, of your time, with all the attitudes towards women, class, empire that this implies. But for every statement of belief in a eugenicist solution to a predicted post-war crisis or casual patronising of those not of your class, there have been twice as many to remind me of your common humanity, your youth, your idealism, your sensitivities to sight and smell and taste, your artistic impulses, your lust for adventure, for experience, for life. You have made me laugh and made me cry, yes, even in the public space of the archive. You have moved me beyond measure and you continue to do so.

I would like to believe that, after all this time, these 15 years in which you have become my profession as well as my obsession, that I know you. Or at least that I know you better than most. I have read the counter-examples to the clichés, can cite the exceptions to any generalisation about you or your experience, even as I try to pin you down by making generalisations of my own.

Yet that sense of knowledge is as much a myth as any, isn’t it? I can never know you any more than you would understand me and my interest in your story. You remain standing there, aloof and ultimately impenetrable, leaving me, as always, with more questions than answers.

And still I long to know. Who were you? What was it like? How did war shape you and through you the society you left behind or, for the majority of you, in which you had to carry on living? These are the questions that define me as a historian, and my search for the answers, hidden in your millions of words, in those stories that made it home to the attic and the archive, waiting to be uncovered, has helped define me as a person, too. I have been shaped and changed by all that I have read and heard, by all that I now think I know. I hope it is for the better; I believe it cannot be for the worse than I might have become in other circumstances. I may not know you, but you have made me and will continue to do so until the day I stop asking questions. And for that knowledge, for all that you have done for me and continue to do, for all the inspiration you have granted me, the tears you have provoked, the insight into men and mankind that you have provided, for all the lessons you have taught me, I thank you.

Yours, with affection and gratitude,

Jessica Meyer

This post first appeared on 22nd July 2014 on Jessica Meyer’s blog, Arms and the Medical Man. Image by Cnbrb (CC BY SA 3.0)


The Black Chair of Birkenhead

As the 2014 National Eisteddfod gets underway in Llanelli, Meic Stephens recounts the 1917 winner who was unable to take his seat on the Bard’s chair.

hedd-wynnFew poets achieve fame solely on account of the circumstances of their deaths, but in the case of Hedd Wyn (Ellis Humphrey Evans;1887-1917) it was the manner of his passing that caught the public mood and ensured that he would be remembered a hundred years later. The soldier-poet’s fate would be the stuff of one of the most abiding folk-narratives of twentieth-century Wales. Every schoolchild in Welsh-speaking Wales has heard of Hedd Wyn and many have visited Yr Ysgwrn, his former home in the hills above Trawsfynydd, which is now a small museum maintained by the National Trust. Just as familiar is the bronze statue to ‘the Shepherd Poet’ that stands in the village.

In 1917 the National Eisteddfod was held at Birkenhead, near Liverpool, one of the rare occasions when the festival has been held outside Wales. Because there was a war on, it was only a three-day event rather than the week-long celebration of the nation’s music, art and literature that it continues to be to this day. The Chairing of the Bard, generally considered to be the principal honour to which a Welsh poet can aspire and the main ceremony in the proceedings, was held on the second day, the sixth of September. The three adjudicators, all distinguished men of letters, were of the opinion that the most accomplished poem submitted for the competition had been written by a poet using the pseudonym Fleur-de-lis, and that in their estimation, the poem was worthy of the prize. The ceremony took its usual form: the Archdruid asked Fleur-de-lis to stand so that he could be acclaimed by the crowd that always gathers on these occasions. But no one got to his feet. He called a second time, again with no response, and a third, by which time it had become clear that the winning poet was not present.

After a pause, the Archdruid announced that the winner of the Chair competition had been killed in the war, paying the ultimate sacrifice shortly after sending his awdl (a long poem in the traditional, strict metres) to the Eisteddfod. He also informed the audience that Fleur-de-lis was the pseudonym of Ellis Humphrey Evans of Trawsfynydd, better known by his bardic name, Hedd Wyn. He had been serving as a private with the 15th Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers (Ist London Welsh), and that he had fallen ‘somewhere in France’. The prize was therefore awarded posthumously. The empty chair was then draped in black, to the great emotion of the audience, and would be known ever after as Cadair Ddu Penbedw (The Black Chair of Birkenhead), one of the most potent icons of tragic loss associated with the Great War. Hedd Wyn, virtually a monoglot Welsh-speaker, was thirty years old when he died but he is usually depicted as a sturdy youth full of idealism and promise. It was a poignant scene and, according to newspaper reports, there wasn’t a dry eye in the pavilion. Wales lost a disproportionately large number of its sons during the Great War but it has kept a special place in its affections for Hedd Wyn.

Statue of Hedd Wyn in Trawsfynydd, Gwynedd, Wales. Image by Oosoom (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The winning poem was entitled ‘Yr Arwr’ (The hero) and related the myth of Prometheus to Christian symbolism. With the possible exception of some of his much shorter lyrics, it is generally thought to be his finest poem. It had been started in Trawsfynydd and polished in camp at Litherland, near Liverpool, and then taken to Flanders, where it was finished and posted back to Wales. Having enlisted early in 1917, the poet was killed after being struck in the chest by shrapnel on the day he first saw action, on Pilkem Ridge, on 31 July in the same year – the first day of the third battle of Ypres (Passchendaele). ‘He was a silent fellow,’ an officer commented, ‘it would appear he could speak but little English, or if he could he did not.’ Hedd Wyn was one of the 31,000 soldiers who died that day. ‘A fine day’s work,’ Douglas Haig wrote in his diary.

A volume of Hedd Wyn’s poems, Cerddi’r Bugail (The shepherd’s poems), was published in 1918 and with the profits from this book, supplemented by subscriptions, the statue was raised to him in his home village, a permanent reminder of the sacrifice of a whole generation. The poet was buried in Artillery Wood cemetery at Boezinge, and is commemorated by an inscribed slate at Langemarck. The story of Hedd Wyn was made into a film that was nominated for an Oscar in 1992. The Black Chair, together with other artefacts associated with the poet, is kept at Yr Ysgwrn.