by Evelyn McKechnie
The Great War began in 1914, and for many who served in the war, putting pen to paper about their experiences seemed a way out of the misery, no matter how brief the respite it gave them from the surrounding horrors.
It was an era when writing was one of the most natural forms of expression. War letters, diaries, prose and fiction were published in abundance during the war and in the years immediately following. However, it is poetry with almost 3,000 volumes published that has left a tremendous wealth of literature for the following generations.
Not all soldier poets wrote about the war, like two men who shared similar circumstances in their upbringing, and who both perished on the same day in the Third Battle of Ypres. They are not as well known as Owen or Sassoon, but for the Irish and the Welsh, Ledwidge and Wynn are national poets.
Artillery Wood Cemetery in Boesinghe lies just a few miles north of Ypres in Belgium. It is the final resting place of two poets, Francis Edward Ledwidge born in Janeville just outside the village of Slane in Ireland and the other, Ellis Humphrey Evans, born in Wales, who is better known as Hedd Wyn. Both graves lie literally within feet of each other. Both men were killed on the same day on the 31st July 1917; they were aged 29 and 30. It was the first day of the Battle of Pilckem Ridge, the Third Battle of Ypres, otherwise known as Passchendaele.
The Third Battle of Ypres – Passchendaele
It is estimated that around 32,000 British soldiers died in the three days of fighting for Pilckem Ridge, with 12,000 dying on the first day which included Hedd Wynn and Francis Ledwidge. In the initial offensive by General Haig, in which the British gained approximately 2,000 yards, casualties were 32,000 killed, missing or wounded.
By November, when the Third Battle of Ypres ended, the British had advanced only five miles. In total, around 300,000 British soldiers died with 200,000 Germans dead on the fields of Flanders. Many of the fallen have no known graves unlike Ledwidge and Hedd Wyn.
For many visitors to the Western Front who love poetry, theirs is a pilgrimage to Artillery Wood Cemetery to pay respects to two men of poetry who wrote not of war but nature and peace. Unlike other ‘war poets’ like Sassoon or Owen, who wrote mainly about their experiences of war, Ledwidge and Wynn wrote about home, the hills and nature. Of Ledwidge’s 200 and more poems, only nine mentions the Great War. Hedd Wyn wrote passionately about his homeland.
Ledwidge was labelled by some as the ‘Irish Burns’. He was born into poverty and hardship in rural Ireland in 1887. His birthplace, a small cottage is now a museum, similar to Robert Burn’s family cottage in Ayrshire, Scotland. Only recently residents of Boesinghe in Belgium paid a visit to the museum, to show their respects to the poet who lies buried in their land so many miles from his own.
The museum has been transformed into a celebration of Ledwidge’s life. Every year ‘Ledwidge Day’ on 31st July, sees the museum garden hosting traditional dancing, singing and poetry readings.
The Francis Ledwidge Poetry Competition sees thousands of entries from school children from the surrounding areas. The volumes of the children’s poetry are available to visitors of the museum. In the fast computerised world of today, it is wonderful to see so much poetry, beautifully handwritten from children. Some of it is quite excellent Ledwidge would have been so very proud of them.
In July 1998, a memorial to Ledwidge was commissioned by the City of Ypres. It was erected by the people of West Flanders on the exact spot at Rose Roads (Carrefour des Roses) where Ledwidge was killed approximately 100 yards west of Artillery Wood cemetery. There is a replica of the original monument in the garden of the Ledwidge museum.
At 14, Ledwidge left Slane and school to earn a living in agriculture as a labourer. However, he became homesick and left his bed in the middle of the night and walked the 30 miles back home to Slane ‘determined never to leave home again’.
The lush countryside surrounding Slane inspired many of his poems and he was regularly published in the Drogheda Independent. He wrote his first poem in 1910 and was befriended by Lord Dunsany, the writer and literary figure who introduced Ledwidge to the Irish Literary Circle. Ledwidge was a prolific poet, who wrote mostly autobiographical or pastoral pieces about Ireland and only a very few even make a subtle reference to war. It was in 1915 that his first book of fifty poems was published entitled, “Songs of the Fields”.
By that time, Ledwidge had already served nearly a year with the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers as he had joined up as a volunteer in October 1914.
In July 1915, Ledwidge was in Gallipoli in the battle to take Kidney Hill. Of 250 men who went into battle, only 76 returned. Ledwidge survived the carnage writing, “It was hell, hell. No man thought they would return. By heavens, you should know the bravery of these men”.
September 1915 saw Ledwidge in Salonika supporting the Greeks and the Serbs in their battle with the Bulgarians. By the withdrawal of the British over 19,000 of Ledwidge’s comrades had lost their lives at Gallipoli. The campaign had been a complete disaster.
Ledwidge was now in Cairo suffering from a badly inflamed back. In April 1916, he was transferred back to Manchester. By December 1916, Ledwidge was back in the front line in France. In March 1917, Ledwidge was in Arras. Only a few short weeks later he was in the Ypres Salient.
On the 31st July 1917, Lance Corporal Ledwidge was in reserve with his battalion who were building a wooden road with railway sleepers. He had stopped for a cup of tea taking shelter in a mud hole, when almost immediately a shell exploded close by, killing Ledwidge and five of his comrades instantly. A chaplain who knew him well, arrived shortly afterwards, recalling they were all ‘blown to bits‘.
A SOLDIER’S GRAVE
Then in the lull of midnight, gentle arms
Lifted him slowly down the slopes of death
Lest he should hear again the mad alarms
Of battle, dying moans, and painful breath.
And where the earth was soft for flowers we made
A grave for him that he might better rest.
So, Spring shall come and leave it seet arrayed,
And there the lark shall turn her dewy nest
HEDD WYN (ELLIS EVANS)
Ellis Evans was born in 1887, the same year as Ledwidge, into a farming family in rural Monmouthshire in Penlan, Trawsfynydd. Again many similarities to Burns, being born into poverty and hardship. He was the eldest of eleven children and lived for much of his life at Yr Ysgwrn, a hill farm east of Trawsfynydd.
Evans was in no rush to join in the fighting, preferring to tend to the sheep on the hills. The Great War cast a shadow on his poetry and as the war intensified he began writing more poems in memory of his friends and countrymen who would not be returning home to the hills of Wales.
However, he was eventually conscripted in February 1917 as a private in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, 15th Battalion. The passing of the Military Service Acts in 1916 meant it was fairly certain that Ellis would be conscripted.
Some farm lads got an exemption from military service due to the importance of agriculture and feeding the country. But at Yr Ysgwrn there was not enough work to justify all the Evans brothers staying at home. So, to spare his younger brother, Ellis reported for duty at Liverpool.
Evans was mostly self-educated and had a keenness to write poetry from a very early age. He wrote mostly in the Welsh bardic tradition and took the first of six poetry chairs in 1907. He was awarded his bardic name of Hedd Wyn meaning ‘white peace’ in 1910.
It was shortly after his departure for active service that he submitted Yr Arwr (The Hero), his entry for the 1917 National Eisteddfod. He completed it shortly before his death under the nom-de-plume of ‘fleur-de-lis’.
At the Eisteddfod the chair was draped in black, Hedd Wynn had won but lay dead in France. He was hit by a piece of trench mortar shell near Langemark and died later at a nearby first-aid post. He was conscious when first brought in and asked the doctor tending to him, “Do you think I will live?” Sadly, he succumbed to his wounds that morning around 11 am.
An Oscar-nominated Welsh-language film based on his life was produced in 1992, Hedd Wyn, the same year a commemorative slate was placed on the wall of the Café Hagebos near the site where he died. It was a joint venture between the villagers of Trawsfynydd and the people of Pilckem. In the village of Trawsfynydd, Hedd Wyn’s statue is that of not a soldier but of a shepherd.
There is also a memorial plaque at St George’s Church in Ypres which has become a place of pilgrimage for Welsh men and women.
The Black Spot
We have no right to the stars,
Nor the homesick moon,
Nor the clouds edged with gold
In the centre of the long blueness.
We have no right to anything
But the old and withered earth
That is all in chaos
At the centre of God’s glory
It would appear that decades after the Great War, voices cut off in their prime are still being heard today, friends and family ensuring that they will not be silenced by death.
Two poets lie buried in Flanders in the same cemetery, both born in the same year, both born into rural poverty, both killed on the same day. So much was lost but so much still lives on in the poetry of Hedd Wyn and Francis Ledwidge.
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Thanks for reading. Evelyn McKechnie
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