The Lewis Boys of Carmarthen
The story of the part
played by the sons of B A Lewis, the local artist, and his wife Mary
during World War One. It is part of the family history which is in course
of preparation by Barbara Lewis Webb.
The Carmarthen Journal in June 1915 printed a photograph of the nine sons
of B. A. Lewis all "doing their bit" for the war effort, either in the
uniform of His Majesty's forces or as Boy Scouts. They were called
'Notable St. Peter's Boys', which was the name given to all those born in
Carmarthen within the sound of St. Peter's bells.
In the photograph, the eldest son, Ben, aged 29, was shown as a
Scoutmaster-he was then living in Launceston and precluded from joining
the army because of his poor eyesight. Jack, aged 28, was a Corporal with
the Welsh Field company, Royal Engineers. (Harry, the third eldest, had
died, aged 26, a month earlier in May 1915, from a sarcoma of the femur.)
Bertie, aged 24, was a 1st Lieutenant in the 15th Service Battalion of the
Welsh Regiment. Alec, aged 22, was a 2nd Lieutenant in the same battalion.
Gwynne, aged 20, was an Ordinary Seaman in the Royal Naval Division (he
was also described as the brilliant Harlequins RFC half-back). Rex, aged
18, had just joined the Royal Naval Division, although he was not shown in
seaman's clothes. Eric and Tudor, aged 15, were shown as Scout patrol
leaders, and Teddie, aged 12, as a Boy Scout.
When the First World War broke out in August 1914, patriotic fervour to
join the Army was running high. The 15th Battalion of the Welsh Regiment,
which Bertie and Alec Joined, was actually inaugurated in September 1914
in London, although it moved to North Wales in December that year. In
January 1915 Bertie sent Olive Marsden (who later became his wife) a
postcard from Rhyl to say. that he was sorry he would not be coming home
after all - he had been expecting to be sent to Carmarthen on a recruiting
campaign but this was not necessary as 300 new recruits were arriving the
next day. For the next few months the 38th (Welsh) Division, including the
15th Battalion, carried on training in Wales but in August 1915 they moved
to the area around Winchester, and continued training there and on
In November four of the brothers, Jack, Bertie, Alec and Gwynne, managed
to meet in London, and they signed a note - as 'four of His Majesty's
officers' which Bertie sent to Olive. He added that the four of them were
having tea together at Victoria Station, having arrived just after 2.0
p.m. It was a short time they had together as Gwynne had to catch the 6.10
train, and Bertie and Alec the 6.40. Bertie's note continued: 'Olive dear,
I wish you could have been with us, too, but then I couldn't wish you
goodbye again.' Behind this statement lies a picture of so many
heartbreaking goodbyes that must have been said, with so many of those
left behind never seeing their loved ones again.
The patriotism of the five Lewis brothers had not gone unnoticed as Mr.
Ponsonby, Keeper of the Privy Purse, sent a letter dated 3rd November 1915
to B.A. stating: 'I am commanded by The King to convey to you an
expression of His Majesty's appreciation of the patriotic spirit which has
prompted your five sons to give their services at the present time to the
Army and Navy.' It seems strange that the letter was addressed solely to
the boys' father as their mother's anxiety over the fate of her boys was
probably far more keenly felt.
Meanwhile, the Welsh Division continued their training on Salisbury Plain
and preparing for action in France. Fifty years later Bertie wrote of a
service held in Winchester Cathedral before the troops' embarkation. His
account, published in the Western Mail, described how the cathedral was
filled with so many Welsh soldiers and 'for the first and perhaps the only
time the walls of this great and magnificent House of God reverberated
with strains of hymns sung with true Welsh fervour.' Bertie no doubt
reflected his own feelings when he added: 'The memory of this wonderful
service alleviated the trials which the Division was to undergo in the
next few years.
The troops embarked at Southampton during December and sailed to Le Havre
from where they went by rail to the neighbourhood of St. Omer. On February
15th 1916 the South Wales Daily News published a photograph of the
officers of the 15th Battalion (Carmarthen), in which Bertie was shown as
promoted to Captain and Alec promoted to 1st Lieutenant.
The troops of both Germany and the Allies had settled into a vast system
of trenches where they faced net only unending bombardments from the
batteries of guns, but also the fearful and ubiquitous mud. A chilling
description of these conditions was given by an officer in the Spring of
the previous year: 'The damp has got into my pockets. I am wet from head
to heel. My hands are caked in mud; I am wet through, and have nowhere a
chance to dry myself. Everything and every pocket is ruined, and my money
is nothing but a lump of coloured paper. I have tried to dry the lead
pencil I am writing with by candlelight in my dug-out, but it is no use.
The water is trickling down the walls and gives me a shower-bath all the
time. My breeches are thick with mud. I don't suppose even my mother would
recognise me at this minute. I have tried in vain to dry my hands. I have
blown on them and held them round the candle, but it is no good. They are
inches deep in mud. My revolver case has turned into putty, and my muffler
is more like a mud pie than anything else. The paper I am writing on I
found round some chocolate in my dugout. Somehow it had kept dry. My watch
has stopped at 5, as the wet and mud have penetrated it. I have lived on
chocolate all day long.
Sir Douglas Haig, Commander-in-Chief of the British Army in France, now
became convinced that a powerful offensive on the Somme could win the war.
On the first of July, 13 British Divisions went 'over the top' to attack
the German lines, resulting in appalling casualties: on the British side
19,000 were killed and 57,000 wounded on the first day.
The Welsh Division was involved in this offensive and their losses too
were heavy. The 15th Welsh (Carmarthen) were sent up as reinforcements and
a party of them broke through the German lines but eventually had to fight
their way back; one company under Capt. (Bertie) Lewis 'returning with
only seven survivors.
Although the official history of the Welsh Division describes the Infantry
attack on Mametz Wood (part of this offensive) as 'one of the most
magnificent sights of the war' (8), a very different picture is painted by
Siegfried Sassoon in his semi-autobiographical work 'Memoirs of an
Infantry Officer'. Before the attack on Mametz Wood his battalion was
relieved by units from the Welsh Division and his description was of 'a
panicky rabble.of half-trained civilians'. Two days later, he added, the
Welsh Division was 'involved in massacre and confusion', part of '!he
pandemonium which converted the green thickets of Mametz Wood to a
desolation of skeleton trees and blackening bodies.
In spite of these ferocious battles and appalling conditions, Bertie
managed to write to Olive nearly every day. Olive kept a diary during the
war years and she recorded each day that she had a letter from him: there
were not many days when no letter arrived and sometimes two or three short
notes arrived on the same day. Those at the front were allowed to send
post-free 'Field Service' postcards, on which were printed a number of
standard phrases such as 'I am well' or 'I have been admitted to hospital'
etc., which they could delete as appropriate. Two of these that Bertie
sent have survived, one dated 8th July 1916 and one dated 11th November
1916. Olive also kept a letter written in April 1916 in which Bertie
thanked her for her last letter and added: `I do not know what life would
be to mc out here without your letters.there is not much news to give you
but all the same it is lovely to be able to write to you every day.' He
also mentioned that he had just received a letter from Alec who said he
was 'just going back into the trenches', and Bertie feared he would be
'down in the dumps again' - very much an understatement in the
circumstances, it would seem. Gwynne was with Bertie at that time and he
described how the two of them had some time off and walked down to a
nearby beach to see the wreck of a P & O boat. It was on its way from
South Africa carrying fleeces when it went aground, and people were trying
to salvage the wool from the wreck.
Gwynne, although he had joined the Navy in 1915, transferred to the Army
and was a Captain with the 38th Welsh Division at the battle of Mametz
Wood and the later battles on the Somme. He was transferred to the 10th
Welsh and won the Military Cross for gallantry on the River Sanbere.
Jack had joined the Royal Engineers, and after promotion to Captain was
responsible for ammunition dumps throughout the UK and for the safe
transport of the ammunition to France. He was billeted for a time at Great
Shelford, Cambridgeshire, where he met his future wife, Cissie.
Rex spent the whole of his war service with the Navy. He was stationed at
Scapa Flow in Scotland in 1916 when Lord Kitchener, Secretary for War, set
sail from there in HMS Hampshire for a visit to Russia. Within two hours
of leaving Scapa Flow the ship struck a mine and Kitchener and most of
those on board drowned. Rex was the wireless operator who transmitted the
first news of the disaster. In common with many other sailors who took up
hobbies to while away long hours at sea, Rex became proficient at making
mats out of bootlaces, a number of which were treasured by at least one
member of his family for many years.
At the end of July 1916 Sir Douglas Haig launched the third battle for the
Ypres salient, which came to be known as 'Passchendaele'. The Flanders
drainage system was destroyed and August proved to be exceptionally wet -
the battle so costly in lives, was fought in a sea of mud. After more than
three months' fighting, the Allies gained an advance of less than five
miles at a cost of about 300,000 British, 8,500 French as well as 260,000
Lloyd George, Prime Minister from 1916-22, wrote in his War Memoirs,
published in 1938: 'And now we come to the battle (Passchendaele) which,
with the Somme and Verdun, will always rank as the most gigantic,
tenacious, grim, futile and bloody fights ever waged in the history of
war. Each of these battles lasted for months. None of them attained the
object for which they were fought. In each case it was obvious early in
the struggle to everyone who watched its course - except to those who were
responsible for the strategic plan that wrought the grisly tragedy - that
the goal would not be reached.'
On November 1st 1917, Bertie and Olive were married at Llanllwch, just
outside Carmarthen, where her father was Vicar. Alec acted as best man and
both he and Bertie were in uniform. Bertie and Olive travelled by train to
the Lake District to spend their honeymoon at Bowness on Lake Windermere.
When Bertie returned to his unit, his Commanding Officer told him that he
should have been recalled earlier but 'his address had been lost'! Ben and
Pauline were also married during 1917 and spent their honeymoon at
Princeton on Dartmoor, where a number of conscientious objectors were on
working parties. Ben was told to be careful that he was not mistaken for a
'conchie'! On March 18th 1918, their 18th birthday, Eric and Tudor went up
to London and enlisted in the Artists Rifles. Though they were both in
uniform until the end of the war, they were not sent out to France. '
At last, in general exhaustion, by the late summer of 1918, Germany asked
for peace terms, and on November 11th, at the eleventh hour of the
eleventh day of the eleventh month, the Armistice came into effect.
It seemed almost miraculous that the five Lewis brothers survived the war
with its horrendous casualties. One Carmarthen family lost three of its
four sons: Corporal Archie Evans, Private Howie Evans of the Welsh
Regiment and Sapper D.G. Evans were killed, while the remaining son, Horse
Gunner Evans, was wounded. There was even resentment among some Carmarthen
women who had lost loved ones that Mary Lewis had been so favoured in
seeing her sons survive.
Although the five brothers came through the war, they were not unscarred
by their experiences. Gwynne was badly injured in a poison gas attack and
spent many months in a sanatorium recovering after the end of the war.
Bertie was ill with recurrent bouts of the so-called 'trench fever, and
both he and Alec suffered bouts of depression and nightmares long after
the war. Considering all that they been through, it was surprising that
they all recovered so well and regained their Lewis trait of telling funny
stories at the slightest provocation to the delight of sons and daughters,
nieces and nephews.
Carmarthen Journal, June 1915.
A History of the 38th (Welsh) Division, p.3, ed. by Lt. Col. J.E. Munby,
CMG, DSO, published by Hugh Rees Ltd. 1920
Western Mail, Dec. 7 1965.
The Times English History 1914-1945 A.J.P. Taylor, Penguin Books, 1975,
The Complete Memoirs of George Sherston by Siegfried Sassoon, published by
Faber & Faber 1941, p. 347-8.
Different official statistics have been published at various times. See
note 1 on p.126 of Taylor's `English History 1914-45.
The Thunderer of South Wales - A History of the Carmarthen Journal
1810-1990, p 64.
Barbara Lewis Webb
First published in The Friend May 2006