Articles

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 Salisbury Plain.

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 German lives.

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.

References:

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, p.94.

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

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