One man's war

Tuesday 28 May 2013, 09:00

Phil Carradice Phil Carradice

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Some of the stories of the men who fought in the Great War are memorable, some are harrowing, some downright distressing. But they are all fascinating, and none more so than that of Private Thomas Henry Thomas.

Thomas, of Pontypridd, served with the Royal Welsh Fusiliers and died in the attack on Pilkem Ridge during the Battle of Paschendaele in 1917.

Thomas' story could so easily have been lost and forgotten but the details of his army life were written down by his sister Gwennie and so preserved for posterity. They were written in an ordinary exercise book, in pencil, and have never been published but the story gives a graphic account of what it was like to serve in the front line and at home during one of the most awful wars ever fought.

Thomas enlisted under-age on Monday 16 November 1914, obviously determined to sign on and do his bit. He was just 16 and, by rights, should have been sent away by the recruiting sergeant with a flea in his ear. He was accepted, took the King's shilling and became a soldier.

The following day he reported to the Lesser Hall in Pontypridd and from there entrained for Cardiff. He was soon posted to Rhyl for several months to continue his training and it was here that he celebrated his 17th birthday - secretly, of course.

Further periods of training at Winchester and on Salisbury Plain were followed by a march to Southampton and on 5 December 1915 Thomas and his comrades sailed to France. As his sister later wrote, young Thomas remembered their departure only too well:

"What a good send off they had and how beautiful the Welsh boys sang as they went across the water which divided them from the homeland of dear old Wales."

Thomas spent Christmas 1915 in the trenches and had a near miss when the dugout he was in was hit by a shell. Several other men were wounded, but Thomas escaped unhurt.

Daunted at first, Thomas soon became hardened by life in the front line and spent some time as a sniper. One of his friends was shot and seriously wounded as he stood alongside him in the trench. And, inevitably for such a young man, stress took its toll.

He was hospitalised for "nerves" but made a reasonably quick recovery. After that, young Thomas spent time as a miner, a tunneler hewing long passages and galleries out of the earth beneath the German trenches.

The mine he was working was discovered and a charge exploded. Again, Thomas was hospitalised, with much of his skin peeling off - clearly his nerves were still in a bad way.

On release from hospital he rejoined his regiment and marched south to take part in the Battle of the Somme. The march took three weeks. Thomas then took part in the attack on Mametz Wood, Gwennie Thomas commenting that:

"He reached the foot of the wood about one-o-clock in the morning. They had a little rest and then they were told that they were going to attack the wood --- My brother exchanged addresses with five more boys in case they got killed when the others would write and tell their parents. I am sorry to say that the other four got killed."

Thomas Thomas (and others) charged right through the wood before he was wounded in the neck, several pieces of shrapnel lodging there. He had to crawl the mile and a half back through the wood, blood pouring out of his wound and with shells - British shells - dropping all around him. He was taken to the clearing station in a very weak condition. Gwennie Thomas again:

"He told us how they said he was not fit to move, to send to England and how they put a white chalk mark across him --- he wanted to come home, so he rubbed the chalk mark off and crawled to the side of the men fit to travel. They asked him if he was for England and he told them he was. He was brought over to Southampton in a hammock, being so very ill."

Sent to Glasgow, Private Thomas underwent a serious operation and was given up for dead on three occasions. But he survived and after several months was sent back to Pontypridd for 14 days' leave.

Posted to Buttrills Camp in Barry, then Rhyl in north Wales, Thomas spent Christmas 1916 at home. Then came a curious incident.

After a further short period of leave, he tried to rejoin his unit but was told by the military police that Pontypridd was in a state of isolation due to a measles outbreak and that he should stay at home awaiting further orders. Although he wrote to his unit, explaining the situation, Thomas soon found himself arrested for being absent without leave.

He spent the night in the police cells and was escorted back to Rhyl as a prisoner. At his court martial the case was quickly dismissed, which was just as well: absenteeism in those days could well have meant death by firing squad.

Thomas Thomas' family saw him for the last time at Whitsun 1917. He sailed for France on 22 June and was soon involved in the attack on Pilkem Ridge, the same battle that saw the death of Welsh poet Hedd Wyn. There were 31,000 British casualties on the first day, which Field Marshal Haig called "A fine day's work."

Thomas was wounded in the lower jaw and received several gunshot wounds. He died from his wounds on 1 August 1917 and was buried in Dozinghem Military Cemetery to the north west of Ypres.

The short life of Thomas Henry Thomas was, in many ways, unremarkable and fairly typical of what many men endured during the Great War. And yet, in others, it was a life of amazing endurance, experience and contrast, a life cruelly cut short by a vicious and bloody war.

It was a life that illustrates exactly what men endured between 1914 and 1918 and is, therefore, a valuable historical record. If it were not for the words of his sister, Gwennie Thomas - an ordinary girl, not particularly well educated but clearly loving her brother - his story would have been lost. That, at the end of the day, is real history.

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    Comment number 1.

    WOW! It's incredible that people like Thomas had to endure all that. And he was just one of many. If ever one man's story needed to be told then this was it. I cry when I go out to Belgium, as I do once or twice a year, and look at all those graves around Ypres or on the Somme. Talk about man's inhumanity to man.

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    Comment number 2.

    As you say Phil, that is real history. Such a graphic and moving account of what so many young men of that generation endured during the Great War. It strikes a few chords with me too. My father ran away from home, aged 15, during WW1 and joined the Army. I have a photo of him just after he joined up and showed it to my son and told him it was his grandfather, aged 15, about to go and fight in the trenches in WW1. To which my son replied – “Yes dad, and he looks about 12.” Mind you, my father had passed his 16th birthday before arriving in the trenches. What action and horrors he saw in the time he was there can only be guessed at from the regimental diaries and such accounts as you have given here, recorded by Gwennie Thomas about her brother. Just before the Battle of the Somme, my grandmother presented my father’s birth certificate to the Army authorities and he was dismissed the service. Reason for dismissal is given as- “mis-statement as to age.” So I suppose I’m lucky to be here.

    Like Noreeen, I have visited Belgium and the WW1 cemeteries. Those, and the Menin Gate are incredibly moving places to visit. I have also stood in one of the few WW1 trench systems that survive, and surrounded by long dead trees, full of shrapnel, tried to imagine what it must have been like. I came to the conclusion that it was beyond imagining, unless you’d been there during the war.

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    Comment number 3.

    Hi Rog. Like you and Noreen, I have been out to the battlefields. I have stood at the Menin Gate as they played the Last Post and I'm not ashamed to say that I cried. I also went down to the Somme, where Thomas Thomas served and was wounded. And I found that even more moving. It was all so untouched. Standing in the Newfoundlanders trenches at Beaumont Hamel, it was hard to believe that 20,000 men died here on the first day of the battle. Unbelievable.

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    Comment number 4.

    Yet another fascinating story of a young boy caught up in the maelstrom called the First World War. As you say it is amazing that his story survived. Written in pencil in an old exercise book, such things could have been mislayed or destroyed. I wonder if our relations will sift through our computer hard drives in the future to find what we have written about contemporary events? With the centenary of the war coming next year it is tales like this which bring it home to us what the men/boys went through a hundred years ago. Has BBC Wales thought of making a programme of Private Thomas' experiences?

 

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