Frank Richards: the private soldier in World War One

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There have been countless memoirs of life in the trenches during World War One. Most of them, like Siegfried Sassoon's Memoirs Of An Infantry officer, Cecil Lewis' Sagitarius Rising and Robert Graves' Goodbye To All That, were produced by officers.

War scene from the 1988 BBC production Journeys End

Yet the greatest account of trench warfare was arguably that of an ordinary ranker. It was Old Soldiers Never Die and it was written by a Welshman.

Frank Richards was the name chosen to adorn the title page of the book. The writer's real name was Francis Philip Woodruff and he came from Blaina in Monmouthshire.

Orphaned at the age of nine, for a long while Richards – the name he chose – thought he was illegitimate. In fact, his mother had been married, secretly.

After the death of his parents, the young Frank went to live with an uncle and aunt in Blaina, then a busy and bustling industrial community. It was a happy and enjoyable childhood and he later claimed to have been taught Welsh as a child but, in his adult life, soon forgot the skill.

Detesting school, Richards often played truant and left formal education as soon as he was able – in those days at the age of 12. He worked in a variety of jobs, starting as the door boy in a local colliery. Then, in April 1901, under the combined influence of his adopted brother and the news of the Boer War in South Africa, he joined the army, enlisting in the ranks of the Royal Welch Fusiliers.

Richards served in India and Burma, finally being discharged into the Reserve in 1912. When World War One broke out on 4 August 1914 he was working as a timberman in the mines around Blaina but was immediately called back to the colours. By 7 August he was en route to Dorchester and on 10 September he sailed for France with other members of the British Expeditionary Force.

Richards served continuously on the Western Front, taking part in almost every major campaign of the war. He was at Mons during the famous British retreat, fought at all of the Ypres battles and was still serving as a ranker when the Germans launched their final offensive in the mist-filled days of March 1918. He never rose above the rank of private, despite being offered promotion on a number of occasions.

He did not want to move up the ranks, did not want authority. He was content simply to do his job as a signalman and to do it well. Robert Graves, who knew him between 1915 and 1917, described him as the best signalman in the regiment.

Richards won both the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) and the Military Medal but resolutely denied any particular element of bravery in his character. He was, he said, simply doing his job.

He was present in the front lines when the unofficial truce of 1914 took place and wrote about it, movingly, in his book Old Soldiers Never Die:

“We and the Germans met in the middle of no-man's-land. Their officers were also out now. Our officers exchanged greetings with them... We mucked in all day with them. They were Saxons and some of them could speak English. By the look of them their trenches were in as bad a state as our own."

Frank Richards was never seriously wounded during the war but the conditions in damp, unhealthy trenches did affect his health. Returning to work in the mines was out of the question. For several years after his discharge from the army he was forced to rely on a variety of temporary jobs and eventually wound up clerking in the local labour exchange.

He began writing his remarkable story – all the more impressive because he was not a particularly well educated man – in the 1930s. He would write in the evenings and into the middle of the night, often throwing away or burning whole passages because he was unhappy with them.

Somewhere around 1933 Frank wrote to his old officer, the renowned poet Robert Graves, asking him for advice. Immediately impressed by what he saw and read, Graves worked on the manuscript and eventually found a home for it with Faber and Faber. It was an immediate success.

At the urging of Robert Graves, Frank wrote another book, this time about his service life in India and Burma. It was called Old Soldier Sahib.

Like its predecessor, it was a remarkable and fascinating account of the life led by ordinary British soldiers, this time during the high point of the Raj.

Frank died in 1961 at the age of 78, his books lauded as excellent accounts of solders lives in a time and place that now seem very far away. The final words, really, should be Frank's, simple, unadorned by purple prose but heartfelt in sentiment and purpose:

"On the morning of November 11th, just before we left the house, a small enemy shell crashed through the roof, but nobody was hit. We advanced out of the village and were halted behind some banks. On the right of us on the road was a cooker which had been knocked about, and laying alongside it were the two dead cooks... One of the last shells that the enemy had fired on this part of the Front had burst by them as they were moving along the road."

Unpretentious stuff but those few words capture the essence of what Richards was trying to describe, the utter futility of war.

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