Wales

On 1 March 2006 the three Welsh Infantry Regiments of the British Army were amalgamated into The Royal Welsh. It meant the oldest military regiment in Wales, the famous Royal Welch Fusiliers, ceased to exist as a separate entity but became the First Battalion the Royal Welsh (The Royal Welch Fusiliers). 

photo credit: Royal Welch Fusiliers Regimental Museum

The Royal Welch Fusiliers – the old spelling of Welch being used to denote their longevity – had been in existence for over 300 years. In that time members of the Regiment had won 14 Victoria Crosses and, more significantly, during World War One it had the distinction of being the most literary regiment in the army. 

No fewer than six writers of international repute served with the Fusiliers during the war years. However there were many more men, perhaps less well known in literary circles (but all with something to say about the conditions in the trenches), who put pen to paper to record their experiences. Two of the most renowned writers were Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves

Siegfried Sassoon, of course, is a famous literary figure from the war. Indeed, along with Wilfred Owen, his is the name you automatically think of when you consider WW1 poets and with his bitter satirical verses, his work is accessible and hugely effective. Sassoon served with the Fusiliers throughout the war, fighting at Mametz Wood, winning the Military Cross and being severely wounded in the process.

Robert Graves was a friend of Sassoon's – though they did not always see eye to eye and often fell out. Sasson put him into his prose book on the war, 'Memoirs of an Infantry Officer', giving him the Welsh-sounding name of David Cromlech and writing of him quite fondly. 

According to Graves in his prose account of the conflict 'Goodbye to All That', it was down to him that Sassoon was not court martialled after failing to report for duty and writing to his CO to explain his conduct.

In fact Graves was rather over-stretching his part in the affair, as he was invariably prone to do. He may well have had a part to play but he was certainly not Sassoon's sole saviour. Nevertheless, like Sassoon, he was a poet and prose writer of rare quality who served with the Fusiliers from 1915 until the end of the war.

Hedd Wyn, real name Ellis Humphrey Evans, was a Welsh language poet who won the Chair at the National Eisteddfod some six weeks after he was killed at Passchendaele on 31 July 1917. He came from a farm outside Trawsfynydd and did not join up until the beginning of 1917. A pacifist by nature, Hedd Wyn was, like Edward Thomas, a writer who celebrated the natural world and recorded the damage that war was doing to the places and people he loved rather than give a graphic account of the horrors that he witnessed.

Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves. Photo credit: Getty Images

Hedd Wyn served as a private soldier in the Fusiliers, just like another renowned Welsh poet and artist, David Jones. Now regarded as one of the first modernist poets, Jones served with the Regiment from 1915 until 1918, taking part in the bloody and ferocious Battle of Mametz Wood in 1916. It was an event that was to sear itself into his memory.

David Jones' long poem about his war experiences, 'In Parenthesis' took many years to gestate, not being published until 1937. TS Eliot called it one of the finest long poems of the century. It was followed by another long-gestating poem/prose piece 'The Anathemata'.

Frank Richards, real name Francis Philip Woodruff, wrote what is now regarded as the greatest account of the war as seen through the eyes of a private soldier, 'Old Soldiers Never Die'. Recalled from the Reserve to the Fusiliers in August 1914, Richards served throughout the war and never received a wound – or a promotion.

In the years after the war Robert Graves helped Richards, a poorly educated man, with his manuscript and championed his cause, encouraging him to write another book, 'Old Soldier Sahib', about his experiences with the Royal Welch Fusiliers in India.

Wyn Griffith is, these days, little known outside Wales. However, he produced one of the most vivid accounts of the war – including his time as one of the much-reviled staff officers – in his book 'Up to Mametz'. Like so many other writers, it took time for the memories and visions in Griffith's head to clear sufficiently for him to write his book which duly came out in 1931.

Captain JC Dunn was a medical officer attached to the Fusiliers and was a friend of both Sassoon and Graves. His contribution to the war cannon was 'The War the Infantry Knew', a factual but brilliantly evocative account of the war years with the regiment.

There were many others who wrote, men who would have laid no claim to literary expertise, including people like Sergeant Thomas Phillips who served as a signaller with C Company. He fought at Mametz and wrote that, when going across open ground into the wood, he "had to dodge the bullets which were being fired by snipers up in the trees" - simple but powerfully effective.

Quite why the Royal Welch Fusiliers should have attracted so many men with literary interests remains unclear. Regardless of how and why, the men of the Fusiliers left a record that remains unsurpassed. The spiritual home of so much quality poetry and prose between 1914 and 1918, the Fusiliers can rightly claim to be the most literary regiment in the British Army.

Visit Your Paintings for more information about the painting by Louis William Desanges

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  • Comment number 2. Posted by Phil

    on 28 Mar 2014 13:31

    I don't think there was any type of unofficial network, it was just coincidence. There was an Artists Rifles Regiment that many writers and painters joined - people like Edward Thomas and Isaac Rosenberg - but, as far as I can see, it was more of a "feeder" unit than a fighting battalion. Why the Royal Welch Fusiliers should have attracted so many writers - none of whom knew each other before the war - remains something of a mystery.

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  • Comment number 1. Posted by rmacmhor

    on 23 Mar 2014 08:39

    That’s fascinating Phil – and trust you to spot such a thing! So do you think all these literary types ended up in the same Regiment by accident? Or was there some kind of literary ‘network’ which led to them being there? Maybe some with literary interests simply assumed that there would be a lot of ‘Bards’ in any Welsh Regiment. It would also seem that some of those who subsequently wrote, like Capt Dunn and Frank Richards perhaps took their inspiration from or were actively inspired and encouraged by the likes of Robert Graves and Sassoon and how wonderful that Graves helped Frank Richards – obviously recognising his talent whilst being aware that his education was a little lacking.

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