Act of Remembrance
This post is due to be published on 3 September 2018. (Apologies for the delay – there was a glitch in scheduling it.)
On that date, I’ll actually be in France, and specifically at the Saint-Sever military cemetery, on the outskirts of Rouen. The reason for being there is that it’s the centenary of the death of my great-uncle David, after whom I was named, and I made a promise to myself long ago that I’d go to his grave to pay my respects. The visit will undoubtedly have greater poignancy following the death of my mother at the beginning of the year; her first ever trip abroad, at the age of seventy, also included a visit to the grave, thus fulfilling a promise she had made to her own mother, his sister, whom I remember well. I originally blogged about ‘Uncle Dai’ be in 2014, and what follows is an amended version of the text of that post, with the addition at the end of photographs of two ‘primary sources’: his last letter home, and the letter from his CO, referred to in the post. Next week, I hope to be able to blog some thoughts about, and photographs of, my visit, possibly coupled with material drawn from the larger holiday in France of which this forms a part.
Apropos of commemoration of the First World War, I’m pleased to be able to announce that I’ll be speaking at the conference Commemorating the Welsh Experience of the Great War at Sea, jointly organised by MOROL (the Institute of Welsh Maritime Historical Studies) and the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales, at Pembroke Dock on 3-4 November. My title will be ‘On “The Wrong Side”?: the Welsh Contribution to Allied Naval Supremacy in the First World War’.
Uncle Dai, as the family always called him, was born in 1887 in Lakefield Road, Llanelli (in the house where I spent the first three years of my life). He was the fifth of the seven children of my great-grandparents, David Jones and Elizabeth, née Lewis. My grandmother was the next child, less than two years younger, and the two of them were always close. By the time he was fourteen, Dai was apprenticed to a Llanelli ironmonger, but by 1907 he had moved to Aberavon, some twenty miles east, where he found work as the assistant to another ironmonger. Dai was apparently a quiet, religious man, always willing to help people, who loved the children in the wider family and was loved by them in return. On 5 September 1915, at Ebenezer Baptist Chapel, Aberavon, he married Emily Griffiths, a twenty-six year old local girl. Everything seemed set fair for them to have a happy family life together.
But in the summer of 1916, tragedy struck: after barely ten months of marriage, Emily died of tuberculosis. Less than a month later, on 23 August, and perhaps as a way of working through his grief, Dai enlisted in the Royal Garrison Artillery. He embarked at Folkestone on 23 March 1917, arriving at Boulogne on the following day. He was posted to the front as part of 284 Siege Battery, RGA, which took part in the notoriously bloody Battle of Passchendaele. (By coincidence, my grandmother was also making a contribution to the artillery war; she was one of the ‘Canaries’, the female workers drafted into the munitions factories, in her case the Llanelli shell factory).
Dai was home on leave from 8 to 22 July 1918. Just over a month after his return to the front line, on 29 August, his unit was camped at Froidmont, just outside Nesle, a village midway between Amiens and Saint-Quentin. That night, the Germans launched a sudden gas attack on the British positions. Dai was one of the casualties, although he did not die immediately. He was taken to 5 General Hospital at Rouen, one of the many British camps and hospitals in the city, and must have spent several days in agony. He eventually died on 3 September. Dai was buried in the huge military cemetery of Saint Sever, Rouen, covering some 49,885 square metres, where over 8,500 of his comrades-in-arms are commemorated.