When the Garw Valley Heritage Society made a decision to produce a booklet to accompany the series of exhibitions we were to hold throughout 2014 in the Garw Valley, one of the aims was to update the list of those men we knew had left to go to the war, but who never returned. We knew that there were more than those listed by the Royal British Legion in Pontycymer, so we set to work.
Several members of the Society were directly involved, but two of us took responsibility for looking into the various websites available, Ian and myself. Ian would also be able to visit sites in France and Belgium and photograph graves and memorials, whilst I could concentrate on following up various ‘leads’ from our contacts. As two of us were working on this project and needing to be mindful of duplicating work, we set about our tasks from different angles and then met regularly to compare notes and findings. Ian used the Commonwealth War Graves websites, and I approached it via the ‘Soldiers who Died in the Great War’ by the Naval and Military files.
Because this list was from a relatively small geographic area I think we were hoping at the start that the task would be simple, but this was not to be the case. The very common Welsh surnames of Jones, Rees, Price and Thomas were probably the first of many research stumbling blocks, but with a dedication I never knew I possessed I went trawling through every archive available until the right one was tracked down and laid to rest.
Another very useful tool, certainly for me in the researching of specifically the Garw ‘fallen’, was found quite by accident, when fellow member Colin sent me a newspaper link. This led me to the Glamorgan Family History Website which in turn put me on to the Glamorgan Gazette’s files for 1914-1919, a veritable goldmine of information.
Armed with this I was able to gather not only death notices but also more information about the men when they were alive, such as where they worked, worshipped and enlisted, whether they were single or married; often I would get an age or address to further complete the picture from letters written home to loved ones and other relations.
Some of this extra information did allow a certain closeness to the subject which in turn led to a personal feeling of loss: it was possible to come across a letter written by a particular soldier to his parents in one issue, and then find his death announced in the next. I was quite shaken by such findings, and as these sort of incidents came up all too frequently I often found it difficult to continue sometimes.
Perhaps one of the most moving stories I came across was that of Richard T. Clarke, who was working in a colliery in Blaengarw when he enlisted in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers in 1914. On July 22nd 1916 the Germans detonated a mine directly under the British forward trenches of Givenchy-la-Bassee. 52 men were killed instantly, leaving a crater 120 yards long and 30 feet deep in the British front line, a crater later labelled Red Dragon in the dead men’s honour*. It was believed that Pte Clarke was killed at this point, becoming another casualty of the war. He was only 19 years of age.
However, a French ‘detectoriste’ called Olivier Hancart was searching in the area for war souvenirs some 90 years later when he came across some bones and scraps of a uniform and a shaving mirror in a ploughed field. Richard Clarke’s name and service number were engraved on the mirror case. A professor of forensic archaeology was able to establish that the bones were indeed those of Richard Clarke, and so his remains were buried with full military honours in the nearby military cemetery at Gore-Beuvry.
Other stories struck a deep note of sadness: of the shell-shock suffered by such as Herbert Pascoe, who went shopping in Bridgend after the war and completely disappeared, never to be seen or heard of again. Horace Wyndham Thomas, one of the three sons of the Rev.Morgan Thomas of Betws, who died at the battle in Guillemont in 1916 and whose body was never found, and whose photograph is pinned up at Thiepval, photographed by Ian whilst travelling around the Somme. There are many more of course.
Throughout this task I owed a great deal to my own family, who encouraged and avoided me in equal measure, and who directed all important family decisions to the back of my head as my face was usually buried in a book or bathed in the glow of a computer screen.
My co-compiler and I kept in touch via emails which each of us had to verify the other’s findings, and argue the case for insertion on the final list, except that I fear the list is not final: I know there may be others, and if so, the Society members will do all possible to make sure their names are not forgotten.
*A first- hand account of this mine going off and the battle for the crater can be found in the book ‘Old Soldiers Never Die’ by Frank Richards
If you have not seen the booklet ‘The Great War in the Garw: a Welsh Valley’s Call to Arms’ then please see our website www.garwheritage.co.uk, or if you would like a hard copy, contact the Secretary, Jean Fowlds, on 01656 856091.
Copies are free, but donations always welcome.