From the Somme to Salonika, Porthcawl losses in July 1916 By Ceri Joseph, Porthcawl Museum

Saturday, 9 July 2016

By GEM Community Correspondent

in Local People

At 7.30am on July 1, 1916 the shelling of the German lines stopped and the whistle to advance was blown.

More than 100,000 men of the British 4th Army left their trenches to attack the German frontline, but the Germans were ready.

By 7pm, there were 57,470 British and colonial casualties, of which, 19,240 were dead. What made it even more tragic was that little was gained by it.

July 1, 1916 proved to be the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army.

A high proportion of the deaths were from the new ‘pals battalions’, for whom it was their first experience of fighting in the war.

Towns, villages, workplaces and social organisations were affected by the great loss of life. The Somme campaign continued until November 18, 1916 – 141 days.

Lessons had been learnt that first day. Instead of large numbers of men attacking from along an extended line, ensuing battles took the form of tactical attacks on specific parts of the German frontline, with the aim of disabling as many of their soldiers as possible, and weakening their defences.

The engagement which ripped the heart out of Wales was the Battle of Mametz Wood, July 7 – 10, at which Wales lost 4,000 men.

Porthcawl lost Second Lieutenant William Jeffreys, 13th Battalion Welsh Regiment. William, one of four children, was born in Newport on November 23, 1896. He attended Sherborne College, where he took part in the Sherborne’s Officer Training Corps.

As a consequence, on enlistment into the 13th Battalion, Welsh Regiment in 1915 he attained the rank of 2nd Lt.

The 10th (1st Rhondda) and 13th (2nd Rhondda) Battalions, part of the 38th (Welsh) Division, landed in Le Havre in December 1915.

Units of both battalions had visited Porthcawl in November 1914, while undergoing initial training.

Although the battalions had seen active service, nothing prepared them for what they were to face at Mametz Wood. The first three days of fighting had yielded little, then at 4.15am on July 10 they were ordered to attack from White Trench, on the southern edge of the wood.

With the 13th (2nd Rhondda) Battalion leading, the 114th Brigade moved down the hill into a hail of shells and bullets.

By 6.30pm the Welsh had advanced to within 40 yards of the northern edge of the wood. At some point during the day’s fighting Lt Jeffreys was killed. His body was never recovered. At the time of his death, his address was given as ‘Llwynrhos’, Newton, Porthcawl.

Three more Porthcawlians were killed at Delville Wood. Sergeant Curwen Lewis, South African Expeditionary Force whose mother and sister lived in John Street, had previously fought in the Boer War with the Grenadier Guards.

On the cessation of that war he remained in Pretoria and joined the local police force. Curwen, who was born in Maesteg in 1878, enlisted in the South African infantry at the outbreak of the First World War and saw service in south west Africa and Egypt before arriving at the Western Front.

At 5am on July 15, 1916 the South African infantry became trapped in the wood. At 3pm the Germans counter-attacked, but were driven back by rifle and machine-gun fire. Sergeant Lewis was killed on July 16, when the entire brigade was ordered to clear the north-western sector of the wood.

Another Maesteg man, Captain George Devereux Scale, 10th Battalion, Royal Welsh Fusiliers (RWF) whose parents lived at The Poplars, New Road, was killed on July 20, 1916.

The 10th RWF had been ordered to push through Delville Wood from Princes Street Trench. As so many troops, including the remains of the South African Brigade, were involved in such small area, the order was given that there should be no firing.

Reaching the wood at 2.45am, they were mis-directed. Suddenly the whole wood seemed to be full of Germans. The Welsh encountered heavy machine-gun fire and many of them were surrounded. The battalion was relieved on July 21 at 3am.

The 10th RWF sustained 228 casualties in Delville Wood, of whom 91 were killed, died of wounds or missing in action.

Private Edward Brocket Grover, 22nd Battalion Royal Fusiliers fell at Delville Wood on July 29. Born in Cardiff in 1880 to Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Llewellyn Grover and Margaret Grover, he did not seek a commission at the outbreak of the war, as was his right, but chose to remain in the ranks.

On the death of his father, his mother moved to 9 Esplanade Avenue, Porthcawl after 1901, whereupon she involved herself in the life of the town. It was reported that Private Grover “..met his death whilst assisting wounded soldiers out of the trenches under heavy fire.” (Porthcawl News 16th August 1916.)

Another Porthcawlian who died from his wounds on July 18 at Bazentin le Petit Wood was Second Lieutenant Reginald Nichols. Fighting with the 3rd Battalion Welsh Regiment, his death was reported thus: “He is usually a quiet fellow, but he is very cheery now for he is off to England envied by all.

“It is not often that anyone gets away from the middle of active fighting. We cheer him along with the messages for London, and he hurries happily down the trench. He is no sooner out of sight than a few shells come screaming along. It is as if they have seen him.” (‘The Hungry One’ by CPClayton MC.) Lt Nicholls’ family ran the Pier Hotel.

A Porthcawlian who died elsewhere during the Somme period was Sapper Llewellyn John Lewis, 117th Railway Company, Royal Engineers, who died July 21, 1916 in Salonika.

Born in Newton, Porthcawl in 1881, he married Maud Edwards in 1905 and lived at 42 Suffolk Place, Porthcawl where their two daughters Dorothy and Dilys were born.

Before the war Llewellyn had worked on the Great Western Railway. He was posted to Salonika in May 1916. Through his letters home we get a sense of his time there, but tragically his suffering.

May 6, 1916

“Dear Maud,

Just a few lines to let you know we are alright and in the best of health. We are having beautiful weather and a calm sea. We are in the sight of land all the time now. The weather is getting a lot warmer.

“No more now. Kiss the kids for me. L. xxxxxx

PS. You can tell the kids we see the fishes jumping out of the sea like they do in Porthcawl.”

July 8

“Dear Maud,

Just a line to let you know I have had your letter. I am glad the kids are going on allright. I am alright myself now, getting used to the climate I expect. I forgot to ask you to write the formula for Phosphorine, when I asked you to send some out.

“We have heard from one of the chaps who went to France. They are going on allright out there. I don’t expect it will last much longer. The Germans are getting some wind up now. xxxxxxxxx L.

July 24

Dear Mrs Lewis,

I want to say to you how very deeply grieved we have been at the death of your husband. He was so full of good heart that we hoped he might pull through the disease.

“But it was the ‘malignant’ malaria that had too strong a hold of his vital energies. He was very patient and brave but gradually got weaker.

Yours very sincerely,

W Cooper, Chaplain.

Sadly, due to the great loss of life it has proved difficult to do justice to the biographies of the fallen. Should you wish to read their full stories, ‘A Somme Commemorative Booklet’ is available from Porthcawl Museum, price £5.

Ceri Joseph

Porthcawl Museum

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