Life on the Home Front in Porthcawl – 100 years ago

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

By Contributed Item
in Local People

Local historian Ceri Joseph of Porthcawl Museum continues her look at life in the town 100 years ago, during World War One. This month, she looks at December 1917.

The consequences of the previous month unfolded throughout December.

In the Middle East, after intense fighting at Gaza, Jerusalem surrendered to British Forces on the 8th and in an act of humility and respect for the significance of the city, Allenby entered Jerusalem on foot through the Jaffa Gate on December 11 accompanied by TE Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, who stated later in life that ‘for me it was the supreme moment of the war.’

Working for British Intelligence Lawrence, who had lived and fought with the Arabs, led guerilla attacks on the Turkish Army, thus weakening their defence of Jerusalem and enabling Allenby’s forces to succeed.

On the eastern Front, the new Russian Bolshevik regime suspended all hostilities and after armistice negotiations were opened up with Germany, an official truce was declared on December 7 which was extended to Bulgaria, Austria-Hungary and Turkey, on December 15.

It is interesting to note that during the upheaval, Finland declared independence on December 6. As a result of the truce, German Generals were able to transfer 50 divisions to the western Front, thus increasing their strength in readiness for the spring offensive; also known as ‘Kaiserschlacht’ or Ludendorff Offensive, which would commence on March 21, 1918.

Early in December 1917, two Porthcawlians perished on the Western Front.

Private Edwin James Smart, Highland Light Infantry, died of his wounds at No 64 Casualty Clearing Station on December 4. Edwin was born one of five children in Cardiff in 1884 to Edwin and Lavinia Smart.

His father was a wood cutting machinist, a trade that young Edwin later pursued. The family home was King’s Norton, Worcestershire but around 1910, young Edwin moved to Neath to work as a wood machinist.

It was at this time that he met Richard Howe, who was working as a timber-man, in a colliery outside Porthcawl. Edwin soon met Richard’s daughter, Isabella, whom he married in 1912, took up work in Porthcawl and moved to 21 Queen’s Avenue, where daughter Margaret was born in July 1915.

At Nottingham, Edwin joined the Royal Scots Fusiliers in August 1916 and was posted to France with the regiment in July 1917, whereupon at some point before his death on December 4 he had been transferred to the 16th Battalion, Highland Light Infantry.

Private Edwin James Smart is buried in Mendinghem Military Cemetery, Belgium, previously the site of the 64th CC Station.

Edwin’s brother in law, Sergeant Oliver Howe had served in Gallipoli with the Motor Transport Army Service Corps, which he joined on January 5, 1915. Before the war, while working for the GWR as a signalman in Porthcawl, Oliver served with the 3rd Battalion Welsh Regiment (Special Reserve) February 1908 – February 1914.

As a result of contracting a fever while in Gallipoli, Oliver was invalided home and spent the rest of the war years as an Army instructor in Bedford, until his discharge on April 4, 1919.

After the war Oliver served as a fireman with the Porthcawl Fire Brigade. He died in 1960, aged 74.

Lance Corporal Edwin Percival Stradling 2nd Battalion, Welsh Regiment had been wounded by shrapnel while taking up rations to a Company on November 10 and was immediately admitted to hospital, where he underwent what was perceived as a successful operation.

The following week he wrote home to his brother, Ernest Stradling, Cycle Shop, New Road, stating that he was progressing well and was looking forward to coming home for Christmas. Yet complications set in and Percy died on December 6, 1917.

Percy had been born, the last of five children, in Barry in 1898 to William and Mary Stradling. At the time of his birth, his father William had been a railway clerk but by 1911 had become a ‘cycling agent’: a trade that his son Ernest took up following his father’s death in 1913, when he opened The Cycle Shop on Station Hill.

Percy also worked in the shop until he enlisted in the Welsh Regiment in June 1916, being posted to the western Front early in 1917. Lance Corporal Edwin Percival Stradling was 19 years old at the time of his death, and is buried at Wimereux Communal Cemetery, France.

Interestingly, on October 26, 1916 his brother Ernest had been conscripted into the Motor Transport Army Service Corps at Bridgend. He was posted to Isleworth but due to severe arthritis, from which he had suffered since 1905, he was discharged on October 31, 1917; returned home to his wife Annie and three children and continued with his business.

On December 15, 1917, Sergeant Meredith Rowden, 31st Canadian Infantry won the Distinguished Conduct Medal for extreme bravery at Vimy Ridge. He was promoted to Company Sergeant Major in the field a fortnight later and his DCM was in the London Gazette in April 1918.

Meredith had been born on March 16, 1879, in Newton Village, one of six sons born to Edward and Selina Rowden. After working first as a servant in Merthyr Mawr, and then as a coal miner, he emigrated to Quebec in November 1912 on the SS Lake Manitoba from Liverpool.

He settled in Calgary, where he continued to work as a miner until he enlisted in the 63rd Battalion Canadian Expeditionary Force on June 21, 1915. His regiment sailed for France on March 23, 1916 where they fought and defended Vimy Ridge for the rest of their war.

On October 8, 1918 as the Allied advance pushed further into Belgium, Company Sergeant Major Rowden was on board the Canadian troop ship City of Poona, on his way home to Calgary where he married Eliza Gourley, a Scottish immigrant in June 1925; but died at Drumheller, Alberta, on September 12, 1928.

Finally, at home donations for the fund for ‘Christmas Gifts to Porthcawl Men on Active Service Abroad’ which had been collected at the National Provincial Bank, John Street, were efficiently directed toward assembling packages which were sent to the front ‘to cheer our boys up.’

Another positive event was the marriage of Private Leonard Sutton Higgins (RAMC) to Miss Gwendoline Rees of Gilfach Goch. The Rev T Holmes Morgan officiated at the service on December 15 at St John’s Church, Newton. Leonard Higgins, one of three children, was born in Margam on May 7, 1892 to Tom and Mary Higgins.

Soon after, the family moved to Bryncethin as Tom had secured a teaching post at Bryncethin Junior School, where he eventually became the headmaster.

Leonard eventually followed in his father’s footsteps, initially studying at a college in London before the war. During the war he served with the Royal Army Medical Corps, during which time he was wounded.

Following the war he gained an MA Degree and pursued teaching as a career, ending up as the first headmaster of Porthcawl Secondary School in 1933.

In 1951, for Services to Education, Leonard received an OBE in the King’s Honours List. Unfortunately, it seems that his marriage to Gwendoline did not last, as he got married again in 1946 to Gwenda Everson. Gwendoline Rees died in 1977.

When Leonard retired in 1953, he continued researching the history of our town and as evidenced when reading his books (especially ‘Newton, Nottage and Porthcawl’ (From Prehistoric Times to 1950)’ published in 1968, he will ever be revered as the town’s foremost historian. Leonard and Gwenda lived at 5 South Road, Porthcawl where he died on April 23, 1982.

Lastly, the wounded soldiers at the Rest Home enjoyed a special dinner provided by Messrs Walter Conrad and Charles Thomas of Cardiff Docks.

Attired as Father Christmas they visited each ward and presented each Tommy with a silver-mounted amber cigarette holder, a walking stick, an ounce of tobacco and a packet of cigarettes. They also provided a Christmas dinner with all the trimmings for both staff and patients.

Following the success and response to the first book of articles ‘A Garrison Town ’July 1914 – April 1916,’ I have compiled a second book: ‘Mud and Men’ May 1916 – December 1917, which is now on sale at the museum at £10. All proceeds to Porthcawl Museum.


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