The Welsh rugby hero who survived the Great War Porthcawl at war: October 1917 – by Ceri Joseph

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

By Contributed Item
in Local People

Porthcawl historian Ceri Joseph continues her look at life in Porthcawl 100 years ago, during World War One. This month, she looks at October 1917.

The beginning of October 1917 marked the 50th anniversary of an event of which many at the time would not have been aware.

It was on October 1, 1867 that the black and white flag of the German Navy was hoisted for the first time. The ceremony took place at Kiel, and as the German Empire was not yet in existence, it was the Confederation of North Germany that the flag symbolised.

After German unification in 1870, the same flag remained as the ensign of a navy that would not only challenge British supremacy of the seas, but also contribute to the onset of World War 1.

Yet in Porthcawl in early October 1917, it was maritime news of a different kind that evoked the concern of the town’s residents.

During a storm on October 4, the schooner Jane Knox of Plymouth, sailing from Briton Ferry to St Brieuc, Brittany with a cargo of coal, sank off Hwtchins Point, Porthcawl.

Wreckage from the ship was washed up onto the shore – but there was no sign of the crew. All aboard had perished.

The following day, Saturday 5, while walking near the Rivermouth at Ogmore by Sea, Mr Thomas Bevan of Danylan Farm, Newton, found the body of a man which later was identified as that of Captain Henry Johns, 40; the master of the ill-fated boat.

Within a few days, two other bodies had been washed up: that of, Lawrence Johns, 19 and William Johns, 17; the sons of the captain.

The Rev T Holmes Morgan officiated at their funeral in St John’s churchyard, Newton, while ‘the Porthcawl and Newton police, under the charge of Sergeant Jenkins, acted as bearers.’ (Porthcawl News, October 18 1917.)

During the month quite a few local servicemen had been home on furlough; most notably Lieutenant Clem Lewis, 16th Battalion (Cardiff City) Welsh Regiment who, having recovered from wounds and the effects of gas poisoning, suffered at Pilkem Ridge in August, spent a few days with his parents in the town.

Lewis had begun his rugby career with Porthcawl before going on to play first class rugby for Bridgend and Cardiff. He was awarded his Cambridge Blue in 1913 while studying at St Catherine’s College, a year after gaining his first Welsh cap against England.

While home he remarked that ‘he hopes to play more rugger games when the greater game has been won.’ (Porthcawl News October 11, 1917.) Thankfully, Lewis did fulfil his desires as after the war he rejoined Cardiff and was recalled to the Welsh squad in 1921, going on to captain the national side in 1923.

After the war, he became a schoolmaster in Cornelly and served in the Civil Defence during World War Two. Clem Lewis died at his Porthcawl home in 1944, aged 54.

In October, Clem’s uncle, Mr William Burnell, received a poignant letter from his son, Private Richard Wallace Burnell, serving with the Northamptonshire Regiment in Flanders.

In the letter, he states that he is ‘quite well after being through some heavy fighting.’ He then goes on to describe his visit to the graves of ‘two Porthcawl heroes,’ at Essex Farm Cemetery, West Vlanderen, Belgium.

The graves were those of Sapper Tom Turner, 15/3/1917 and Private Trevor Thomas, 21/08/1916. Private Burnell states that he was pleased to see that the graves were so well looked after. The photographs that accompanied the letter confirmed this.

A few days later, as a result of Walli’s letter, Tom’s brother Jack was able to reassure the mother of another hero back home in Porthcawl that her son’s grave was well looked after.

Comforting words and support like this were essential in helping people through their grief, as there was no funeral for them to attend. Tragically, William Burnell would need that same support in March 1918.

Letters home were not confined to the Western Front. By October 1917, the Palestine theatre had become the second largest in terms of forces deployed, after the Western Front.

Trooper William Griffiths of Nottage, serving there with the Welsh Regiment, writes home describing how ‘our troops have ridden along the ancient road of invasion that led from Palestine down into Egypt.’

As you read his account, which includes references to the wars of Ptolemy and Rome, plus references to Biblical place names, you cannot fail to note his excitement and wonder at seeing all the places he had learned about, before the war.

Yet as a soldier, Trooper Griffiths was part of General Robert Allenby’s campaign to mount an attack on the Turkish forces at Gaza and take Jerusalem; which Allenby prophesied would be an early Christmas present for the British people.

The attack, which was launched on October 27, continued into December – and proved to be the catalyst for the Balfour Declaration, which will be discussed in next month’s issue.

However, earlier in the month Mr David Hutchinson, newsagent of John Street, received the sad news that his nephew Private Frederick Edward Giddy had died in Egypt on October 3. Fred was born in Newport in October 1897, the eldest of three sons born to Fred Giddy and Catherine Hutchinson.

Although born in Bideford in Devon, Fred Senior had joined the Great Western Railway in 1893 and had been posted to Porthcawl in 1895 as a porter, where he met and married Catherine a year later.

That same year, 1896, Fred was transferred to Newport as a railway shunter, where his sons were born.

In 1907, the family moved to Gloucester, where their sister Lily was born. In April 1911, young Fred is found working as a newsboy for Uncle David in Porthcawl and attending The National School, Lias Road (Co-op today).

Sadly, Fred Jnr’s mother Cassie died in October 1911 and it appears that Fred stayed in Porthcawl.

At the outbreak of war, young Fred joined the Glamorgan Yeomanry, but by February 1917, his unit has been incorporated into the newly-formed ‘C Squadron’ 24th Battalion, Welsh Regiment. The battalion, formed from the dismounted Pembroke and Glamorgan Yeomanries, was transferred to the 231st Brigade of the 74th Yeomanry Division, which eventually saw action for the first time between April-June 1917 near Egypt.

The 74th were next in action at Gaza in October. It is unclear how Private Giddy died. Yet as he died some weeks prior to the third Battle of Gaza, it can only be conjectured that he either died from wounds received from the earlier conflict, at the hands of a sniper, or from disease.

Private Frederick Giddy is remembered with honour at Alexandria War Memorial Cemetery and the Porthcawl Memorial. He was 20 years old.

Finally, two international items of news reached Porthcawl before the month was out. On October 15 in France, the Dutch spy Mata Hari, who was perceived to have been working for the Germans and causing the deaths of many thousands of French soldiers, was executed by firing squad.

Recent research proffers the opinion that her immoral lifestyle and tenuous links with Germany hastened her death.

It has been suggested that as an exotic dancer in Berlin prior to the war, she had had German lovers and the fact that she naively travelled extensively around Europe drew prejudicial comment from the establishment and Allied intelligence.

Mata Hari, whose real name was Margaretha Geertruida Zelle, faced the firing squad without being tied to the stake or blindfolded; was dressed elegantly in a two-piece suit, blew a kiss to the priest and her lawyer, an ex-lover, and met her fate without flinching.

Also in October 1917, politicians at Westminster were discussing the possibility of ‘A League of Nations’ after the war. The idea of countries working together to maintain world peace would later come to fruition in January 1920, as a result of the Versailles Peace Conference.

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