It’s St. David’s Day!
So indulge me please as I dedicate a posting to Wales and the Welsh in poetry and prose from the First World War. You should expect nothing less from a Griffiths on March 1st.
A quick story. My wife is American and over a decade ago, before we married, I took her back to visit the Welsh town where I’m from. It’s a place called Llanelli. That weekend the national rugby team were playing at Llanelli’s famous rugby ground, Stradey Park. A marching band were in attendance and the crowd, jammed into the little stadium, were singing traditional Welsh songs with gusto: Sospan Fach, Calon Lan, Cwm Rhondda. It was a great warm up to the big game. The marching band began to come down to our end of the field. My wife, a little disconcerted, points to the band.
‘What is that?’
I say, ‘It’s a marching band, clever.’
‘No, no,’ she says, laughing. ‘What is that?’
She points to the front of the band. There is a goat being led on a rope by a soldier in a red coat and white hat. People are cheering.
‘Oh, that’s the regimental goat,’ I say.
‘The regimental what?’ she says, laughing.
‘The goat,’ I say again. ‘The regimental goat. A goat that belongs to the army regiment. It’s at all the Welsh games. I think it’s called Shenkin.’
At this, the American erupts into laughter. “I love it,’ she laughed. ‘A goat. At every game. Great!’ There followed a number of comments about how small the ground was, how great the goat and the singing was. She even enjoyed watching the rugby. Reader, I married her.
So why on earth was there a goat at the game?
Shenkin was the mascot of the Royal Welch Fusiliers. Army regiments across the world often have peculiar traditions and rituals; a culture all of their own that their soldiers preserve. The story of the goat goes back to Victorian times and the Crimean War, when the goats were actually eaten by the soldiers. One night, after a sentry fell asleep on duty, a goat woke up the regiment as the Russian enemy started to attack, saving the men present from massacre. The Royal Welch have had a goat for a mascot ever since. Since the regimental system has always been tied to particular areas, the Royal Welch– and its goat– have represented Wales and Welsh pride for many years. And in terms of reading about the First World War in poetry and memoirs, Welshmen, the Royal Welch– and other Welsh regiments– are better represented than many others.
Why? Two great literary names, to start with: Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves. Neither were Welshmen but both were officers with the Royal Welch Fusiliers and their brilliant accounts of the First World War, ‘Memoirs of an Infantry Officer’ and ‘Goodbye to All That’, memorialise the actions of the Royal Welsh at infamous battles like that of Mametz Wood. These aren’t patriotic accounts: as Graves noted “Patriotism, in the trenches, was to too remote a sentiment, and at once rejected as fit only for civilians, or prisoners. A new arrival who talked patriotism would soon be told to cut it out” (p.157, ‘Goodbye to All That’, Penguin 1960). But they do give intense pictures of what Welsh soldiers were like in the First World War.
Graves also spent time with the Welsh regiment (Note the difference in spellings!). The Welsh Regiment was a “rough and tough” regiment, less professional than the Royal Welch. Non-conformists and North Walian hill farmers– stolid, highly independent people– were among their ranks. Here’s an atmospheric account of the Welsh– and Graves– going to the trenches for the first time, under bombardment.
Collecting the draft of forty men we had with us, we followed… through the unlit suburbs of the town– all intensely excited by the noise and flashes of the guns in the distance. None of the draft had been out before, except the sergeant in charge. They began singing. Instead of the usual music-hall songs they sung Welsh hymns, each man taking a part. The Welsh always sang when pretending not to be scared; it kept them steady. And they never sang out of tune.
We marched towards the flashes, and could soon see the flare lights curving across the distant trenches. The noise of the guns grew louder and louder. Presently we were among the batteries. from about two hundred yards behind us, on the left of the road, a salvo of four shells whizzed suddenly over our heads. This broke up ‘Aberystwyth’ in the middle of a verse, and sent us off balance for a few seconds; the columns of fours tangled up. The shell went hissing away eastward… (p.81)
Graves is given a lecture about managing the soldiers in the Welsh regiment on his arrival at front by Captain Dunn:
These Welshmen are peculiar. They won’t stand being shouted at. They’ll do anything if you explain the reason for it– do and die, but they have to know the reason why… They are good workmen, too. But officers must work with them, not only direct the work… (p.86)
Welsh singing is a source of constant admiration in poetry written about Welsh soldiers in the First World War. In the anthology, of course, we have Sassoon’s great poem ‘Everyone Sang’, about the celebrations at the Armistice, which you feel must have been influenced by serving in regiments of singing Welshmen:
Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom,
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields; on–on–and out of sight.
Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted;
And beauty came like the setting sun:
My heart was shaken with tears; and horror
Drifted away . . . O, but Everyone
Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.
Another great poem that doesn’t feature in the anthology is Ivor Gurney’s ‘First Time In’. Ivor Gurney is one of the most underrated war poets of the First World War: a talented composer but mentally brittle, he went mad after the war’s end. He leaves us this poem about going, like Graves, up to the front for the first time– and encountering, to his surprise and wonder, a Welsh regiment.
After the dread tales and red yams of the Line
Anything might have come to us; but the divine
Afterglow brought us up to a Welsh colony
Hiding in sandbag ditches, whispering consolatory
Soft foreign things. Then we were taken in
To low huts candle-lit shaded close by slitten
Oilsheets, and there but boys gave us kind welcome;
So that we looked out as from the edge of home.
Sang us Welsh things, and changed all former notions
To human hopeful things. And the next days’ guns
Nor any line-pangs ever quite could blot out
That strangely beautiful entry to War’s rout,
Candles they gave us precious and shared over-rations —
Ulysses found little more in his wanderings without doubt.
‘David of the white rock’, the’ Slumber Song’ so soft, and that
Beautiful tune to which roguish words by Welsh pit boys
Are sung — but never more beautiful than here under the guns’ noise.
I realise that I haven’t even mentioned Wilfred Owen, an English son of the border country, with a great love and longing for Wales. Neither have I dwelt on the remarkable Welshman David Jones, a private in the Royal Welch, whose work I shall be returning to very soon: but time, I’m afraid, doesn’t permit.
Let me then end somewhere near I started, at Stradey Park, listening, with my wife-to-be, to the crowd sing ‘Sospan Fach’. ‘Sospan Fach’ is one of Wales greatest folk songs, a shaggy-dog story about a Welsh housewife having a bad day. I once told an Irish friend what the nonsense-lyrics meant, and he was tremendously disappointed. “I thought it was about God or angels, or something of that kind”, he laughed.
Well, the song clearly made an impression on Robert Graves too. He produced his own poem entitled Sospan Fach (The Little Saucepan), which obviously re-imagines some of the episodes from ‘Goodbye to All That’ I’ve printed above. With it I’ll end this tribute to Wales and the Welsh in the First World War on St. David’s Day:
Four collier lads from Ebbw Vale
Took shelter from a shower of hail,
And there beneath a spreading tree
Attuned their mouths to harmony.
With smiling joy on every face
Two warbled tenor, two sang bass,
And while the leaves above them hissed with
Rough hail, they started ‘Aberystwyth.’
Old Parry’s hymn, triumphant, rich,
They changed through with even pitch,
Till at the end of their grand noise
I called: ‘Give us the ‘Sospan’ boys!’
Who knows a tune so soft, so strong,
So pitiful as that ‘Saucepan’ song
For exiled hope, despaired desire
Of lost souls for their cottage fire?
Then low at first with gathering sound
Rose their four voices, smooth and round,
Till back went Time: once more I stood
With Fusiliers in Mametz Wood.
Fierce burned the sun, yet cheeks were pale,
For ice hail they had leaden hail;
In that fine forest, green and big,
There stayed unbroken not one twig.
They sang, they swore, they plunged in haste,
Stumbling and shouting through the waste;
The little ‘Saucepan’ flamed on high,
Emblem of hope and ease gone by.
Rough pit-boys from the coaly South,
They sang, even in the cannon’s mouth;
Like Sunday’s chapel, Monday’s inn,
The death-trap sounded with their din.
The storm blows over, Sun comes out,
The choir breaks up with jest and shout,
With what relief I watch them part–
Another note would break my heart!