Exactly 100 years ago this month, Welsh Fusilier Glyn Roberts fell at La Boiselle in the opening incursions of the Battle of the Somme. His battalion, the 9th Royal Welsh Fusiliers, engaged in an attack, ‘regardless of loss’. Glyn was killed on 3rd July 1916, days before the ensuing battle of Mametz Wood. A collection of moving letters home to his mother and sisters are the inspiration behind my debut novel. To honour the memory of my great uncle Glyn, I journeyed with the South Wales Western Front Association to the Somme battlefields for a memorial ceremony on the centenary of one of the bloodiest battles in British military history. The emotional trip resulted in me receiving, for the first time, a message that never reached our family at the time. This is my account of the extraordinary pilgrimage.
Stranger than fiction
The paper record shows scores, hundreds, thousands, of dead. The front line reports list the locations of silenced machine-gun nests, and the regimental history books log the number of yards gained.
But it is only when you visit a battlefield site that this catalogue of carnage takes on meaning and you get an idea of the difficulty of the task and the enormity of the sacrifices made.
Here in the beautiful tranquillity of the countryside of northern France, the sun caught the deep green leaves of Mametz Wood half a mile distant, the battle that claimed thousands of lives. And here I stood, a month ago, alongside hundreds of others under the blazing sun, at the site of the Welsh dragon memorial.
The dragon is depicted tearing at barbed wire, facing the wood where so many Welsh soldiers died.
Now the grim statistics have real meaning: about 4,000 soldiers died in the five-day fight for the wood, Lt Gen Jonathon Riley reminding us that in just 15 minutes we lost as many of our people here as we did in 15 years of conflict in Afghanistan.
There were hymns, prayers and readings, and the Royal Welsh regimental band played as they marched up the hill, sending a collective shiver down our spines.
Among the crowds, I stood with my new-found friends from Wales and we had our moments of individual reflection, remembrance of family, courage and sacrifice.
I began to think of my own strange journey here. It started in a writing class ten years ago when I joined a University of York creative writing course. I wrote radio plays and poetry but prose and novels were my comfort zone.
I found inspiration in family letters collected by my grandmother after the First World War, and wondered what life had been like for the women of the family back home in Wales. I imagined the characters, some with real family names. I identified with both Glyn, my great uncle, and his devoted sister Bronwyn.
The draft of my story won me a place on a mentoring scheme run by Ffestiniog-based publisher Cinnamon Press. The end result was my first novel, News from Nowhere.
In a day of memorable moments, one stood out above the rest. Historian and archivist, Marietta Crichton-Stuart read an extract from ‘A Mother’s Letter’, written by Mrs Ruby Barrett after her visit to Mametz in May 1920. Her letter was published in the Stratford-upon-Avon Herald.
“There may be other mothers, like myself, who longed to see the place where their sons had been buried. If these lines can comfort any, I hope they will. Mametz Wood is a lovely place. The shell holes are filled with green growth and Nature’s hand has covered our brave dead with a mantle of wild flowers, grasses and quaint mosses; so we need not feel they live without a flower upon their soldier graves.”
Later I met Marietta who asked about my relative. I replied: “Glyn Roberts, Royal Welsh Fusiliers.”
“Not C.G. Roberts, by any chance?” she asked. Then she brought out the letter again and towards the end of it I read this message for the first time, originally meant to comfort our family:
“I visited still more graves on the Contalmaison road, replaced many crosses that had fallen down. I took the name of a grave I could read more easily and think, perhaps, someone might recognise and be pleased to hear – Lt. C. Glyn Roberts, Adj. 9th R.W.F, 3rd July 1916. I wish I could have done more.”
A woman, who’d lost her only son, had taken the trouble to send comfort to another grieving family, in the hope it might reach them someday.
Marietta said: “There are soldiers out there who want to be found, who are waving and shouting ‘over here.'”
Her own great grandfather, the 32-year-old South Wales MP, Lord Ninian Crighton-Stuart, fell at the battle of Loos on October 2, 1915.
So it was with great emotion and gratitude that I laid roses on Glyn’s grave, at nearby Ovillers cemetery. I was moved by the inscription:
He doth not sleep
He hath awakened
From the dream of life
The boy I’d come to know from his letters, the young man who had studied at Kingswood School, Bath and Ysgol Friars, the chorister who gained a scholarship to the University College of Bangor, the courageous soldier I had imagined from his vivid and touching letters home, had indeed come to life after nearly a century.
As the memorial service ended under a clear blue sky and the notes of the Last Post drifted off towards Mametz Wood, the silence fell, pierced only by heart-breaking birdsong.
News from Nowhere, by Jane Austin, will be published by Cinnamon Press, February 2017. It can be pre-ordered from: www.cinnamonpress.com.