I’m sure a lot of people alive today, when they hear about the First World War and the men who fought in it, they think of it as just a part of history, something that you learn about in school or see in a film; no connection to who we are now in the 21st century. When you start to look into your family’s history, that’s when you find out that you probably do have a connection with it after all.
(left, Dafen Church Lychgate, with the Memorial Plaque for the First World War Casualties from Dafen.)
This year, it is a hundred years since the First World War started. It started in Europe on 28th July 1914 and ended on 11th November 1918. It was known as the Great War or the World War until the outbreak of World War II in 1939. Since then, it has become known as The First World War or World War I (WW1).
All of the major powers of the world were involved in the war. The Allies (United Kingdom, the Russian Empire and France) fought together on one side and the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary on the other. As other countries entered the war, these alliances expanded: Italy, Japan and the USA joined the Allies and Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire (modern day Turkey) joined the Central Powers.
The First World War was the fifth deadliest conflict ever fought and more than 70 million military personnel were mobilised during the war. The British military lost nearly 800, 000 men and over 2 million British servicemen were wounded.
Quite a few of my male ancestors fought in the First World War but the only story I knew about before I started looking into my family’s history was the story of how my great grandparents lost 3 sons in the Great War, all in less than a year.
My great grandparents on my maternal grandmother’s side were Josiah and Mary Harries, (nee Jenkins). Josiah was born in Brecon in 1854 and Mary was born in Carmarthenshire, possibly Llandeilo, in about 1862. They married on 20th October 1883, in Llanelli, in the Parish Church. They had nine children altogether, but only eight survived to adulthood.
The eldest, William John Harries, was born in Water Street, Llanelli in 1886; the youngest child was my grandmother, Catherine Annie Harries, born in Dafen in 1901. In between, there was Thomas born in 1888, Mary Jane born in 1890, Josiah born in 1892, Morgan born in 1894, Joseph born in 1896 and Samuel born in 1899.
In the 1911 Census, my great grandparents and their surviving eight children were all living together in the same house in St. David’s, a hamlet near Dafen. William John was aged 24, Thomas, aged 22, Josiah aged 19, Morgan aged 17, Joseph aged 15 and Samuel aged 12. Williams occupation is given as “labouring in the quarry”; Thomas is listed as working underground as a collier; Josiah, Morgan and Joseph are listed as working in the tinplate works, in Dafen; Samuel was still in school, as was my grandmother Catherine, aged 9.
Mary Jane was 20 years old and is listed as a “domestic at home”. All were unmarried. How could they have imagined on that day in 1911, that in little more than three years time, the country would be at war and what an affect it would have on their family, just as it did for millions of other families.
This is my great uncle William John Harries. William was born in Water Street, Llanelli on 7th January 1886.
He served in the 11th Battalion, South Wales Borderers, which was attached to 115 Brigade, 38tth (Welsh) Division.
His Battalion fought at Mametz Wood, at the Battle of the Somme.
William died at Mametz Wood, at the Battle of the Somme, on the 7th July 1916
William is buried at Flatiron Copse Cemetery, Mametz, France.
Mametz fell into German hands at the beginning of the war, when Germany attacked France in 1914. It remained under German occupation, behind the German lines on the Somme, until the British forces captured it in July 1916.
The Battle of Mametz Wood began on 7 July 1916. It was thought, by the generals at least, that the Wood would be taken in a matter of hours. The battle lasted for five days as the Germans fiercely resisted the assaults of the Welsh Division.
On the first day alone, over 400 casualties were sustained, including William John Harries.
The British 7th Division captured Mametz in July 1916 and it remained in the hands of the British until March 1918.
The 38th (Welsh) Division was a new army division, formed in December 1914. It was made up of battalions from Wales, which were raised by public subscription and private patronage. It was meant to be half of a Welsh Army Corps. Authorisation was given to create this new division on 10 October 1914. They were to be part of Kitchener’s army.
Only the 38th Division was created, and the Welsh Army Corps, which was supported by David Lloyd George, was never formed.
The division began moving to France in November 1915 and was in action by December 1915. It spent the duration of the First World War in action on the Western Front until the Armistice of 1918. The division's single action of 1916 was the capture of Mametz Wood during the Battle of the Somme. The division lost so many of its soldiers during the battle that it did not return to major action for over a year, when it successfully captured e Pilckem Ridge on 31 July 1917, during the Battle of Pilckem Ridge.
There is now a memorial at Mametz Wood in honour of the division. The division was relatively successful and well regarded. The division was disbanded between 1918 and 1920.
Flatiron Copse Cemetery, Mametz
North of Mametz is Mametz Wood, and a little east of Mametz Wood is the small plantation known to the army as Flatiron Copse. Flatiron Copse Cemetery is at the South end of the Copse. The ground was cleared by the 3rd and 7th Divisions on the 14th July, 1916. The cemetery was begun about the 20th July, and it remained in use until April 1917.
It was used again for two burials in August 1918. After the Armistice, 1,149 graves were brought in from smaller cemeteries and from neighbouring battlefields. Almost all the concentrated graves are those of men who fell in the summer and autumn of 1916.
The cemetery now contains the graves of 1,475 soldiers from the United Kingdom, 30 from New Zealand, 17 from Australia, and one from South Africa. The unnamed graves are 416 in number, and special memorials are erected to 36 soldiers from the United Kingdom, known or believed to be buried among them.
Other special memorials record the names of nine soldiers from the United Kingdom buried in Mametz Wood Cemetery, whose graves were destroyed by shell fire.
The dragon of the Welsh Division Memorial, looking towards Mametz Woods
This is my great uncle Josiah Harries. Josiah was born in Llyshendy, Wern, Llanelly on 13th March 1892.
Josiah served firstly with the Welsh Regiment and later, with the 2/7th Battalion, Royal Warwickshire Regiment.
He fought at the Battle of the Somme with the Royal Warwickshire Regiment.
William died at Fromelles, Nord, Nord-Pas-de-Calais,France on the 17th July 1916.
He is buried at Laventie Military Cemetery, La Gorgue, France.
The 1914-1918 battlefields of French Flanders are located in an area of northern France historically called the Province of Flanders and the County of Artois. Nowadays these two provinces are situated in the northernmost region of France, Nord-Pas-de-Calais.
This region shares its northern border with Flemish Flanders in Belgium. Fromelles is a village situated in this area. This region was the most badly damaged by the four years of warfare of all the areas in France on the Western Front.
The village of Fromelles was captured by advancing German forces on 9 October 1914. Throughout almost the whole of the war, the front line ran through this territory, leaving the inhabited area in German hands.
Josiah was killed in action on the 17th July 1916, in the run up to the Battle of Fromelles, which took place on the 19 – 20th July. This was the first occasion on which the First Australian Imperial Force (AIF) saw action on the Western Front. The battle is regarded as a disaster for the Allies by some military historians.
The battle was devised to divert German forces from the Battle of the Somme, but historians estimate that 5,500 Australians and 2,000 British troops were killed or wounded. The Battle of Fromelles did inflict some losses on the German side but the Allies didn’t win more ground nor did they divert many German troops bound for the Somme.
The Royal Warwickshire Regiment raised 30 battalions during the First World War. Three of these were raised in September 1914 from men volunteering in Birmingham. They were known as the Birmingham Pals. The 2/7th Battalion were formed in Coventry in October 1915, as a second line battalion,” second line” meaning that they were meant to serve at home and not overseas. Many second line battalions were sent overseas during the later years of the war. The 2/7th Battalion landed in France on 21st May 1916 and engaged in various actions on the Western Front.
The regiment continued fighting throughout WW1in different parts of the world, such as Gallipoli in 1915 -1916, Mesopotamia in 1916 -1917, Italy 1917 – 1918 and Persia in 1916 – 1919. The Royal Warwickshire Regiment won six Victoria Crosses during the First World War.
The regiment also fought in WW2 and continued to serve in other parts of the world after the Second World War ended, such as Palestine and Korea. In November 1962, the Royal Warwickshire Regiment was transferred to the Fusilier Brigade.
In February 1963, it was announced that the Queen had approved of the regiment becoming Fusiliers and their name was changed to the Royal Warwickshire Fusiliers. On 23 April 1968 the four regiments of the Fusilier Brigade were amalgamated to become a large regiment known as the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers.
Laventie Military Cemetery
Casualty Details: UK 468, Australia 5, India 71, Germany 3, Total Burials: 546
Laventie and La Gorgue are adjoining towns. Laventie Military Cemetery is on the north-east outskirts of Laventie. The men of the 61st (2nd South Midland) Division of the British Army began burying their fallen comrades at this site in the latter half of June 1916.
Over 80 members of the Division who were killed or mortally wounded during the Battle of Fromelles (July 19 1916) were laid to rest here, and the cemetery was used by British units holding this part of the line throughout 1916 and ’17.
During the 1920s, the graves of British, Indian, and Chinese servicemen killed at different stages during the war were brought here from the surrounding battlefields.
This is my great uncle Joseph Harries. Joseph was born in Cwmcarnhywel, Llanelly on 19th April 1896.
Joseph served in the 9th Battalion of the Welsh Regiment.
He fought at the Battle of Loos, the Somme and at the Battle of Messines.
Joseph was wounded at the Battle of Messines and died from his wounds on 8th June 1917, aged 21.
He is buried at Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery, Belgium.
In 1916, the British planned to clear the German army from the Belgian coast to prevent them from using the coastal ports as bases from which to attack merchant ships and troop transports in the North Sea and English Channel. In January 1916, General Sir Hubert Plumer recommended to Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig the capture of Messines Ridge before an operation to capture the Gheluvelt plateau further north.
In the spring of 1917, Haig instructed the Second Army to capture the Messines–Wytschaete Ridge as soon as possible. The capture of Messines Ridge would give the British control of the ground on the southern flank of the Ypres Salient, which was important strategically.
By taking the Ridge, it would shorten the front, deprive the Germans of observation over British positions further north, and would give the British ground from which they could observe the southern slope of Menin Ridge at the west end of the Gheluvelt plateau, in preparation for a larger offensive in the Ypres Salient.
The Battle of Messines was thought to be the most successful local operation of the war, certainly of the Western Front, for the British, although some military historians and analysts disagree on the importance and significance of the battle. The Messines battle greatly boosted morale among the Allies and was hailed as a triumph in strategy.
The 9th (Service) Battalion the Welsh Regiment was raised at Cardiff on the 9th of September 1914 as part of Kitchener's Second New Army and joined 58th Brigade, 19th (Western) Division. The battalion landed in France in mid July 1915.
Their first experience of military action was at Pietre, as a diversionary action supporting the Battle of Loos. In 1916 they were in action during the Battle of the Somme and were involved in the attacks on High Wood, the Battles of Pozieres Ridge, the Ancre Heights and the Ancre. In 1917 they were in action in the Battle of Messines and the Third Battles of Ypres.
In 1918 they fought on the Somme during the Battle of St Quentin and the Battle of Bapaume and in the Battles of the Lys at Messines. They fought in the Final Advance in Picardly and they were in action in the Battle of the Selle, the Battle of the Sambre and the passage of the Grand Honelle. At the Armistice, they were in billets near Bavay. Demobilisation began in December 1918 and the final cadres returned to England on the 27th of June 1919.
The Welsh Regiment fought worldwide in the First World War, but the main theatre of war was in France and Belgium where the greatest strengths were deployed, the most important battles were fought and the heaviest casualties sustained. Of the thirty four Battalions of The Welsh Regiment, nineteen served actively overseas at a cost of nearly 8000 officers and men killed or died of wounds or illness. In 1920, the regiment was renamed the Welch Regiment.
During World War 2, the Welch Regiment consisted of 11 Battalions, of which 4 saw active service overseas, in Palestine, the Western Desert, Crete, Sicily, Italy, Burma, and France and Northwest Europe. Between 1960 and 1963, for their final overseas posting, they were sent to Hong Kong.
In 1969, the 1st Battalion the Welch Regiment amalgamated with The 1st Battalion the South Wales Borderers to form the 1st Battalion The Royal Regiment of Wales 24th/41st on 11 June in Cardiff Castle. Their newly appointed Colonel-in-Chief was HRH the Prince of Wales. Prince Charles wore the regiment’s uniform when he had his Investiture that year in Caernarfon Castle.
Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery, Poperinge, West-Vlaanderen, Belgium
CASUALTY DETAILS: UK 7386; Canada 1058; Australia 1131; New Zealand 291; South Africa 29; India 3; Entirely Unidentified 3; Non war casualty 1; USA 3; German 223; France 658; Total Burials: 10,786
Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery is 12 kilometres west of the town of Ieper, leading to Poperinge.
During the First World War, the village of Lijssenthoek was situated on the main communication line between the Allied military bases in the rear and the Ypres battlefields. Close to the Front, but out of the extreme range of most German field artillery, it became a natural place to establish casualty clearing stations. The cemetery was first used by the French 15th Hopital D'Evacuation and in June 1915, it began to be used by casualty clearing stations of the Commonwealth forces. From April to August 1918, the casualty clearing stations fell back before the German advance and field ambulances (including a French ambulance) took their places.
The cemetery contains 9,901 Commonwealth burials of the First World War and 883 war graves of other nationalities, mostly French and German. It is the second largest Commonwealth cemetery in Belgium. There are 8 Special Memorial headstones to men known to be buried in this cemetery; these are located together alongside Plot 32 near the Stone of Remembrance. The cemetery was designed by Sir Reginald Bloomfield.
Even though a hundred years has passed since the outbreak of the First World War, I think it is important that we remember those from all countries who lost their lives in the conflict. The three great uncles I have written about are not the only ones in my family who served in the Great War, but I chose to write about William John, Josiah and Joseph because of their unusual story, three brothers all killed in less than a year.
William John, Josiah and Joseph had three other brothers, two of whom also fought in the First World War, Thomas and Samuel, but returned home safely and Morgan, who tried to enlist but was not accepted, as he had been deaf since childhood.
All of us have a connection, however distant, to someone who served in World War One. I hope this encourages someone to dig through the records available and look for their own heroes of war.
The grave of William John Harries born 07/01/1886, died 07/07/1916, who is buried at Flatiron Copse Cemetery, Mametz, France.
The grave of Josiah Harries born 13/03/1892, died 17/07/1916, who is buried at Laventie Military Cemetery, La Gorgue, France.
The grave of Joseph Harries born 19/04/1896, died 08/06/1917, who is buried at Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery, Poperinge, West-Vlaanderen, Belgium.
The Memorial Plaque to the soldiers from Dafen who died in the First World War, including my three great uncles, J. Harries, J. Harries and W. Harries.
I would like to acknowledge the following sites for the invaluable information they provided during research into William, Josiah and Joseph’s stories:
I would like to thank Steven John whose site War Memorials of West Wales (formerly the Carmarthenshire World War One Memorial Site) started me on this quest a few years ago.