Wales

World War One: My uncle died on 'Gwent's blackest day'

Dick Williams Image copyright Roger Pinney
Image caption Dick Williams was an infantryman but posed for this photograph on a horse

But for a chance conversation with my aunt I may never have heard of my own family's connection with the events of 8 May 1915.

Growing up in the Gwent Valleys and with a long interest in military history I knew all about the Monmouthshire Regiment. Indeed as a schoolboy cadet I proudly wore its cap-badge.

I knew about the enormous sacrifice made in the defence of Ypres, how so few men were left standing two battalions had to be merged into one in the aftermath.

I had seen the lists of names on war memorials in places like Tredegar, Newbridge and Abergavenny.

Image copyright Newport Museum and Art Gallery
Image caption Surrender Be Damned - reproduced with permission of Newport Museum and Art Gallery

And of course there is a well known "Surrender Be Damned" painting at Newport Civic Centre. But I had no idea at all that a member of my family had been involved.

And then, last summer, as I was preparing to travel to Flanders for the unveiling of the new Welsh memorial there, came the chat with Aunty Sylvia.

"Where are you going?" she asked.

"Ypres" I replied.

"Oh, my mother's brother was killed there."

"Nan's brother?"

"Yes, Dick Williams."

The story emerged. He and my grandmother were close. He was a miner and a member of the TA. When war broke out his battalion was assembled and he was shipped to France and then Flanders.

He died on 8 May 1915, a date which became known as "Gwent's blackest day". So strongly were losses of that day felt in the county that in Abergavenny it was on 8 May not 11 November that the town marked Remembrance Day.

Image caption A letter to his sister saying he was 'in the pink'

My aunt had few details. Her mother my grandmother hardly ever spoke of the brother she lost. Uncle Dick's full name was Richard Charles Williams. He was a 21-year-old miner from Tredegar. He died in Flanders, at a place the family thought was called Hill 60.

It was enough to go on. A quick search of the Commonwealth War Graves website gave me the date of his death that put him at Frezenburg not Hill 60. Although he may well have been one of the miners detailed to dig tunnels there in April 1915.

The regiment's war diary, which had been fuller of more mundane matters in preceding days, gives a concise and sober note of a devastating day:

"Violent bombardment from about 4am-9am and was followed by an attack by the enemy along the whole line."

A remark was added: "Battalion lost heavily under shell machine and rifle fire".

Of the 83 officers and 1,020 men of the 3rd Mons, only four officers and 131 men were left.

The 1st Battalion also lost 439 of its 588 men.

Image caption R C Williams - one of the many names on the Menin Gate memorial

The losses were so great the three battalions had to be merged into one afterwards.

Like so many others Dick's body was never recovered. He has no known grave. His name is recorded on the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing in Ypres. The town he died defending.

A few days later, in Ypres, I found his name on the memorial. Williams RC. Sandwiched between Williams PA and Williams S.

I left a small poppy cross there. I may have been in Ypres for work but it had become a personal pilgrimage for me. Probably the first member of our family to pay respects. Certainly not the last.

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