A Welsh miner’s story, killed in World War I

This video from Britain says about itself:

Birdsong trailer – BBC One

Eddie Redmayne (My Week With Marilyn, Richard II) and Clemence Poesy (28 Days Later, Harry Potter) star as the passionate young lovers Stephen and Isabelle, brought together by love and torn apart by the First World War, in BBC One’s adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’s modern classic, Birdsong.

By Tony Simpson in Britain:

The sacrifice of the tunneller remains unrecognised

Saturday 16th August 2014

Tony Simpson recalls the painful memory of his miner grandfather killed at the front and promptly forgotten

I am still waiting for the real history of WWI to be written. My grandfather Sapper James Morris was a member of the little known Tunnelling Companies of the Royal Engineers.

He was one of 1,516 tunnellers who died in WWI. These men, many of them miners, were described by their leader, Captain Jack Norton Griffiths as “heroes of obscurity … whose names feature only marginally on the great lists.”

Few decorations were awarded to the tunnellers and the Imperial War Museum has not yet published their unit diaries.

Until Sebastian Faulks’s novel Birdsong was published in 1993 and subsequently made into a film, the men involved in the underground war were largely written out of history as were their widows and families.

Early in 1915 recruiters for the Royal Engineers appealed for miners for the newly established tunneling companies set up by Norton Griffiths.

Ironically Griffiths’s family had been builders and timber merchants in Brecon where James Morris met and married my grandmother before taking work in the Tredegar pit.

Many of the tunnellers were miners from the pits of South Wales, Yorkshire, Lancashire, Tyneside and the black country.

On the eve of war the South Wales Miners Federation opposed the war but demanded higher pay rates for men who decided to sign up.

In July 1915 the South Wales coalfield had called a five-day strike for better wages. Despite threats to use the Munitions of War Act Lloyd George conceded.

These struggles help to explain why, in an industrialised war, the tunnellers were among the vanguard. One of the first companies to be recruited as “clay-kickers” were from my grandfather’s regiment, the South Wales Borderers (SWB).

As tough union men used to the hazards of working underground — unimpressed with the “King’s shilling” — the miners refused to accept the squaddies pay rate of 2/2d and held out until they won 6/6, virtually the highest pay rate of any front-line troops.

At the start of the war — when recruits were plentiful — James, who had had served abroad in Britain’s empire for six years, was discharged from the SWB reserves.

Recruiters said he was “not likely to become an efficient reservist.” He was 41 years old, in a priority occupation and the couple had five daughters.

His wife Florence was greatly relieved especially as she was soon expecting another baby. She felt that as a one-time professional soldier James had already “done his duty.”

But by the time James’s sixth child, James Morris junior, was born in August 1915 early optimism for the war had vanished and the western front seemed to have stalled.

Early in 1916, fearing the Germans would gain the upper hand, conscription for men up to 41 was introduced — 2.8 million men were conscripted, more than volunteered.

This placed huge pressures on men to answer the “call of duty.” Those who did not come forward were shamed by military tribunals.

The Amman Valley Chronicle of February 1916 called them “shirkers.” My grandfather suddenly enlisted. Now aged 43, with a wife and six children, he was a virtual “father of the trench.”

It has always been a source of my troubled family folklore as to why my grandfather enlisted when he was previously discharged and not eligible for conscription.

Eighty years later James’s only son asked me the question his widow and family had long had to live with: “Why did dad go, he didn’t have to? Why did they take him?”

On August 8 1916 James had been ordered to work on the emplacements above his trench. It was dawn and he was shot and killed by a German sniper.

James had already been recommended for promotion when he was killed in action. After David Cameron spoke of honouring those who had made “the supreme sacrifice,” I wrote asking that James’s promotion be granted along with that of others who were subsequently killed in action.

Armed forces minister Lord Astor said a posthumous promotion could not be granted — though several have been granted to officers. He said: “The Army no longer holds its soldier’s records,” adding that in any case many of the records from WWI had been destroyed in WWII.

5 thoughts on “A Welsh miner’s story, killed in World War I

  1. Pingback: World War I and poppies | Dear Kitty. Some blog

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