Hedd Wyn – The Black Bard

 

Hedd Wyn – The Black Bard

This is a  journey that begins on the hills of North Wales above Trawsfynydd. For this is   the story of the Black Bard.
We visited his grave on a cold February  afternoon. Artillery Wood cemetery, at Boesinge just outside Ypres. A mass of  white headstones, each an individual life snuffed out too soon. The occasional   poppy left by a relative who can now never have met the fallen. So many lives. I  am sure it was only the biting wind that made our eyes water.
But one grave  stands out. More acknowledged than the rest. And the grave register too is full   of children’s projects and tributes.
For this is the grave of Private Ellis   Humphrey Evans, 61117, Royal Welch Fusiliers, the great Welsh poet. He became   known as The Black Bard. But to begin with he was known as Hedd Wyn. White   Peace.
He was born in January 1887 at Penlan in Trawsfynydd and he spent his   childhood on the family farm, Yr Ysgwrn. He left school at 14 and worked as a   shepherd but was determined to continue with his education. He would walk to   Bala to borrow books from the library and he would spend his days on the hills   writing poetry. His bardic name of Hedd Wyn was awarded at a local poetry   festival
He did work as a miner in the South Wales coalfields for a while but   he realised that his vocation was out on the hills, writing poetry. His   reputation grew and he won his first chair at Bala in 1907, followed by others   at Eisteddfodau at Llanuwchllyn, Pwllheli and Pontardawe. It was his ambition to   win the National, and in fact he came second at Aberystwyth in 1916. Always his   bardic name was Hedd Wyn.
Evans did not embrace the war. He was a pacifist.   Here are the first two lines of his poem “Rhyfel” (War.)
Gwae fi fy myn mewn   oes mor ddreng
A Duw ar drai ar orwel pell
(Woe is my life in such a   bitter age,/ As God fades on the horizon’s canopy.) There is no sense of glory   or triumph here. Only the thought that God had turned his back on man.
He had   no desire to join the army and was protected initially by his background. Some   farm workers were exempt on the basis that theirs was a vital occupation.
But   even in the hills the war scarred families, their sons never to return home. His   contemporaries were dying and he was writing poems in their memory and working   on he farm. However as casualties mounted, the rules were changed and Ellis   Evans’ fate was sealed. The army needed more men and there was not enough work   at Yr Ysgwrn to keep all the Evans boys at home. Someone had to go.
In order   to spare his more enthusiastic younger brother he joined the Royal Welch   Fusiliers in February 1917 as a private. From Wrexham Barracks the new recruits   were sent to Liverpool but cut unconvincing military figures. Coming down from   their farms they would have seemed like foreigners, reluctant to speak English   and all at sea in an alien world. Soldiers they were not. It was said of Ellis,   “He was a silent fellow. It would appear he could speak but little English, or   if he could, he did not.” The army represented a world he did not wish to join.   He was only there out of duty and he was more concerned to complete his poem Yr   Arwr (The Hero) in time for the National Eisteddfod in September.
It was to   be held in Birkenhead. Outside Wales of course, but home to many Welsh people   working in the city, either in essential war industries or teaching and   nursing.
His chance to refine it came when he was sent home after basic   training for 7 weeks. This was the last time he would see his family and his   home.
Private Ellis Evans, of the 15th Bn. Royal Welch Fusiliers, was   despatched on active service to Flanders on 9 June 1917. It was a grim place. He   wrote in a letter home, “Heavy weather, heavy soul, heavy heart.” There was, he   said, “a curse upon the land.” He wrote in his poem “Y Blotyn Du.”
We have no   right to anything
But the old and withered earth
That is all in   chaos.
The rhythm and the certainties of the seasons that he knew so well and   that he had just left, had been replaced by mud and blood.
The poem was   submitted just in time, sent from France on 15 July 1917. It describes the   realities of war for both the soldiers and their families at home. It escaped   censorship by the army since, naturally, it was written in Welsh. All the   subalterns were English.
It was his misfortune that the 15th Battalion of the   Royal Welch Fusiliers was part of the 38th Division which had been selected to   lead the assault on Pilckem Ridge. This would be the Third Battle of Ypres, also   known as Passchendaele. The division was regarded as having under-performed in   the action at Mametz Wood in the Battle of the Somme. This was a chance for them   to redeem themselves.
They practised their role on a replica of the German   trenches built behind the front line in France during June and they were moved   up for the attack on 30 July. In the assault the 15th Battalion were required to   attack a regimental headquarters and a telephone exchange. They succeeded in   this objective, but every officer in the battalion was killed. So was Evans.   General Haig described it as “a fine day’s work.” 31,000 soldiers were   casualties on that fine day.
A plaque made of Welsh slate on a brick wall at   the Hagebos crossroad now marks the place where the wounded Evans was taken on   31 July 1917. The first aid post received him with chest wounds from shrapnel.   He died 4 days later. Although his first language was Welsh, his last words are   said to have been English. “I am very happy.” And so he died, so far away from   the hills of north Wales. In their peace and solitude he had reflected and   written. In the noise and chaos of Flanders he died, like so many   others.
Back in Liverpool a group of refugees from the Belgian town of   Mechelen were given warm hospitality. One of them was Eugene Van Fleteren who   made reproduction furniture. In an act of gratitude for the help he had   received, he made the traditional carved chair for the National Eisteddfod. It   was to be awarded on Thursday 6 September 1917. A Flanders chair for a Flanders casualty.
As a day of celebration it was not a success. Of the two choirs   from the Royal Welch Fusiliers who had sung to such acclaim two years earlier,   only the conductor had survived and he was badly injured. And when Archdruid   Dyfed announced the winner of the bardic chair, for his work Yr Arwr, there was   no reply, for Hedd Wyn had died six weeks earlier.
“Instead of the usual   chairing ceremony the chair was draped in a black pall amidst death-like silence   and the bards came forward in long procession to pace their muse- tribute of   englyn or couplet on the draped chair in memory of the dead bard hero.” (The   Western Mail.) Hedd Wyn. The Black Bard.
After the ceremony the chair was   taken away by train and cart to the family farm, to a room set aside in his   memory.
At the end of the war Hedd Wyn’s poems were published as “Cerdi’r   Bugail” (Shepherd’s Songs) and a statue was erected in Trawsfynydd, not as a   soldier but as a shepherd, which is probably how he would have liked to be   remembered. It was unveiled by his mother in 1923. A petition to the   Commonwealth War Graves Commission was granted so that his grave in Artillery   Wood does not read simply as E.H. Ellis but Y Prifardd Hedd Wyn -Principal Bard, Hedd Wyn.
He has not been forgotten. His old school in   Trawsfynydd is now called Ysgol Hedd Wyn in his honour and school projects take   children to his graveside. A Welsh -language film of his life was nominated for   an Oscar in 1992 and in the same year, on the 75 anniversary of his death, a joint venture between the people of Trawsfynydd and Ypres produced a slate plaque on a wall at Hagebos crossroads, where he received his fatal wounds. In Welsh, English and Flemish it is a fine Welsh slate on fine Flanders brick. Made   to last, like memories.


At the base of Ellis Evan’s statue in Trawsfynydd   there is a tribute he wrote for a friend killed earlier in the war. He could   have written this about himself.
His sacrifice will not be forgotten
His   face so dear will ever be remembered
Though Germany’s iron fist by his blood   was stained.
Every November our thoughts turn to the past, to the awful   destruction of a generation. The world would never be the same again. We should   never forget what happened and what the world lost. All that potential, all   those possibilities, snuffed out. Forever. And amongst all the other things   we lost, Wales lost a great poet.

Published in Welsh Country Magazine, November 2005 (reproduced here with permission.)

Since I  wrote the article I have come across some additional information which is held  in the National Museum of Wales. It is an interview from 1975 with Simon Jones   of Aberangell, who saw Ellis fall on the battlefield.

“…we were going over   the top at half past four. We started over Canal Bank at Ypres and he was killed   half way across Pilkem…I saw him fall and I can say that it was a nosecap   shell in his stomach that killed him. You could tell that. You couldn’t stay   with him – you had to keep going you see…there were stretcher bearers coming   up behind us, you see. There was nothing – well, you’d be breaking the rules if   went to help someone who was injured when you were in an attack. Your business  was to keep going.”

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