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Story of 81 forgotten First World War heroes finally told

By South Wales Evening Post  |  Posted: March 20, 2014

  • Dr Gethin Matthews from Swansea University with the First World War rioll of honour that was fiound at Caersalem Chapel

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HELEN Davies took her mother, father and young children to northern France in 2004 to a tiny village called Fromelles close to the Belgian border.

It was an immensely emotional trip to visit the place where Helen's grandfather, Corporal Ernest Lloyd, had died in battle in July 1916, though no one knew for sure where he lay.

Next weekend, she will travel from her home in West Cross with some of her family once again. This time, they will lay a wreath at the entrance to a local war graves cemetery.

"It will be our family's private visit,'' she says.

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"But we are all really looking forward to it. All those grandfathers can now speak to us from over 90 years ago to say, "We are here, and this is what happened to us.

"And I see it as hugely important to find out more about him and what he did.''

She is not the only one remembering those long ago days and its people.

For years, the forgotten story of how 81 men from a Swansea chapel responded to a call to arms to serve in the First World War remained a secret, hidden away in an understairs cupboard.

But just like Helen Davies and her family, there are others who were determined to shed light on the incredible courage and sacrifice of those volunteers who struggled with their religious conscience to go and fight in the Great War.

The chance discovery of a list of men on an illuminated memorial following a clear out of the cupboard in Caersalem Chapel, Treboeth, has inspired a new project to tell the stories about the men, their families and the impact the conflict made on their lives along with the community.

Swansea University history lecturer and First World War expert Gethin Matthews says the roll of honour was something of a significant discovery.

He adds: "The find consisted of an illuminated memorial of all the men who responded to the call to arms in the 1914 — 1918 war.

"No-one knows why the memorial was placed in the cupboard under the stairs. But it is assumed that it was at some time when the chapel was being decorated. But its importance was recognised immediately. It contains the names of 81 men who volunteered or were conscripted to serve in the forces during the First World War.

"Some who joined were miners. Some were members of the same family. Some joined en-bloc with team-mates from a local rugby club.

"One of the principal aims of the project will be to gather as much information as is possible about these men and to understand how their worlds changed as a result of the war.

"Furthermore, by tracing the individual stories, a picture will be built up of how the war impacted upon the chapel, and the wider community."

Gethin says the project, which is being funded by £4,500 of Heritage Lottery cash, is one that is close to his heart as his great uncles were among the men who served in the conflict.

"Caersalem Newydd's roll of honour is interesting in that not only are the names recorded but the regiments in which they served are listed: this is important as it will assist in identifying the men," he adds.

"A higher proportion than expected — around a fifth — joined the non-combatant RAMC (Royal Army Medical Corps) which in itself could be significant as this was the regiment chosen by many chapel-goers who wanted to serve, but who objected to being called upon to kill their fellow men.

"The chapels had been stressing the tradition of 'thou shall not kill' and some chapels stuck to the Christian principle of anti-war. But others felt they couldn't stay out of it because it was a just war.

"The community accepted it had to be fought. But in 1914/1915 they didn't know what was ahead of them. My personal interest in the project is very strong as, not only did my great uncle go off to war, but his younger sister went off to the munitions factory as well.

"So it's very much a personal story as well as being academically interesting."

He says though that despite women having a key role in the First World War back on the home front nothing was mentioned about them in the list uncovered so far.

"The range and variety of information to be found in the list is remarkable, but rather unsurprisingly, the women who went to serve in the munitions factory in Pembrey are not mentioned," he adds.

"The project will aim to find out about their stories, and the stories of their families during the tumultuous years 1914 to1918."

Today's generation are also being encouraged to get involved. Pupils from Ysgol Gyfun Bryn Tawe have already started scouring online newspapers for key information about the conflict and those from the area who have served. Gwyrosydd Primary, Ysgol Gynradd Tirdeunaw and Ysgol Gyfun Bryn Tawe are all on board as well.

"Pupils will be urged to find out whether their families have any connections with the men on the memorial, and some of the pupils at Bryn Tawe will focus upon a number of the names on the list, researching the background of the soldiers and their families," says Gethin

"The Heritage Lottery Grant will be used in part to fund the costs of school visits to libraries to use the resources available there.

"In order to involve the local community and encourage family members to look for and share any information that they may have, in early April a day has been set aside for the visit of National Library staff who will copy the material available, leaving the originals in the possession of the family.

"The result of all the work will eventually be shown in an exhibition in Treboeth Public Hall with a bilingual booklet being published and distributed to the families of Caersalem Newydd and the three schools involved."

Research so far has already uncovered personal items of people living in the area at the time.

"We have a picture of a woman in her munitions outfit and we have diaries from the mothers and fathers who were living there at the time," adds Gethin.

"Often you can tell the broader story by looking at the local impact of the war.

"There's no one big narrative of the war, rather thousands of smaller narratives.

"Eighty-one men volunteered to put their lives on the line — it show just how different the community was back then!"

Anyone who has information about any of the 81 men and the impact of the First World War on the community of Treboeth is being invited to a special research day being held at Caersalem Chapel in Treboeth on April 9, between 10am and 4pm.

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