On Flanders Fields by Chairman Mao
Time can be many things. We’re told that it can heal almost anything but mostly a broken heart. It can also humble you with comparisons and shadows of the past. Recently I was privileged to visit Flanders as part of the Welsh Government’s commemoration of the century of the start of the Third Battle of Ypres, more commonly known as the Battle of Passchendaele, during the First World War.
The Welsh memorial at Langemark on the outskirts of Ypres is magnificent and a worthy memorial for every Welsh soldierwho served on the Western Front during one of the most brutal battles in history. The memorial was unveiled in 2014. The cromlech area has now been completed and supplemented with further stones from Pontypridd to represent the Welsh Regiments who fought across the trenches during the long months of the battle.
The conditions for the battle were horrendous with the unusual summer combined with the massive artillery fire ensuring that the battlefields were a swamp as the local canals and rivers burst their banks. After the initial gains by the Welsh 38th Division on the first day it soon became a deadly stalemate with huge resources from both sides expended across Flanders in vain attempts to break through.
We’ve mentioned in previous articles published in Dial M ForMerthyr that professional footballers also enlisted to fight for King & Country during the war and many sadly paid the ultimate sacrifice.
The visit to Langemark is always memorable. The red dragon statue is a perfect symbol to represent the Welsh warriors who fought in appalling conditions. The Sportsman’s Bar across the road must be visited for a beer, a read of the visitor book and to view the mini-museum to the Welsh and in particular the poet Hedd Wyn.
It was also an opportunity for me and my colleagues to visit a couple of the immaculate cemeteries that surround Ypres. The Commonwealth Graves Commission ensure that they remain a fitting tribute to every soldier, even if unknown, that died.
Our objective was to pay our respects to Fred Griffiths who had gained two caps for Wales in the first years of the twentieth century, he was a goalkeeper from Presteigne who died at Passchendaele. Fred was 44 years of age when he was killed. It was sobering to view his headstone and realise that only a decade or so before his death he was representing his country on the football field.
The schedule of the day allowed me an opportunity to visit Bard Cottage cemetery too. The fanzine has tried recently to research Merthyr Town’s involvement in the Great War and so far we have discovered four former players who died during the conflict. William Kirby played for Merthyr Town in 1913-14, playing 29 matches and scoring 6 goals. We’ve covered his story in previous issues of the fanzine but this was an opportunity to pay respects to a former player. The cemetery itself is one of the smaller ones along the road from Ypres to Langemark. We were able to locate the headstone via the printed guide that are available at each cemetery gate. West Ham United’s youth team had left a dedication from a previous visit as he had also played for them.
It’s a strange experience to view the headstone of someone whose only link to your life is the fact that they once graced the turf at Penydarren Park to become another player that was celebrated from the terraces just as we do today. A player who would have moved to our town to play professionally for us only for a war to interrupt those plans. A player who would have swapped a red & green shirt for a khaki uniform. A player we remember at Merthyr Town. To visit Bill Kirby’s headstone is to reach across a century to a young footballer who knew our town but who never had the opportunity to return. It makes us remember how our football club crosses the decades to unite generations.
We will return to Flanders in October to visit the graves of both William Kirby and Jabez Cartwright who died within a day of each other in 1917 so that we can formally pay the club’s respect to both former players. If you would like to join us on the visit then please get in touch.