Welsh bard falls in the battle fields of Flanders

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Hedd Wyn

Six weeks after his death in the Great War in 1917, the poet Hedd Wyn was awarded the chair at the National Eisteddfod at Birkenhead.

Over a quarter of a million Welshmen enlisted to fight in the First World War. Among them was the poet Ellis Humphrey Evans of Trawsfynydd, better known under his bardic name of Hedd Wyn. He was dispatched for active service in 1917. Just a few months later he was dead - killed in battle on the fields of Flanders.

The Black Chair

Six weeks later he was posthumously awarded the chair at the National Eisteddfod at Birkenhead for his poem Yr Arwr (The Hero) which he had completed shortly before his death. The chair itself was draped in black during the chairing ceremony, and has since been known as the Y Gadair Ddu (The Black Chair). By the age of 28 he had won four Eisteddfod chairs for his poetry.

Witness account

Mr Simon Jones of Aberangell, Mid Wales, served in the same regiment as Hedd Wyn, and witnessed his falling on the field of battle. Here is his account, as recorded by the National History Museum: St. Fagans in 1975:

"It was the last day of July, you see. The first day of probably the biggest battle that ever took place. The battle of Passchendaele. And we were going over the top at half past four. We started over Canal Bank at Ypres, and he was killed half way across Pilckem (Ridge). I've heard many say that they were with Hedd Wyn and this and that, well I was with him as a boy from Llanuwchllyn and him from Trawsfynydd. 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.

When did you see him last, to speak to him?

Oh, it's difficult to say. Perhaps I spoke to him that morning, because if I saw him get killed, I must have been near to him. I remember well that we had an officer leading us called Newman, Lieutenant Newman. He was going in front of me, and I saw him fall on his knees and grab two fistfuls of dirt. Well there was nothing but dirt there, you see - the place was all churned up. He was dying, of course.

What did you do? Could you do something when you saw Hedd Wyn... ?

Nothing at all. No. There were stretcher bearers coming up behind us, you see. There was nothing - well, you'd be breaking the rules if you went to help someone who was injured when you were in an attack. Your business was to keep going.

How did you feel when you saw your friend fall?

Well I'll tell you straight. To be honest, you had no time to sympathise because you didn't know whether you'd be in the same situation as him in a couple of yards."

Enduring legacy

Hedd Wyn was one of 32,000 soldiers to be killed in the attack on Pilckem Ridge. The devastated village of Passchendaele itself was not captured until 6 November, 98 days after the start of the battle. This slow advance over little more than five miles of ground was achieved with the loss of 310,000 Allied and 260,000 German lives.

The family home

The Black Chair remains a potent symbol of the devastating impact of the First World War on communities throughout Wales, and the unfulfilled potential of a whole generation of young Welsh men.