Tag Archives: The Somme

Whither the Bedford Bard?

The previous post told the story of the reappearance of the bardic chair won by the Reverend Private Alfred Jenkins, a member of the 2/1st Welsh Casualty Clearing Station, Royal Army Medical Corps, attached to the 68th (2nd Welsh) Division, for his poem on “A Soldier’s Life” at the Eisteddfod held on Easter Monday 1916 for the Welsh troops then stationed in Bedford.

What we wondered then had the future held for Private Alfred Jenkins when he moved on from Bedford. Sadly it was not good news, Alfred had been killed in action in France in September 1918.

Reverend Private Alfred Jenkins

He is remembered on the Bridgend War Memorial, and the details associated with him read “Jenkins, Alfred, Private 370129. Died 13/09/1918 aged 38. Royal Army Medical Corps. Buried Villers-Faucon Communal Cemetery. Son of David and Mary Jenkins. B.A. (Hons). Minister of Presbyterian Church of Wales.”

The War Memorial, Bridgend

Alfred is also commemorated on the War Memorial in Pencoed, the family home.

The War Memorial, Pencoed 

There is more of the circumstances of his death in subsequent newspaper reports in October 1918 back home. A Scottish newspaper reported it briefly under the heading ”An Ideal Death”, which gives one pause for thought, and continued “Private the Rev. Alfred Jenkins B.A. Methodist, of Pencoed, South Wales, has been killed whilst rescuing a comrade.”

A hero’s death then. The information about his death, the Glamorgan Gazette recorded, reached his father in a letter written from the front by a friend, also a member of the RAMC, and a witness of the last sad scene.

Alfred had volunteered to accompany some stretcher bearers to bring in two wounded men. As they went forward they came under heavy shell fire. The letter writer made a dive for shelter and escaped. Alfred went on with utter disregard for the danger.

When his comrade looked back it was to see his friend lying dead with his hand grasping the stretcher.

Alfred was born in 1880 in Bridgend and received his early education there. He then joined his father’s business: David was widely known in the district as a monumental mason. Indeed in the 1901 Census Alfred is recorded as a stone mason and his father, now a widower his wife having died in October 1899, as a sculptor. Alfred’s two older brothers were also recorded as stone masons in the previous Census.

In the 1911 Census Alfred is a visitor, and a Calvinistic Methodist Student for Ministry, in the household of Edward Chapman, aged 59 and a coal miner, and his wife Elizabeth Ann, in Garndiffiath. Alfred had become a candidate for the ministry of the Calvinistic Methodists and trained at Trefecca College, near Talgarth, on the edge of the Brecon Beacons.

Trefecca College

Alfred interrupted his training to give himself to work in the slums of London, resident at the Mansfield College Settlement where, before leaving, he had been promoted to the office of sub-warden. During his residence in Canning Town he applied to the Council for permission to reside in a lodging house run by the Settlement and frequented by dockers. This step, the newspaper reported, was characteristic of the trend of a life ever lived to the service of God and man.

Alfred graduated with honours in philosophy from University College, Cardiff, but then his short theological course at Aberystwyth was interrupted by the war. He left to take up service with the YMCA, but longed to go to France and in Cardiff on 7 June 1915, aged 35 years, he enlisted in the 2/1st WCCS, RAMC.

To his dismay his unit was kept for a long period of duty in this country. But at last the hour he had longed for arrived, and he found himself in the country where “the great drama of war has had its principal scenes.” Alfred was at Bourlon Wood in 1917, according to The Aberdare Leader, and returned home for leave only some five or six months before returning to France “to find a soldier’s grave.”

           Alfred’s grave plot II B 3
in the Villers-Faucon Communal Cemetery Extension

The Gazette concluded its report: “He was the soul of high loyalties, and his life was a life of fine chivalries. All that was mean and low was abhorrent to him. He was a knight-errant in quest of high adventure, not for its own sake nor his own sake, but for the sake of others.”

Father David, born in Bridgend, and mother Mary Ann, born in Middlesex, were living in Islington in 1871, David aged 28 and a stone mason, and Mary Ann aged 26. Their eldest child, a daughter Edith, was also born in Middlesex c1871. Their second child, son John Lewis, was born c1872 in Chicago, USA, but their next six children including William, some two years younger than John Lewis, and Alfred were all born in Bridgend. Some interesting family travels!

Alfred’s brother John Lewis Jenkins was also a Minister. His first office was as the Pastor at the Bethel Presbyterian Chapel, Cadoxton, serving for five years until July 1903 when he left to become the Pastor at Trinity Church, Aberdare. His farewell service in Cadoxton was attended by his father David of Pencoed. John Lewis started what proved to be “a powerful and uplifting ministry” at Trinity Church, and remained there until 1916 when he left for Liverpool.

Alfred had often officiated at his brother’s church in Aberdare and it was not long before he was killed that he had preached in khaki from the pulpit there.

A life well lived, but like so many cut short in a moment of self-sacrifice.

At the time of his death  Alfred was a member of the 230th Field Ambulance, RAMC, and he is buried in the Villers-Faucon Communal Cemetery Extension close to the Great Cross, memorial reference II B 3, with an inscription “Until the day break and the shadows flee away”.


Villers-Faucon Communal Cemetery and cemetery plan 

Alfred was awarded posthumously the Victory Medal and the British War Medal. His father, initially his next of kin as Alfred was single, had died in October 1919, and the medals issued in May 1922 were entrusted to his older brother, Reverend John Lewis Jenkins, still then in Liverpool.

What was the journey of Alfred’s bardic chair from its award in Bedford in April 1916 to its reappearance many decades later in an antique shop in Kent remains a mystery.

The action at Bourlon Wood, some 11 kms west of Cambrai, was part of the Battle of Cambrai in November/December 1917. Heavily involved in the fighting was the 62nd (2nd West Riding) Division which had moved into Bedford in October 1916 after the Welsh divisions had departed, remaining until January 1917.

Villers-Faucon, some 28 kms to the south west of Cambrai, was almost totally destroyed in 1916. Following a withdrawal of German troops around the Hindenburg Line, villagers were evacuated to the north to Denain, tons of dynamite was set off around all the buildings, including the nearby sugar refinery at St Emilie and all the trees were cut down to leave the field open for approaching troops. The village was demolished but the cemetery was left untouched.

The village was captured in a snow storm by squadrons of the 8th King’s Royal Irish Hussars, 5th Cavalry Division, on 27 March 1917 in what was the Regiment’s last mounted charge. The village was later lost on 22 March 1918 but then retaken by III Corps, part of the Fourth Army, on 7 September 1918.

The Communal Cemetery contains the Commonwealth graves of soldiers who died in February to August 1917 or, in two cases, in September 1918, and also German graves. The adjoining Extension was begun in April 1917 and used until March 1918. It was then used by the Germans, and Commonwealth burials were resumed in September and October 1918. Further Commonwealth graves were brought in after the Armistice from a wide area around the village.

230th Field Ambulance was attached to the 74th (Yeomanry) Division formed in Palestine in January 1917 and taking part in actions there in Gaza and Jerusalem. In March 1918 the Division was notified it would be moving to France where it landed in May. It then had to train for the unfamiliar nature of warfare, including gas defence, on the Western Front where it arrived in July.

Given mounting casualties there was considerable movement of soldiers between units, indeed Alfred had previously been posted in the field on 28 June 1917 to the 100th Field Ambulance, then part of the  2nd Division. He was transferred again in the field to the 230th Field Ambulance on 1 July 1918.

Before then, Alfred had been posted to the Home Establishment on 18 March 1918 on admission to the Royal Herbert military hospital in Woolwich, whilst in the UK also receiving dental treatment. He spent time on home leave in Wales, as we saw, including preaching in his brother’s church in Aberdare, before leaving from Southampton on 15 June 1918 to return to France, the country he has never left.

Alfred’s service record does not identify the reason for his admission to hospital, nor does it identify a precise location of where he was “killed in action” on 13 September 1918. Inevitably it cannot record a date of discharge from the Territorial Army but rather that Alfred “Became non-effective by death.”

Alfred was killed during the Battles of the Hindenburg Line, a series of large scale offensive operations between 12 September and 12 October to advance to and break the Hindenburg Line.

The first of the battles was the Battle of Havrincourt, south west of Bourlon Wood and some 20 kms north of Villers-Faucon, on 12 September 1918. Although not falling within its front, the 62nd (2nd West Riding) Division was specifically invited to take part because of its previous performance in the capture of Havrincourt in 1917 on the way to Bourlon Wood. The town was recaptured on 12 September and a counter attack the next day by the Germans was successfully repulsed.

Following its attack at Moislains on 2 to 3 September, the 74th Division, part of III Corps, took part in the Corps advance on 6 September to pass through Templeaux-la-Fosse and Longavesnes, moving west to east some few kms south of Villers-Faucon, to reach a position west of Templeux-le-Guerard on 12 September. Alfred was killed the next day. The Division continued on to fight in the second of the battles, the Battle of Epehy on 18 September, as did the 62nd (2nd West Riding) Division.

The pivotal battle was the Battle of St Quentin Canal from 29 September to 2 October which achieved its objective of the first full breach of the Hindenburg Line at one of its most heavily defended stretches. Together with other attacks along the Line this success convinced the German High Command that there was little hope of an ultimate German victory.

From Bedford to The Somme

Losses on The Somme were being made up from trained soldiers back home. The 2nd/1st Herefords sent a draft to France in July 1916 and the following account was given in The Hereford Times:


The Battalion was also warned to send another draft.

In its 19 August  edition the newspaper printed an account of the draft in France in a letter sent by a Herefords Saddler in the base Remount depot at Rouen. The writer was a native of Hereford and formerly a boy at the Bluecoat school but did not want his name to appear.

The writer recorded how, on 12 July, the Battalion paraded at Bedford and ‘was asked for 150 volunteers for France. The order was for volunteers to take two paces forward. On the last sound of the word “march” the whole battalion moved like one man. This made it necessary for selection. There was bitter lamentation amongst the men who have to wait longer for the opportunity of doing their bit. The lucky ones were sent home on leave, but you will know all about that. On the 27th we left Bedford for Southampton, leaving the parade ground and marching to the station, headed by the bugle band and accompanied by the C.O. The adjutant wished us good luck and a safe return.

‘The journey was uneventful. The time was whiled away with “ha’penny nap” and talk of what we were going to do to the Huns when we met. We arrived at Southampton at 11 a.m. kept hanging around until 4 p.m. when embarkation started, and we left Port at 5.30 p.m. Got hung up in the channel and outside Havre due to fog. Then travelled up the beautiful Seine. We were greeted with shouts of “vive l’Anglaise” by the people of the villages, also “are we downhearted”, you should have heard the answer. We arrived in Rouen at 5 p.m. on the Saturday, jolly glad to touch terra firm, after being packed like sardines in a barrel for two days. Disembarkation proceded smartly and we were on our way to camp, a 3 1/2 mile march. After drawing blankets and other things we were dismissed.’

The letter continues with details of their first few days work: ‘On Monday the work starts in earnest. We are examined in musketry, Tuesday wire, Wednesday bayonet fighting and extended order, Thursday bomb tunnel filled with gas, stronger than anything the Germans are likely to use, also the ordeal of tear shells. We pass everything with flying colours. Saturday morning we got the order to stand to, later in the day the Sgt and half our number are warned to parade next day, for proceeding somewhere up the line, attached to the 5th Cheshires. At first there is some grumbling, we had hoped to join the Shropshires. At 1 p.m. on Sunday the draft falls in. A smart, business like looking lot. We see them march off and wonder how many will return.’