A hundred years ago today, 22 May 1916, Gwilym Williams of Nant-yr-afr Fawr farm, Tre-lech a’r Betws Carmarthenshire was buried in Merville Cemetery, France. His family are marking the centenary of his death this weekend by visiting his grave.
Gwilym was a graduate of the Department of Welsh, Aberystwyth and a promising poet. He won numerous eisteddfodic chairs, including the Chair of the University Eisteddfod in 1912: his winning ode was entitled ‘Gwanwyn Bywyd’ (Springtime of life) and the competition was adjudicated by T. Gwynn Jones.
Gwilym graduated with honours in 1913 and taught at Newtown and Walsall near Birmingham. In July 1915 he joined the army and was made a lieutenant in the 17th Battalion of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers. The battalion sailed for France in December, and in Mai 1916 Gwilym was in Fauquissart. He was injured in the throat by a bullet Saturday 20 May and died the following day in the hospital at Merville. Gwilym was buried at Merville Cemetery 22 May 1916; he was twenty six years old.
Amongst those mourning Gwilym was his friend, Jane Helen Rowlands of Porthaethwy who had been a student at the University College, Bangor and who dedicated her life to missionary work. She later became a well-respected Bengali scholar.
The two met as members of staff at Newtown Secondary School, and letters in the family archive attest to their close relationship. Indeed, Hefin Wyn M.A. believes that Helen Rowlands’s decision to become a missionary influenced Gwilym’s surprising decision to go to war.
Hefin Wyn says (translated from the Welsh):
“‘Helen of Anglesey’, as she was known, would send letters from Assam to the family every May for years following Gwilym’s death, in which she spoke about her feelings for him. In one letter she notes ‘Here is the most pure-hearted lad I ever knew’. One must conclude that a broken heart compelled Uncle Gwilym to go to the battlefield. His farewell stanza to his girlfriend attest the strength of his feelings:
Draw i randir yr India – mae Helen
Am hwylio o Walia;
O’n golwg ni. O gwylia
Hi dros y dŵr, Iesu da.
(Helen will sail from Gwalia/ to a region of India;/ out of our sight. Oh, good Jesus,/ watch over her at sea)”
Remembering Gwilym Williams
Gwilym Williams was the great uncle of another of the Department’s alumni, Hefin Wyn, and an event was held to remember Gwilym 18 May 2016 in the Old College where he had spent much time as a student. It was a pleasure to welcome Hefin Wyn and other members of Gwilym’s family to the event.
The event was led by Hefin Wyn who gave a splendid lecture interweaving personal research and family oral history: ‘O Nant-yr-afr i Merville: cofio Gwilym Williams B.A. 1890–1916’ (From Nant-yr-afr to Merville: remembering Gwilym Williams B.A. 1890–1916. Inconceivable numbers of men and boys were killed during the Great War and learning the details of one life like Gwilym Williams is a way of understanding the loss to families, communities and the nation.
A small exhibition of Gwilym Williams’s life and works was organised to coincide with the event, including the Eisteddfodic Chair that he won in 1912, a photograph of Gwilym in his military uniform, as well as numerous letters. The exhibition included two letters that he wrote from the trenches 18 Mai 1916, a tribute by D. J. Williams, as well as other documents and photographs from his students days at Aberystwyth.
The event was brought to a fitting close by staff and current students of the Department who read a selection of Gwilym’s own poems from the memorial volume Dan yr Helyg (1917), as well as original poems that were inspired by this former-students powerful story. Gwilym’s Poems can be read online as they are now available electronically on the National Library of Wales’s Wales1914 website: Dan yr Helyg (1917) on Wales1914.
(From right to left: Hefin Wyn, Eurig Salisbury, Endaf Griffiths, Iestyn Tyne, Marged Tudur a Miriam Elin Jones)
Many thanks to Ceredigion Museum for the loan of the beautiful wooden display cabinets used in the exhibition.