In January 1982, while clearing the family home after the death of his mother, my father found at the back of her pantry, a 12” tall tea caddy, stuffed with what appeared to be bits of paper.
This narrow-necked, slightly battered hexagonal tin, prettily decorated with characters in oriental dress, turned out to be a remarkable lid-less time-capsule; it was literally bursting with letters – almost a hundred of them – from sons to parents and mother to sons, brothers to sister; there were payslips from the Llanelly Steel Company, official War Office envelopes containing letters all relating to my grandmother’s brothers, Brynmor and Idwal James, dating from the time of their army service during WWI.
Brynmor and Idwal James were the eldest sons of Mary Ann and David James, a Tin-Plater at the Old Castle Tinplate Works, the boys were born in 1895 & 1897 respectively, at 8 Raby Street, Llanelli, just across Pond Twym, the cooling pond of the Old Castle Works; they were followed by my grandmother ‘Jinny’ – Anita Jane James – in March 1899, and later by youngest son Leslie Windsor James in October 1904.
All we really knew about Bryn & Id is that tragically, they’d been killed within weeks of each other aged just 20 and 22 during WWI and that their mother, Mam Mary Ann, had understandably ‘gone out of her mind with grief. We knew they had both been keen sportsmen, and particularly good boxers and had both won many contests; we knew they’d worked as Greasers on the Cold Rolls at the Old Castle Tinworks from the ages of fourteen and later transferred to the Llanelly Steel Company, but don’t ever think I ever heard my grandmother mention them. All I knew about them came from my father and his eldest sister, who were born after the boy’s deaths; and a few more versions of the same stories that had been passed down through a few generations of the extended family.
By 2009, with some years of experience in researching our family history, and with the centenary of WWI approaching, it felt the right time to read and catalogue the letters, and hopefully discover the events surrounding both my great-uncle’s deaths, to see what these letters would reveal of their time, and hopefully, gain an insight into the boys’ characters – they had always been referred to jointly as ‘the boys‘.
Luckily, my father and his only cousin had inherited a few artefacts- their medals, Brynmor’s King’s Silver Badge, his match box cover with a photograph, and Idwal’s War Office official paperwork and a few official photographs of his War Grave in Flanders. I had census records, their birth and death certificates, Brynmor’s first Service Record, and Discharge Papers of both enlistments. We had a few photographs of them in uniform, and with their Army Units. Sadly, by this time, my father had already lost his sight, his sisters were both dead, and initially I had difficulty in identifying which photograph was which uncle.
It has been a lengthy operation, firstly sorting Brynmor’s from Idwal’s, learning the differences in their handwriting, not to mention ultimately putting them into some kind of chronological order, as virtually all of the letters were undated; some were in their original envelopes & date stamped, but the majority had been separated from a pile of envelopes and, dauntingly, there appeared to be considerably more than a hundred of them, all mixed together, with letters from fellow Llanelli soldier friends, and letters exchanged between their mother and their landladies in various billets from the times of their training. Among them I had struck gold in coming across the letters to my great-grandmother written by Idwal’s Lance Corporal, Wm Morris, his Commanding Officer J W Morgan and a letter from the Battalion padre, Kenelm Swallow to my grandmother. All these gave slightly different versions of the exact circumstance of Idwal’s death, ”sniper fire” was mentioned.
The discovery of the letters was the very first step of exploration of the boys’ lives that has taken many years and led us all in many directions. I only made the astonishing discovery that Brynmor had enlisted twice from finding his obituaries in the local library newspaper archives in 2009; Brynmor’s two surviving nephews were not aware of it. The true circumstances of Idwal’s death at Ypres was only discovered in April 2013, thanks to a chance encounter with someone documenting every WWI & WWII fatality from West Wales.
Eventually, I established that Brynmor & Idwal had died within months of each other during WWI – Brynmor in March 1917 and Idwal just 16 weeks later in July 1917. Brynmor, after serving with two different regiments, initially with the Royal Welsh Fusiliers with the Service No. 13135, but was discharged as unfit after just 8 weeks of training firstly in Wrexham, then at Tidworth, Salisbury Plain. After training in Caernarfon, he went on to serve in Egypt as No 943, Driver Brynmor James with the 3rd/1st Welsh Field Company, Royal Engineers. He was discharged for the second time in July 1916 through illness, awarded the King’s Silver Badge in November 1916 for his exemplary service but sadly died of TB at home aged 22, in 19, Greenway Street, Llanelli on the 16th March 1917.
From that chance encounter I mentioned previously, I came across the personal war diary of the 2nd Battalion, SWB’s Padre Kenelm Swallow, and finally learnt the truth about Idwal’s death. Private David Idwal James, No. 29194, 2nd Battalion, South Wales Borderers, aged 20, was killed instantly on the morning of the 4th July 1917 at Ypres, when a shell burst over the machine gun pit he and three fellow soldiers were manning. Idwal, L/Corporal Leonard Davenport, Bertram Pitt and L/Corporal Ivor Morgan were buried together at Bard Cottage Cemetery, Boesinghe, Belgium.
I often contemplated on the miracle that these bits of paper, pieces of our great-uncle’s very existence should have survived for us to read almost 100 years on; I wondered too, if anyone had read them in the intervening decades before my parent’s discovery; maybe their surviving sister & brother, or parents had been unable to read them or see past their sorrow of losing their two precious sons and brothers. But, fortunately for us, they obviously couldn’t bring themselves to throw away their last tangible part of the boys they had raised to be Llanelli’s next generation of tinplate and steelworkers. I came to understand that instinct as I read them; I too, was overwhelmed at times by the unfairness and tragedy of their brief lives.
Extraordinarily, so many of the letters look as if they had been written yesterday and not almost a century ago; the pencilled pages are clear & fresh; they lead me through the narrowest chink of light and allowed me to step into the world of 1914 to 1917, to glimpse life at that time in Llanelli and beyond, from the boys’ working days at the Llanelly Steel Company, just a few hundred yards from their home, their leaving that home for the very first time with their Llanelli pals, brimming with bravado and optimism, to the tented ‘cities’, the Army training camps, the camaraderie, their adventures, their successes in the Army boxing clubs and the tedious wet days, the barely disguised homesickness, the discomforts, the mud and the cold, the boiled rabbit for breakfast, and the simple pleasure gained from the almost daily letters from home with the latest Llanelli news, and of course, their delight in the parcels bringing them pice bach a teisen lap from their mother‘s kitchen.
These were Welsh-speaking, simple, unpretentious working-class boys, forced by the censors to write to their families in a language they didn’t use together naturally, and the letters are sometimes quite stilted and odd, written in the idiomatic English of the Edwardian era, making them doubly evocative of the bigger world they’d been forced to inhabit by the declaration of war.
I had learnt the differences in their personalities – Brynmor, boisterous and bit of a joker, who wrote longer letters; Idwal – quieter, steelier & a little more reserved, a man of fewer words; the heart-warming discoveries were their shining innocence and the deep blue depth of their affection for their family; the saddest part was their brave but misguided optimism. I came to reflect on the fact that there is something so intangibly emotive about reading the writing of someone you’ve loved and who is no longer alive – the very last evidence of their being; as my research went on, I found it was equally the case even if you never knew that person, but were just genetically very close to the hands that had painstaking filled those scraps of paper. By the time I had finished reading and collating all of Bryn and Id’s letters, had absorbed the details, learnt about their experiences, felt their excitement and their occasional lows, and particularly after searching for answers about Bryn’s two enlistments, and discovering the true circumstances of Idwal’s death, I found I had become completely bound up in their world, had come to love them both dearly and became determined that their story and their sacrifice should be remembered.
Sharing my discovery with my cousins, and us getting to know our Uncle Bryn and Uncle Id through the contents of their letters, and the letters of their parents, sister and their friends, has made us all ponder on what sort of men they would have grown into, given their experiences in such extraordinary times; what sort of husbands and fathers, uncles and great-uncles they would have become. The letters have led their 21st century family past the encompassing but affectionate label of ‘the boys’ to see the real individuals, the cheeky young Bryn and the tough little Id, two typical young Llanelli steel workers of the time of the 1st World War.
© Lisa M Voyle 2014