Ballads of boys: recalling two war poets who lived and died in parallel

Europe Letter: Irish writer Francis Ledwidge and Welsh poet Hedd Wyn were both killed in action 97 years ago today

Heads of state from across the world, including President Michael D Higgins, gather in the Belgian town of Liège this Monday to mark the centenary of the outbreak of the first World War.

Situated 50km (31 miles) from the German border, Liège was one of the first towns to fall to German troops after they crossed into Belgium on August 4th, 1914, sparking Britain's entry into the war.

Monday’s event will be an important symbol of reconciliation as the German president, Joachim Gauck, takes his place alongside representatives from the Allied side. But for many, the real story of the first World War is the millions of ordinary individuals who lost their lives.

This evening the Irish in Europe Association in Brussels hosts an event to commemorate two soldiers who died in the war: Irish writer Francis Ledwidge and Welsh poet Hedd Wyn. The two men never met, but on July 31st, 1917, 97 years ago today, they died during the Battle of Passchendaele.


Killed while drinking tea

Ledwidge, who was 29, was killed when a shell hit soldiers from the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. They had been drinking tea while taking a break from laying a road in preparation for an assault.

“Ledwidge killed, blown to bits,” Irish chaplain Fr Charles Devas wrote in his diary after coming across the scene.

Today a memorial plaque and Tricolour mark the spot on a quiet, lonely road in rural Belgium where Ledwidge died.

A few miles away, the 15th battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, which included 30-year-old Wyn among its members, was taking part in an attack near Pilckem Ridge, close to Ypres.

War veteran Simon Jones recalled in a 1975 interview how he witnessed Wyn's death. "We started over Canal Bank at Ypres, and he was killed half way across Pilckem . . . I saw him fall and I can say that it was a nosecap shell in his stomach that killed him. You could tell that . . . He was going in front of me, and I saw him fall on his knees and grab two fistfuls of dirt . . . He was dying, of course."

Both poets are buried in Artillery Wood cemetery in Belgium.

From poet to soldier

Wyn was born in the tiny Welsh village of Trawsfynydd, Snow- donia, the eldest of 11 children.

At 14 he left school to work as a shepherd on the mountainous peaks near his home. He began writing poetry in the Welsh language while still a teenager, winning honours from the historic Welsh literary body Eisteddfod.

Conscription forced him to join the Royal Welch Fusiliers in early 1917. His poem, The Hero, completed in Belgium shortly before his death, led to his posthumous appointment as chair of the National Eisteddfod of Wales.

Like Wyn, Ledwidge was born to a large family in a rural area, a world apart from the battlefields and broken landscape where he would die.

Ledwidge was born in 1887, the same year as Wyn. He began writing poetry while working as a road labourer in Co Meath. In 1912 he sent his poems to Lord Dunsany, who in effect became Ledwidge's patron, introducing the young poet to key figures of the Anglo-Irish revival.

Ledwidge, who had long been involved in local politics and the Irish Volunteers, signed up to fight for Britain in 1914. He later explained his decision: "I joined the British army because England stood between Ireland and an enemy common to our civilisation, and I would not have it said that she defended us while we did nothing at home but pass resolutions."

Working-class backgrounds

Wyn and Ledwidge’s stories have many parallels. Born six months apart, they both came from working-class, rural back- grounds. As Irish and Welsh nationals, they represented an oblique perspective on British nationalism. Their poetry offered an alternative to the dominant notion of “Englishness” that underpinned much of the propaganda and ideology of war. But it is the survival of their poetry that remains their biggest contribution to the history of the first World War.

In their evocation of that war, they weave in the memory and imagery of their own rural backgrounds as they try to make sense of the upheaval unfolding in the chaotic, muddy fields of Flanders.

"Bitter to live in times like these/While God declines beyond the seas;/Instead, man, king or peasantry,/Raises his gross authority," writes Wyn in his poem War.

The closing lines of the poem represent a poignant evocation of the violent reality of the battlefield: “Ballads of boys blow on the wind,/Their blood is mingled with the rain.”