A century ago, the First World War was at its peak, with thousands of young boys already killed, and more sent to the Front Line almost daily.
The days of choosing to ‘join up’ had long disappeared, and every healthy young man was recruited to join the Army to be sent to fight for Britain in the trenches.
One battle commemorated this year is the bloody battle of Passchendaele, a horrific massacre, where over half a million men lost their lives, around 325,000 from the British Army and 260,000 Germans. The battle raged for over three months, as both sides fought to gain control of an area in Western Flanders near the city of Ypres.
This battle has particular relevance to Welsh history and the history of the National Eisteddfod. On 31 July 1917, the very first day of the battle, a young man from Trawsfynydd, Ellis Humphrey Evans, a bright poet who had competed for the Eisteddfod Chair that year, was killed.
Hedd Wyn, as everyone knew him, died before being told he had won the Chair, and in the ceremony held at the Eisteddfod in Birkenhead on 6 September, a mere month after his death, a black shroud was placed over the bardic Chair in his memory.
Today, the story of the Black Chair and the young poet’s sacrifice are an integral part of Welsh history, representing the loss felt by so many families across Wales, and a symbol of the horrors of war and the community left behind.
Taking its inspiration from the history of Hedd Wyn and the generation of boys who never came home from the War, this year’s National Eisteddfod will open with a special performance commemorating the War, exactly a century later, and through the eyes of the people. The title, A Oes Heddwch? (Is There Peace?), is not only relevant to the War but also to the Eisteddfod and the Gorsedd ceremonies.
A Requiem by Paul Mealor, the celebrated composer with his roots on Anglesey, forms part of this work, with the words crafted by renowned poet, Grahame Davies. The work will be performed by the National Eisteddfod Choir and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, as part of a larger project, which is certain to appeal to the audience in the Eisteddfod Pavilion.
Discussing his work and the poet who inspired him, Paul Mealor said, “Growing up in Wales, one is surrounded by the legend of Hedd Wyn. I am humbled and honoured to be able to contribute something, through the medium of music, to honour him and his work.
“My composition, to original words by Grahame Davies, is intended to offer a moment of reflection and peace, in this centenary year, upon the man, the legend, the poetry.”
Grahame Davies’ family has a close connection with the Great War, as his grandfather, John William Davies, fought in the Welsh Fusiliers, and he says, “Hedd Wyn’s story is an integral part of our experience as Welsh people. It’s one of the most poignant stories of the First World War, and a symbol of losing a generation of young boys.
“It was a great honour to create new words to reflect the loss and to yet again be able to work with such a talented composer as Paul Mealor.”
The Eisteddfod Choir is currently rehearsing the Requiem, and have enjoyed the experience immensely according to project co-ordinator, Mari Lloyd Pritchard, “Everyone who sings in a choir is aware of Paul Mealor and his work, and we are so proud to be able to perform his work with such special words by Grahame Davies.
“The opening night at the Eisteddfod will be the premiere, and performing this on the Pavilion stage to commemorate the centenary of the Great War and Hedd Wyn is a great honour for us in the Anglesey National Eisteddfod Choir.”
The Requiem forms part of ‘A Oes Heddwch?’ with the other sections composed by Aled and Dafydd Hughes, best known as two of the brothers from Cowbois Rhos Botwnnog.
The words accompanying the brothers’ music have been written by Guto Dafydd, with everything brought together following a series of workshops and community activities. The music has been arranged for the BBC National Orchestra of Wales by John Quirk and Siwan Llynor is responsible for the production.
Joining the Choir and the Orchestra will be a number of soloists, and their names will be announced over the next few weeks.
The project is a partnership between the National Eisteddfod of Wales, Snowdonia National Park Authority, Arts Council of Wales, Gwynedd County Council, Anglesey County Council and BBC National Orchestra of Wales.
Tickets go on sale on 3 April, and will be available from the Eisteddfod website, www.eisteddfod.wales, or by ringing 0845 4090 800. Early bird bargain tickets for concerts available until 30 June.
The Anglesey National Eisteddfod is held at Bodedern from 4-12 August. For more information go online.