6 September 1917 and the National Eisteddfod in Birkenhead was in full swing.
It looked set to be another full day of competing and with the festival’s ceremonial climax due to take place in the afternoon; hopes were running high for a popular winner. The horrors of war could be put to one side for the day as people travelled from afar to enjoy the final day of what had been a very successful Eisteddfod.
Little did the crowds flocking through the gates that Thursday morning know that they were about to witness one of the most tragic and iconic episodes in the festival’s history, and an event which has become an important part of our heritage, particularly poignant as we approach the centenary of the fateful day.
The story of Hedd Wyn, Ellis Humphrey Evans, winner of the 1917 Eisteddfod Chair, killed in action in France before he could be honoured by his fellow countrymen, has been well documented, and over the years, his sacrifice has become synonymous with the loss of a generation of boys and men, conscripted across rural north Wales and never to return from the French trenches.
The Chair, covered in black as the death of its winner was announced, brought the barbarity of war into the seemingly safe haven of the National Eisteddfod Pavilion. The outpouring of grief was unlike anything seen in Wales for many years, and Hedd Wyn’s death soon came to represent the nation’s loss in the Great War.
Few people know that the Chairing was the second emotional ceremony to be held on the Pavilion stage that day. Early that morning, the Pavilion crowd had stood to show their respect for another soldier, crippled by war but still alive, honoured by the Eisteddfod but forgotten by history over the past hundred years.
When war broke out in August 1914, preparations for the Bangor National Eisteddfod were almost complete. All the composition entries had been received and organisers were weeks away from what should have been a successful festival. The event was cancelled, compositions locked in the vaults of the local bank, and there was even talk of the Pavilion, built on the university grounds in College Park, being used to house prisoners of war.
Although expected to last only a few months, the war continued into 1915, but encouraged by the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George, the Bangor Eisteddfod went ahead a year later than originally planned.
Two battalions had entered the male voice choir competition, the 16th and 17th battalions of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers. The 16th was conducted by Private Tom Ll Tucker of Skewen, south Wales, while the 17th was led by Lance-Corporal Samuel Evans of Rhosllannerchrugog, a graduate of the Sol Ffa Tonic College.
The 16th Battalion triumphed on the day, taking first prize of £15 – about £1,500 today, with the adjudicator mentioning their “…good tone and colour… Good tempo chosen for both movements…accurate in the chromatic bass passage which is so frequently sung inaccurately,” and marking them an impressive 88.5 out of a possible 100.
But L/Cpl Evans did not walk away empty handed – his choir was also praised, and awarded a tidy sum of £3 3s for their efforts – over £320 in today’s money.
Soon after the Eisteddfod, the men of both battalions left Wales to fight in the French trenches, and nothing is known of their story until the fateful morning of 6 September 1917, two years to the day after the competition.
Reporting on the event following their coverage of the Chairing ceremony, the Amman Valley Chronicle and East Carmarthenshire News of 13 September 1917, recalled that “even more tragic and pathetic was the second scene when the conductor called to the platform a wounded Welsh soldier, Lance-Corporal Samuel Evans, Rhos, and to follow him Brigadier General Sir Owen Thomas”.
The same L/Cpl Evans of the 17th Battalion who had led his boys to the eisteddfod stage exactly two years before.
But he cut a lonely figure this time – without his choir.
“Everyone of these gallant fellows, musical sons of Wales, with the single exception of the conductor, had rendered the supreme sacrifice for his country,” reported the newspaper.
“The conductor was present that day, maimed for life, and he was invested by General Sir Owen Thomas with white and black rosettes sent by the families of two of the members of his choir.”
The North Wales Chronicle and Advertiser for the Principality of 7 September 1917 includes the following details about the rosettes, “The rosette was white and black, the white representing the untainted honour of those boys, and the black to represent our sorrow.”
On 14 September, the Cambrian News and Meirionethshire Standard described the event, “He happened to be their conductor, and is crippled for life. He was invested with a rosette and button by Lieut.-General Sir Owen Thomas, amid pathetic silence broken here and there by a sob.”
And there, on the Pavilion stage in Birkenhead, the trail runs cold. We have no more information about Lance-Corporal Samuel Evans of Rhos or any of the members of the choir of the 17th Battalion, other than a letter in the 25 September edition of the Cambria Leader, from the Rev. J Evans Jones, Congregational minister, Skewen, correcting the original syndicated story, stating that the 17th Battalion had triumphed, when the winners of the competition were in fact the 16th Battalion. The 16th Battalion are also named as the winners in the Eisteddfod’s own records and minutes.
Military records tell us that the 17th (Service) Battalion (2nd North Wales) was formed at Llandudno on 2 February 1915, and came under orders of the 128th Brigade, 43rd Division, and landed in France in December 1915. Many of the young recruits were from the Llandudno, Blaenau Ffestiniog and Wrexham areas.
But what happened to the young men of the 17th Battalion during the following months? Within two years, it appears they were all dead, every member of Samuel Evans’ choir killed in action far away from their homes and families.
A hundred years later, with the Eisteddfod about to commemorate the First World War, Hedd Wyn and all those who lost their lives, an appeal has been launched to find the lost singers of the 17th Battalion. Organisers are keen to mark the hundredth anniversary of the sad and poignant ceremony on the Pavilion stage, and would like to find the descendants of the choir.
Are you related to one of the members? Is there an old family story linking you to the competition in 1915? Do you have any information about what happened to the boys and young men once they left the National Eisteddfod at Bangor? If so, we would like to hear from you. We believe that many of the families lived in the north Wales area, and are confident that many of the men will have descendants and families still living in the area.
If you have any information regarding the choir, contact Gwenllïan Carr at the National Eisteddfod, either by ringing 0845 4090 400, emailing firstname.lastname@example.org, or by completing the information form on the Eisteddfod website, www.eisteddfod.wales/1915-choir. The aim is to publish more information about the Choir closer to the Eisteddfod, and to collect the names of the members so that they can be commemorated during the festival in Anglesey from 4-12 August.