Llanwern, Monmouthshire, Wales: The Great War’s Coal Men Not Forgotten

Llanwern Park no longer exists. The grand house demolished in the 1950s. It does seem strange from the church of St. Mary at Llanwern, as there seems to be an absence of its associated dwellings. For this small church sits in quiet solitude away from the village. The absence of the great house does seem to rob this little place of some of its place in space and time; in history. But its legacy lives in the churchyard. For it leaves a little reminder of its life before it was lost.

LlanwernChurch

For the once former owner of the house and estate lies buried in this tiny churchyard. The large memorial obelisk stands tall and proud; an indicator of the man. For this man did not die in the war, but he did die during the war. Moreover he would play a very grand role in the Great War. So it seems right that I stumbled upon him. For stumble I did; upon this man of politics, industry and courage.

He counted his life not dear to himself

This is what is written on his grave memorial. His name – David Alfred Thomas.

He would become 1st Viscount Rhondda.

lordrhonddamemorial

The son of a coalmine owner and an industrialist, educated in Bristol and eventually on a scholarship at Cambridge, he learnt his father’s trade. He eventually became an MP. Politics got in the way of things and he retired as MP in 1910. But when war came to Britain, he took on a role given to him by David Lloyd George, Prime Minister to liaise with America as an emissary. He accepted no money for this – but he’d become increasingly successful with his ventures with the Cambrian Coalmines and had invested heavily in north America.

Then on May 7th 1915, as his daughter Margaret, his private secretary and himself were sailing back from the United States to Britain, the ship he was sailing was struck by a German torpedo fired by a U-boat. That ship was the Lusitania.

The Cunard liner RMS Lusitania sank eleven miles off the west coast of Ireland in eighteen minutes. Of the 1,959 people on board, 1,198 were killed. Only 761 people survived – David Thomas, his daughter Margaret (then married to a Mackworth) and his secretary Arnold Rhys-Evans all eventually made it to safety. His daughter Margaret, who herself was a real firebrand character, wrote of her experiences when Lusitania sank in her autobiography. (Which is in itself a worthy read as a self-proclaimed suffragist, women’s crusader and business leader.)

With weeks of his return back in Britain, David Lloyd George, the Prime Minister asked David if he would take on a role obtaining more munitions from America; so nervously he went back to the United States but his wife Sybil insisted she go along given what had happened last time. He was given the title of Baron Rhondda in 1916 for his work in the war, and was then given the role of President of the Local Government.  

He was then asked to become Minister of Food Control; which was a heavy role. He took it on, helping to organise and maintain the food supply urgently needed; which increasingly meant dependence on imports. He also became responsible for the introduction of rationing.

DavidAlfredThomasLordRhondda

He was made 1st Viscount Rhondda in 1918 commensurate with his vital and successful work on this most important aspects of home front. He brought order, fairness, an end to most profiteering and an organised system designed to help win Britain the war.

But by all accounts the work took its toll on his health and he died aged 62 years on the 3rd July 1918 at his home at Llanwern. His ashes were placed in Llanwern churchyard.

He was quite a man. An industrialist, liberal thinker and administrator. A quiet man, happy it seems at his home in Llanwern. Now gone to dust. But his monument lasts. Whilst men fought on frontlines, he fought to feed them; feed them all. Despite a torpedo and his decreasing health. Quite a man.

He fed the people of Great Britain when Germany promised that they should die of hunger, and that amazing achievement will be his monument.

The Sphere 13th July 1918

Lord Rhondda’s grave marker is perhaps the largest stone in the graveyard; it shyly dominates. More like a war memorial than a man’s memorial. But not far from the obelisk to his life, is a memorial to a man loved, I suspect, just as much.

In memory of

George Edward Whitby

Killed in action Aug 1915

and his wife

Jane Elizabeth

died March 31st 1967

Aged 76 years

Fifty two years after his death, a memorial was placed with the person who missed him most of all – his wife. That in 1967, long after the second of those world wars was done, during the swinging sixties – there were a few words placed about a man lost to time and far from home.

GeorgeEdwardWhitbyLlanwern

Private George Edward Whitby of the 1st Battalion Buffs (East Kent) Regiment was killed in action on the 9th August 1915. A search on the casualty lists decry something I always hope isn’t true but too often is – that George has no known grave. His name is written in perpetuity upon the Menin Gate in Ypres, Belgium. One of 54,000 of whom there is no grave to mourn.

George was born in Trowgreen, on the edge of the Forest of Dean near to where it tips into the Wye Valley. When war broke out in 1914, he was working as a timber man in the Cwmbran colliery and living at Llantarnam in Monmouthshire in Wales. Not uncommon when the industries of the Forest and the Valleys were so similar. Coal and wood.

He enlisted, as so many did, a month after the outbreak of war in September 1914 in Newport. He was 27 years old and was initially placed in the 40th Battalion Royal Garrison Artillery (R.G.A.) where he seems to have served at home or in reserve, perhaps because of his occupation. However in April 1915, George was transferred to The Buffs Regiment. Whether by personal decision to be in a frontline battalion or by accident, record cannot tell. But in July 1915 George Edward Whitby made landing in France. He would die within one month.

The 1st Battalion Buffs were a regular battalion before the war, so George may have been supplementing numbers after causalities in the first year of the war. But when he joined up with them, the 1st Buffs had been in and out of the frontline since September 1914. On the 9th August 1915, at 3.15 am, the 6th Division launched an attack along a 1,000 yard frontline, with the 2nd Yorkshire and Lancashire Regiment on the left of the attack, supported by the 1st Buffs. It seems entirely conceivable that George died perhaps in this advance.

George was married and left both his wife and his son when he went away to war.

His name perhaps sits upon the war memorial for those employed by Guest, Keen & Nettlefolds Ltd at the Cwmbran Colliery. But his memory lived longer perhaps with those who felt his loss more keenly. So much so that over fifty years later, his absence was still important to recognise and remember.

The unreturned army – remembered years, decades or half a century later.

 

 

 

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