First World War Network member Meilyr Powel received a collaborative research grant from the network to undertake a co-production with a non-academic partner. In this blogpost, Meilyr discusses his work with Cyfarthfa Castle Museum in Merthyr and the men who are commemorated on the museum’s memorial plaque.
Sometime in 2018 Peter Strong, a member of Gwent branch of the Western Front Association came across a discarded war memorial plaque in a second hand shop and decided to purchase it. After contacting my supervisor, Dr Gethin Matthews, at Swansea University regarding its existence, we decided to apply for the First World War Network Collaborative Research Grant in order to rehouse the memorial as a permanent exhibition at Cyfarthfa Castle Museum, Merthyr. We succeeded in the grant application and I got to work researching the names of the three men named on the memorial plaque.
David Albert Stephens, Archie Vincent Evans, and Thomas Glyn Nicholas were all members of Elizabeth Street Presbyterian Church, Dowlais. The church itself was built in 1876 but was destroyed in the 1960s so it no longer stands. The church’s pastor at the outbreak of war, Reverend Thomas James, joined the Royal Army Medical Corps and managed to serve at both French and Italian fronts during the war.
For the three men on the plaque, their service was quite different. David Albert Stephens, a stoker in the local iron works and originally from Llandovery in Carmarthenshire, joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve in April 1915. He was soon assigned on board the HMS Invincible, the first battlecruiser to be built in the world, and launched in 1907. Stephens would be killed in the largest naval battle of the war at Jutland in May 1916, leaving his wife Catherine to raise his two young children, Katie and Thomas, alone.
After arriving at the battle at the vanguard of Jellicoe’s Grand Fleet and engaging the SMS Wiesbaden and SMS Lützow, the Invincible was hit in the turret amidships, detonating the magazines below, and causing a huge explosion, splitting the ship in two before sinking. It took just 90 seconds for the Invincible to sink. Out of a crew of 1,032 officers and men, only six survived. One reference notes Albert as a gunner, and it’s worth noting that the Invincible was one of the best firing ships at the battle. The local newspaper reported Albert’s death and described him as ‘a champion of the weak’ before commenting: ‘No death could be more fitting for such a hero in an engagement with the odds three to one against.’ Albert’s name also appears on the Plymouth Naval Memorial.
For Archie Vincent Evans, it appears that he was conscripted to the Army in 1916. Born in Treorchy to father, Thomas, and mother, Henrietta, he worked as a grocer’s assistant in Dowlais before conscription. He had three younger brothers, Tom, Trevor, and Harold. Archie joined the 9th Battalion Royal Fusiliers (City of London Regiment), which was part of 36th Infantry Brigade, 12th (Eastern) Division, one of Kitchener’s New Army divisions initially raised from volunteers.
In October 1916, 12th Division was preparing for an attack at Le Transloy in the Gueudecourt sector on the Somme. Archie’s battalion, as part of 36 Brigade, would take a leading role in an attack to capture the German position called Bayonet Trench, defended by the German 36th Regiment (Magdeburg) Fusiliers. With Archie in ‘C’ Company, the battalion’s war diary recorded the attack:
Contrary to expectations, very heavy machine gun and rifle fire was encountered immediately the first line reached the top of the ridge, also very heavy shelling. The three front Companies and two platoons of the supporting Company were practically decimated by the fire. B Company apparently swung out to their right to get into touch with A. Company and were enfiladed by two machine Guns (…)
The first objective was not reached by any company.
In this attack Archie was killed. His battalion lost nine officers and 313 other ranks that day, 190 of them killed and missing. On confirmation of Evans’ death, the Merthyr Express described him as ‘a quiet unassuming fellow’, ‘well-liked by all who knew him’ and ‘an active member of Elizabeth Street Presbyterian Church’. He was 24 years old. The date of the newspaper report was 30 June 1917: eight months after he was killed. His body was never recovered and his name appears on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme along with over 72,000 others.
The third name on the war memorial plaque is that of Thomas Glyn Nicholas. Thomas was the son of Thomas Richard and Mary Jane Nicholas, and brother of Rees and Dilys. His father was the manager of Lloyd’s Bank and his brother, Rees, a bank clerk. Born in Llandysul in Carmarthenshire, his family, like D. Albert Stephens, had moved to the more industrial area of the south Wales valleys. On 15 July 1915, Thomas received his commission as a Second Lieutenant and was assigned to the 18th Battalion Welsh Regiment. He was soon attached to the 14th Battalion Welsh Regiment, the Swansea Pals, part of the 38th (Welsh) Division.
On 18 February 1917 the Division was at the Ypres Salient, with Thomas’ battalion in Brigade Reserve, having been replaced on the front line four days earlier by the 15th Battalion Welsh Regiment. The Hilltop Sector, East Canal Bank, where Nicholas was stationed, had been familiar ground for the 14th Welsh since early September 1916, the battalion having rotated between the front line and reserve areas regularly since then. On a seemingly innocuous evening working party Thomas was killed, the only casualty recorded by the battalion that day. He was just twenty years old and is buried at Bard Cottage Cemetery in Belgium.
The money from the First World War Network Collaborative Research Grant allowed me to work with Chris Parry at Cyfarthfa Castle to form a permanent exhibition where the war memorial plaque is displayed.
As part of the exhibition, two large bilingual information panels were produced; one outlining briefly the story of the three men, and the other providing more information on war memorials and their purpose. In addition to the information panels, a booklet was produced too, with much more detailed information on the men named on the plaque.
Most of the money from the First World War Network grant was spent on the information panels, booklet, booklet stand, and copyright of several images used. I also paid a small fee to the Fusilier Museum for their assistance in researching Archie Vincent Evans after getting a little stuck myself, and it helped cover travel expenses to the National Archives and a few trips to Merthyr for meetings.
The display is exhibited in a corridor at Cyfarthfa Castle Museum alongside other local memorials and opposite an exhibition on Merthyr and the First World War.
I also decided as part of the project that we would hold a public event to officially unveil the display at the museum. Efforts were made to trace down present relatives of the men who may have been able to attend but, sadly, to no avail. For the public event, I suggested Gethin and myself would give short talks on war memorials and the plaque itself, giving the stories of the three men. On Chris’ suggestion we also decided to include a couple of the local history group to give talks on Merthyr and the First World War.
The event was advertised to the local history groups and an afternoon of talks was held at Cyfarthfa Castle on Saturday 4 May where we officially unveiled the display of the war memorial plaque. Some of the grant money was used to purchase light refreshments for this event. Feedback on the event was very positive.
Being a collaborative project I must thank a number of people and organisations for their help and / or permission on certain issues. Thanks to: First World War Network; Chris Parry and Cyfarthfa Castle; Dr Gethin Mathews; Peter Strong; Steve Brewer; David Collier; Imperial War Museum; National Museum Wales; Fusilier Museum.
Personally I have found the project very rewarding. I appreciate the opportunity given to me at this stage of my academic career to undertake a project which had public engagement at its heart. I have certainly benefitted from the experience and have learned valuable skills along the way. Thank you again for the opportunity; I hope the display goes some way to properly commemorate the three young men named on the plaque.