As we commemorate the centenary of the First World War there is a hyper-abundance of media-attention and a plethora of TV dramas, documentaries, plays, albums, shows, and so forth, flogging a dead war horse… One could be forgiven for a certain fatigue – and we’ve got four more years of it to go! Yet there are some stories that break open the heart.
An especially resonant one for me is that of Hedd Wyn.
‘Hedd Wyn’ was the bardic name of Ellis Humphreys Evans, a Welsh farmer-poet, who won the 1917 Bardic Chair of Birkenhead posthumously (a prize given in an Eisteddfod, the original ‘Game of Thrones’ if you will). Having had some success in previous eisteddfodau (but not the National Welsh one – the most prestigious) Ellis enlisted, having resisted the Call Up for three years. He was not opposed to War, he said, but didn’t relish the thought of killing a man. Because his parents had four sons of age, it was decided by the War Office that one of them must be sent to the Front. Although Ellis, the eldest, did not want to go, he couldn’t bear his younger brother going in his stead. Ellis felt it his duty, as big brother, to step up. Tragically, he was slain in action, but not before he had submitted a long poem to the National Eisteddfod. Fortunately the censors let it pass (though it was initially suspected of being written in code and revealing sensitive information – in fact it was a cri-de-coeur against the inhumanity of all war). The adjudicators decided that it was the best poem, and awarded the Chair – a beautiful carved ‘throne’, to the poet known only under his pseudonym, ‘Hedd Wyn’. He was killed in action before he was able to claim his Chair, but it was awarded post-humously in his honour and became known as the Black Chair.
In 1992 a moving film was released of his story – Hedd Wyn — and it went on to be Oscar-nominated for the Best Foreign-language Drama (it is in Welsh, with English subtitles), as well as winning a BAFTA for Best Picture, and a string of other awards.
Last night, a special Remembrance Sunday screening was held at Hawkwood College, Gloucestershire. The Bardic Chair of Hawkwood was present – an original Eisteddfod Chair from the 1882 contest in Denbighshire. This has been in the family of Richard Maisey for decades, and he has kindly lent it to Hawkwood for the contest, which is to be held at the Open Day, May Day Bank Holiday Monday 2015. The theme is ‘Flood’ and any original poem, song or story by a GL5 or GL6 resident is eligible. Richard said a few words about the Chair, and I introduced the film. Afterwards we had a discussion about some of the issues raised by the heart-rending drama. Considering the countless voices that were silenced by the vast tragedy of the Great War – all those who didn’t make it back from the Trenches, or were injured beyond repair mentally or physically – it was felt that our opportunity to express ourselves creatively is a ‘sacred gift’ that shouldn’t be squandered. Many good men and women have died so we can have that freedom. Peace always comes at a price – and this time of Remembrance is a poignant moment to reflect upon that. To pray for peace. Watching Hedd Wyn I once again felt how could we possibly have let this happen again? Such an exercise in futility as the ‘War to End All Wars’ was, the obscenity of war should not be allowed by civilized people to ever happen again – and yet it has, again and again. By telling these true stories I hope we can make people say No! to all acts of aggression, to the Arms Trade, and the whole industry of aggrandizing War and those who fight in it. Violence is never the solution. There is always another way.
And if we forsake our creativity in the face of conflict then we have forsaken our humanity.
Observe the 2 minutes’ silence at the anniversary of the Armistice, 11th November, 11am GMT, and remember all victims of war. Make a donation to the Peace Pledge Union to support the ongoing campaign for peace.