The centenary of the start of the battle at Passchendaele carries a particular poignancy in Wales. Amongst the first wave of casualties was Ellis Humphrey Evans, a farmer from Trawsfynydd in the foothills of Snowdonia, who wrote poetry as Hedd Wyn, and whose poem “Yr Arwr” – “The Hero”, would have seen him receive the Bardic Chair at the 1917 National Eisteddfod. Ironically Hedd Wyn translates as Blessed Peace, but it is clear that the reluctant soldier found little peace or blessing amidst the mud and squalor of First World War Belgium.
There is, however, an enduring and heart-rending beauty in the poetry that Evans left behind, and which is exemplified in his poem titled “War” (this translation by Louis Flint Ceci) :
Alas, this is an age so mean
That everyman is made a Lord,
For all authority’s absurd
When God himself fades from the scene.
As quick as God is shown the door
Out come the cannons and the sword:
Hate on hate on brother poured
And scored the deepest on the poor.
The harps that once could help our pain
Hang silent, to the willows pinned.
The cry of battle fills the wind
And blood of lads–it falls like rain.
In common with other First World War poets, Evans struggles to reconcile the peaceful orderliness of the world he has left behind, with the godless devastation of the battlefield. The observation that the suffering and pain of war falls disproportionately heavily on the poor and least powerful, is one that is repeated throughout the poetry of the time (and has been borne out in every conflict to the present day).
The senseless loss that is represented in Passchendaele is perhaps best described by Evans’ cousin, Gerald Williams, who still lives near the Gwynedd farmhouse that Evans’ was forced to leave on conscription : “All the cream of the young men had been killed – a whole generation wiped out – for what? I don’t know – it doesn’t make sense whatsoever. I don’t understand war at all.”