July 6 - 8 2016
Treorchy Male Choir's invitation to perform at the Centenary Commemorations of the Battle of Mametz Wood was undoubtedly the highlight of its 70 th anniversary year and one of the most prestigious engagements it has ever undertaken. The invitation came from the South Wales Branch of the Western Front Association with the financial support from the Welsh Government. Chairman of the branch, Philip Davies, made several visits to the Treorchy rehearsal room to finalise plans and it was obvious that the Choir would have a significant part to play in the proceedings in northern France.
Plans were in place to hold a major commemoration event in the shadow of Mametz Wood to honour the memory of the 38 th (Welsh) Division who fought there a century earlier. This would involve a full scale Remembrance Service featuring heads of state, church leaders and senior army personnel. The location of the ceremony would be at the iconic memorial to the 38 th (Welsh) Division. E rected in 1987 by Welsh sculptor David Petersen, the memorial is a Welsh red dragon on top of a three-metre stone plinth, facing the wood and tearing at barbed wire .
The Choir was asked to undertake a two-night visit to the Picardy region for the event which also included a concert in the nearby town of Albert on the evening of the service. It was with widespread excitement and a sense of great responsibility to uphold the memory of those who made the ultimate sacrifice a hundred years earlier, that choristers departed the Rhondda during the early hours of Wednesday July 6 for their journey to the south coast of England.
Bleary-eyed choristers boarded the two Mainline coaches from 3.30am onwards and with a short stop in an M4 service station, eventually reached the Dover ferry port by midday – during which time the late bus had consumed four boxes of Welsh cakes supplied by the families of Will Thomas and Arthur Miles! Choristers boarded the P&O “Spirit of France” ferry for the hour-long crossing to Calais, enjoying the opportunity of a few celebratory drinks in the bar.
Typically, word spread throughout the vessel that the Choir was on board and performances of “Let it be Me” and “I Bob Un” were requested from the growing audience of fellow travellers. The choristers also burst into “Happy Birthday” for Choir treasurer Jeff Priday who celebrated his 71 st birthday. It was amidst the atmosphere of sheer fun and enjoyment that the Choir reached northern France and were soon travelling through the beautiful countryside.
However it wasn't long before they glimpsed the sight of a first World War I cemetery standing proud in the lush green countryside which had once been a battlefield of unimaginable horrors. Thanks to the diligent work of the War Graves Commission, all of the cemeteries were meticulously well kept, not a blade of grass out of place it seemed. Yet the sight of those lines and lines of white graves, marking the names of brave men and boys, some of them innocent teenagers weighed heavily on the choristers' minds as the journey to the continued.
At 4pm the Choir reached its destination, the Holiday Inn Express on the Rue du Dr Brassart in Arras. The town was the centre of a battle involving the Welsh Guards during the Second World War. Arras is the capital of the Pas de Calais department, which is half of Nors Plas de Calais, France's fourth most populous region. It is located on the Scarpe River and the city's architecture and historic buildings have made it a popular tourist destination. Some famous attractions include the splendid Town Hall and its Belfry (listed as an UNESCO Word Heritage Site since 15 July 2005), the "Boves" (a maze beneath the city), the Squares ( La Place des Héros and La Grand'Place ), the Art District (the Theatre of Arras and the Hôtel de Guînes ), the Abbey District (The Saint-Vaast Abbey and the Cathedral of Arras), the Vauban Citadel, and the Nemetacum site - the ancient town founded by the Romans 2,000 years ago.
Choristers were keen to explore their surroundings once their suits were duly unpacked in their rooms and so, wearing their red polo shirts, they ventured into La Grand 'Plas. Chorister Norman Cox had undertaken a motorcycle holiday to the region and had already “scouted” out a suitable bar which could cater for the choristers on a rather special night. For this trip fell on the semi-final of the Euro 2016 football tournament.
Wales were about to undertake the biggest game in their history when they took on Portugal in Lyon for a place in the final of Euro 2016. Chris Coleman's side enjoyed a memorable run to reach their first semi-final at their only major tournament since 1958.
The Choir settled into the street-side café bar of the Le Saint Christophe, enjoying the warm welcome of their new French friends who supported their hopes for football victory! Before the 8pm kick off, the choristers gathered on the cobbles of La Grand ‘Plas and burst into song of “Calon Lan”, “Sospan Fach” and “Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau”. Shoppers, visitors and passers by stopped to listen to the Welsh men sing songs from their homeland under the baton of Jeff Howard. The performance of “Calon Lan” was filmed by the publicity officer Dean Powell and placed on the Choir's social media accounts. Within 24 hours the video had gone viral with 3,700 shares, 176,000 views and 558,000 people reached. The Choir certainly did themselves proud and also wished their team well in the semi-final confrontation.
Choristers watched the game on the outdoor screen, enjoying the fine wines, beers and food on offer from the helpful bar staff. As the sun slowly set, the atmosphere in this beautiful town square was one of tension, hopes and dreams of a Welsh win. W ales ' fairytale run at Euro 2016 ended with Cristiano Ronaldo and although the game was lost, there was still celebrations to be had on how far the Welsh had come in the tournament. It was with this in mind that the party-atmosphere of the evening continued until midnight when choristers slowly began to retreat to their hotel rooms.
On Thursday morning choristers were greeted with a continental breakfast in the lower ground floor of the hotel, before boarding the coaches for a 10am departure to Mametz. The hour-long journey once again brought the choristers into a flat landscape of cornfields dotted with war cemeteries every few miles on the side of the road. Eventually they drove into the village of Mametz and it was clear that this was a community that wanted to show its huge debt of gratitude to the Welsh people who had fought there a century earlier. Gardens, homes, lampposts, schools, churches and even the cars were festooned with Welsh and French flags, making it an emotional welcome to the area where the battle took place.
Travelling through a narrow country lane, the Choir reached the site of the Memorial overlooking the woodland in the distance and saw the large marquees, seating areas and plethora of television cameras in place for the 12noon start. All of them were present to pay tribute to the victims of war so many years before. As choristers wandered the area they began to get a real feel for the events of July 1916 when a s part of the Battle of the Somme, the 38th (Welsh) Division was detailed to capture Mametz Wood, the largest wood on the whole Somme battlefront.
It lay between the German front line trench system captured on 1 July and the second line trench system a few kilometres north. Nearly a mile wide and over a mile deep, Mametz Wood was made up of thick trees and dense undergrowth. It was almost impenetrable. The wood was heavily fortified and defended by the Lehr Regiment of the Prussian Guard.
The 38th (Welsh) Division was comprised of soldiers from several Welsh regiments, the Royal Welch Fusiliers, the South Wales Borderers and the Welsh Regiment. It was formed following an appeal by David Lloyd George to create a “Welsh Army” in response to the wave of “Empire” wide volunteering in the initial stages of the First World War. The battalions of the 38th (Welsh) Division were drawn from all over Wales and represented north, south, rural and industrial areas as well as men from the London Welsh. Of particular interest to the Treorchy choristers was the fact that two Rhondda Battalions were also included in the Division.
The Battle began on 7 July 1916, and lasted for five days as the Germans fiercely resisted the assaults of the Welshmen. The first attack was launched at 8.30am on the 7 July against a feature known as the “Hammerhead”. This attack was unsuccessful and despite three attempts the troops could not enter the wood. There were huge casualties in the 16th Welsh (Cardiff City) and the 11th South Wales Borderers. Over 400 casualties were sustained: many of those killed are buried in Flat Iron Copse Cemetery which is visible from the memorial.
Following this assault, General Phillips was removed from command on 9 July 1916 and plans were drawn up for a resumption of the attack on the wood to take place on 10 July. The Royal Welch Fusiliers attacked the southern edge of the wood along “Strip trench”, while the Rhondda, Carmarthen and Swansea battalions of the Welsh regiment attacked the eastern edge of the wood.
The attackers came under fire from machine guns in the wood and had to cross several hundred yards of open ground, suffering heavy casualties and were beaten back on two occasions. Following a third attempt they obtained a foothold in the Wood.
It had not been without cost. From the seven battalions that went into battle five commanding officers had been killed or wounded. Added to this the loss of many junior officers and NCO's, which resulted in the control of the thousands of men in the Wood becoming increasingly difficult.
Progress was good and by mid morning the Welsh held a line across the middle of the wood and the last of the reserves were committed.
By 6.30pm that day Welsh troops reached within 30 yards of the northern edge of the Wood and the hammerhead had been taken as the Germans were forced to withdraw. Fighting continued on the following day as the Germans tried to recover lost ground and the Welsh sought to consolidate. Gradually the Welsh managed to secure the whole of the wood before being relieved by fresh troops on 12 July. Over the five days of the battle, the wood was devastated as artillery shells fell continuously. Fighting was furious with hand to hand combat in many instances as men battled for every inch of ground. Casualty figures for the Welsh Division amounted to over 1,000 officers and men killed. The total casualties including the wounded amounted to 4,000.
The Choir – dressed in blazer, greys and striped ties - walked to the summit of the hill to see the Memorial for themselves and a tour photograph was taken before they returned to the field to line-up in preparation for the ceremony. It was a blissfully hot summer's day, but at times the heat was over powering as many choristers stood for almost two hours while the ceremony was underway.
The audience sat in rows of white seats below the hillside, facing the Memorial. At the foot of the hill was a row of chairs, a small stage and lectern where the official guests were invited to address the audience. It was here that the Choir enjoyed another prestigious moment when their Publicity Officer, Dean Powell was invited to lead the entire ceremony as Master of Ceremonies. It was a great honour for Dean and one he undertook with nervous apprehension!
The ceremony began with the arrival of the Band of the Royal Welsh led by Musical Director Denis Burton. Dean Powell opened the ceremony with a few words of welcome before the congregation was invited to perform “O Valiant Hearts”. This was followed by prayers from The Most Reverend Dr Barry Morgan, Archbishop of Wales.
A second hymn followed with “Jesus Love Of My Soul” before Dean welcomed the 38th (Welsh) Division Lieutenant-General Jonathon Riley CB DSO who gave a detailed account of the battle. He stated that more British men fell in the first 15 minutes of battle than had been killed in the 15 years at Afghanistan. It was a statistic that many failed to comprehend.
Dean then had the pleasurable task of welcomed the First Minister of Wales, The Rt Hon Carwyn Jones who thanked him personally. Mr Jones' address in English, Welsh and French was absolutely outstanding and he certainly caught the attention of the many hundreds of English, Welsh, French and German who were present.
A series of prayers then followed led by the Archbishop of Wales Dr Barry Morgan, Abbé Joel Dulin of Notre-Dame de Brebières, Albert and Rev Steven Whiting MBE CF, Military Chaplain. Treorchy Male Choir then joined forces with the Band of the Royal Regiment for a performance of O Iesu Mawr under the direction of Jeffrey Howard. Despite a lack of rehearsal, an outdoor performance and the overwhelming heat of the midday sun, the Choir gave a majestic performance of this beautiful Welsh hymn.
Phil Davies of the Western Front Association read St John's Gospel, Chapter 15 vs 7-17, followed by a prayer of thanksgiving and reconciliation to be given by Abbé Joel Dulin. It was a pleasure to hear a reading of A Mother's Letter by Marietta Crichton-Stuart, the great-granddaughter of the Marquis of Bute and granddaughter of Lord Ninian Crichton-Stuart who fell in battle.
The exhortation was read by Harold Evans and the bugle sounded The Last Post. It was then that the minute's silence was held, the completion of which was signalled by sounding of the Reveille. It was during those moments of silence and quiet reflection that the haunting sounds of the lark could be heard in the air. As a slight breeze blew through the microphone systems, it sounded as if artillery fire had begun, creating an even more sombre and reflective mood under the circumstances.
The Kohima Epitaph was read by Gareth Pennell of the Royal British Legion before a reading of “ Reflections on two visits to Mametz Wood 1916 & 1984' by Lance Corporal Harry Fellows” read by Professor Sir Deian Hopkin. Wreaths were laid by a variety of organisations at the Memorial and with final prayers and the four national anthems of Germany, France, Britain and Wales performed, Dean Powell closed the ceremony before the Band of the Royal Welsh departed, followed by the special guests and audience.
The sheer amount of media present at this event was testament to the high-profile it had attained in Wales and France. The Choir was delighted to be mentioned on the national news coverage and very grateful to the Western Front for the invitation to represent Wales in this way.
It had been a remarkable, emotional and deeply moving experience to have been part of such a prestigious event. The Choir was also honoured to lay wreaths at the Memorial. Chairman David Bebb was the first to lay a wreath on behalf of the Choir. He was followed by Norman Cox whose grandfather Ernest James Crabb fought at Mametz Wood and survived.
The last wreath was laid by Arthur Miles whose own father fought and survived the Battle of Mametz Wood. Arthur and the story of his father, Isaac Arthur Miles, received widespread newspaper, online, radio and even television coverage on the approach to the engagement that day. Arthur had been interviewed several times and clearly was proud of his father's heroism as he laid a wreath to his memory.
Choristers wandered back to their coaches, greeted by audience members, meeting Chelsea Pensioners, being approached by politicians including Leanne Wood and even Neil Hamilton, on their way. It was also an opportunity to step into the cornfields and pick poppies of their own, to be pressed inside the covers of the programme of service and kept in remembrance
The coaches travelled for just a few short miles, choristers quietly reflecting on the overwhelming experience of the morning and realising their role in such an historic event. On reaching the Poppy Restaurant they enjoyed a four course lunch including beef bourguignon or pork, coupled with plenty of wine, cheese and delicious desserts. Some of the choristers journeyed to Albert – the location of the evening concert – while many decided to return to Arras for the opportunity to shower, freshen up and change into their grey suits and black shirts.
Eventually the Choir gathered outside the magnificent Basilica Notre Dame du Brebierre in the heart of Albert. Originally a Roman outpost, it is best known today as the location of the Battle of the Somme. ased on a legend, in mediaeval times a shepherd is said to have discovered in the fields a miraculous statue of the Virgin, which attracted regular pilgrimages. Neo-byzantine in style, the church was designed by the Picard architect Edmond Duthoit and built between 1885 and 1895. After the terrible damage inflicted during the war it was rebuilt between 1927 and 1929 by the original architect's son and grandson. During World War I, the statue of Mary and the infant Jesus – designed by sculptor Albert Roze and dubbed the Golden Virgin – on top of the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Brebières was hit by a shell on January 15, 1915, and slumped to a near-horizontal position, where however it remained until further shelling in 1918 destroyed the tower and its remains were never found.
Choristers ventured inside this absolutely magnificent cathedral, and wereoverwhelmed by the sheer majesty and beauty of it. A short rehearsal was held where it was obvious to all in attendance that the acoustics of such a fine building would help make the evening concert a memorable one. This was indeed true. Almost 400 people filled the cathedral for the concert, including many of the dignitaries who had attended the ceremony earlier in the day, such as the Archbishop of Wales, Professor Sir Deion Hopkins, Marietta Crichton-Stuart and Abbe Joel Dullin. The Choir walked to the steps of the altar and prepared for the first musical onslaught of “Builth”. Without an accompanist on this tour, it fell on the shoulders of Conductor Jeff Howard to not only play the keyboard but also conduct the Choir at the same time. The incredible volume of the hymn in such a magnificent place of worship, set the standard of what would be one of the finest concerts in the history of the Treorchy Male Choir.
Dean Powell acted as MC for the evening, speaking only four times in the concert to allow choristers a short break in between the performance of items. The programme continued with “Y Darlun”, “Cwm Rhondda”, “Eli Jenkins' Prayer” and “Myfanwy”. Many of the French members of the audience were particularly overjoyed to hear “Plasir D'Amour”, while the performance of “Lords Prayer” in this glorious setting was breathtaking. The first half concluded with the rousing “Calon Lan”.
A short interval followed before Jeff Howard led his musical troops into the “March of the Men of Harlech” which again thrilled the capacity crowd. “My Love is Like a Red Red Rose” was followed by two of the most emotional items in the entire programme.
The first was “Roses of Picardy”, rehearsed and performed in preparation for this special occasion. With Ray Daniels as soloist and Dean Powell as narrator, the rendition was absolutely outstanding, causing cheers and loud applause from the audience. This was followed by the incredibly moving “For the Fallen”, the words of which captured the entire mood of the day.
Phil Davies of the Western Front was invited onto the stage to receive a Choir plaque from Chairman David Bebb and gave his vote of thanks to all those who had made it such an unforgettable day. The Choir continued with “You Raise Me Up”, their debut performance of “La Mer” and the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” which brought the audience to its feet. With “Gwahoddiad” as an encore and the national anthems of “Le Marseilles” and “Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau”, the Choir concluded their concert safe in the knowledge they had given one of the very best performances.
The journey to Arras was one of celebration and profound satisfaction as choristers realised they had given of their very best. On returning to the hotel many changed into casual clothing and returned to Le Grand Plas where they were greeted by an incredible party-like atmosphere as French football supporters celebrated their win over Germany that evening. Cars beeped their horns up and down the streets, flags were flown, impromptu singing, fire crackers exploded in the streets. The celebratory mood was something many of the choristers had never experience in their lives. It was an evening of drinks, enjoyment and typical Treorchy camaraderie.At 10am on Friday morning the Choir departed Arras and reached the Calais ferry terminal in time to catch the 1.35pm “Spirit of Burgundy” ferry back to Dover. Once on board the Choir settled into the bar and again entertained the enthusiastic travellers with “Let It Be Me” and “Gwahoddiad” before reaching the English coast. The heavy motorway traffic caused plenty of delays on the return journey but it allowed “Captain Clec”, Daryl Stacey to read the “Bing Bong” Awards for the greatest errors and mishaps which took place on the trip. Eventually the coaches reached The Hatchet Inn at Newbury for an end-of-tour drink. It was here that chorister Jonathan Stanton bought every chorister a drink in memory of his dearly departed brother David who certainly would have loved every minute of this tour.
The journey home continued, reaching the valley after 9pm as weary choristers bid each other a fond farewell until the next rehearsal. This had been a deeply emotional journey for many of the choristers. For some it was a personal pilgrimage to remember their forefathers. For most it was the opportunity to pay tribute to those many thousands who laid down their lives a century ago.
“They shall grow not old
As we that are left grow old
Age shall not weary them
Nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun
And in the morning
We will remember them”
Lest we forget.
July 6 - Le Grand Plas
July 7 - Mametz Wood
July 7 - Basilica Notre Dame de Brebierre, Albert