Ellis Humphrey Evans (Hedd Wyn—the shepherd poet of Passchendael) was born in Trawsfynydd, Meriionydd in 1887 to Mary and Evan Evans. Although he only received a basic education, Ellis developed an early interest in poems, encouraged by his father who enjoyed poetry and bought him a book of Welsh verse. In the still of the night when everyone else had gone to bed, Ellis would write poetry. He was awarded the main literary prize when only 12 at the Ebenezer Chapel where the family worshipped. He won his first Chair at the Bala Eisteddfod in 1907. Ellis’ ultimate goal was to win the Natinal Eisteddford and to fulfil his ambition, he competed in many literary competitions. It was at a bardic gathering in Blaenau Ffestiniog in 1910 that the local poet Humphrey Jones gave him the bardic name of Hedd Wyn: ‘Hedd’ the Welsh for peace and ‘Wyn’ belled, although it can mean white or pure. Jones recalled that Ellis ‘had the appearance of a dreamer and he moved slowly and calmly’. His fame began to spread in 1913 amongst literary circles, when he won his second Chair at the Lanuwchllyn Eisteddfod, as well as his third at Pwllheli and lesser prizes.
Hedd Wyn – had fallen on the first day of the Third Battle of Ypres, better known as Passchendaele on 31st July 1917. Seven months earlier, the 30-year-old Gwynedd farmer had been conscripted at Blaenau Ffestiniog. According to his nephew, Gerald Williams, the poet had no wish to fight, but had little choice.
“When the second child on a farm came to the age of 18, the eldest son had to go – had to go, they had no choice,” said Mr Williams. “Ellis had to go to war.”
He was sent to the Litherland Camp near Liverpool for training, coincidentally, it is claimed, at the same time as another World War One great poet – Siegfried Sassoon.
In March and then in July, he returned to the family farm – Yr Ysgwrn – to help with ploughing duties, and then hay-making.
His nephew said the poet overstayed his leave in June, and was arrested for being absent without leave, before being shipped out to France with the 15th Royal Welsh Fusiliers.
He joined his battalion at Nord-Pas-de-Calais at the beginning of July, where he finished and posted his poetic masterpiece, Yr Arwr – The Hero, to the Eisteddfod.
Just two weeks later, at dawn on 31st July, he went over the top.
“I’ve heard many say that they were with Hedd Wyn and this and that – well I was with him – as a boy from Llanuwchllyn and him from Trawsfynydd,” recalled Simon Jones, a veteran of the battle, who trained and fought with the poet.
In an interview in 1975 for St Fagans National Museum of History in Cardiff, the old soldier described what happened.
“I saw him fall and I can say it was a nosecap shell in his stomach that killed him. You could tell that,” he said. “You couldn’t stay with him – you had to keep going, you see. He was going in front of me and I saw him fall on his knees and grab two fistfuls of dirt. Well, there was nothing but dirt there, you see. The place was all churned up. There was nothing I could have done to help him. Nothing at all. No. There were stretcher-bearers coming up behind us, you see,” he stated. “You’d be breaking the rules if you went to help someone who was injured when you were in an attack. vYour business was to keep going. To be honest, you had no time to sympathise because you didn’t know whether you’d be in the same situation as him in a couple of yards.”
The fatally wounded poet was taken to a nearby first-aid station. He died at about 11:00 – one of 25,000 British casualties in the first day of the battle to take Pilckem Ridge. By November, when the offensive was over, estimates put British dead or wounded at up to 275,000, with another 200,000 or more on the German side.
At the National Eisteddfod, the man responsible for leading the war effort, Prime Minister David Lloyd George, was sitting with the crowd for the chairing ceremony. “In dead silence, it was announced that the successful poet was ‘Hedd Wyn’ – the shepherd poet from Trawsfynydd. No words can adequately describe the wave of emotion that swept over the vast audience when the chair was draped with the symbols of mourning, and when Madame Laura Evans Williams was called on to sing the chairing song, there was hardly a dry eye in the place” reported The Cambrian News and Merionethshire Standard.
The Black Chair – Y Gadair Ddu – was taken by train to Hedd Wyn’s home at Trawsfynydd. A crowd assembled at the station and formed in procession which, headed by several bards, proceeded to the village hall, where a memorial meeting was held. It’s ironic to note that the chair itself was made by a man fleeing the conflict in Belgium, refugee, Eugeen Vanfleteren. There is a memorial statue of Hedd in the centre of the village of Trawsfynydd.
The chair now resides at the farm where Hedd Wyn lived, which is now a newly-refurbished museum and visitor centre to remember both the poet and the sacrifice of his community during the Great War. “Hedd Wyn symbolises the rest of the boys that were lost,” said his nephew, who still lives on the farm grounds. “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.”