Remembering The Great War

St. Mary's - Brecon

After visiting the museum of the South Wales Borderers in Brecon - one of the finest in the country - an addition to a perfect day would be to walk just a few hundred yards into town and St. Mary`s. Early records of the church are not documented, but a circular pier in the north arcade is know to date from the twelth century.

Ninety-two names, including those of brothers and former pupils at Christ College, Brecon - Stephen, Frank and Arthur Best - are recorded on the base of a stone Celtic cross at the entrance to the church. These, together with the dedication: IN THANKFUL REMITTANCE OF THE MEN FROM THE PARISH OF ST. MARY'S BRECON WHO DIED IN THE GREAT WAR 1914-1918 (front side) appear on three of the four sides. A fourth having the words - "THANKS BE TO GOD".

A small brass plaque on the north side of the church commemorates the death in France (during the final months of the First World War) of another Christ College Old Boy - Francis Alfred Ismay Musk. It was on 27 August, 1918 that Private Musk formed up in St. Leger Wood with other members of the 2nd Coldstream. In hot pursuit of the enemy, the men had recently taken part in the fierce fighting around Bapaume, and were now about to play their part in the "Battle of the Scarpe". In his history of the Guards Division, Cuthbert Headlam, DSO, records how the Battalion`s task that day was "....a particular arduous one." The thick undergrowth and fallen trees greatly interfering with the movements of the troops as they advanced through the wood. Attacking eastwards at 7 am, the Coldstream were soon checked by heavy and deadly machine gun fire and little progress could be made.

Turning now to the War Diary of 1st Guards Brigade, we learn that at about 10 am the enemy then counter-attacked from roads south of Croisilles and subsequently forced a withdrawal. Other sources note fierce hand-to-hand fighting in and around the wood. Total casualties among the 2nd Coldstream for 27 August are recorded as three hundred and ten killed or wounded.

It would be Francis Musk`s mother who on 25 September, 1921, and in memory of her son, presented a framed Roll of Honour to the church. On the south aisle the Roll in its dark wood frame has the dedication:


Handwritten in fine copperplate, it goes on to records in three columns the names of fifty-one men - then the words:



Moving now to the west end of the church, and next to the ringing-chamber, we find another beautiful document in the form of an illuminated address to the Venerable Archdeacon Edward Latham Bevan - Chaplain to the Brecknockshire Battalion since he came to St. Mary's from the Gordon Boy's Home, Weymouth, in 1897:

From The Parents And Relatives Of The Men Of Brecon Belonging To The 1st Battalion, Brecknockshire Territorial Regiment, Beg Your Acceptance Of This Address Of Appreciation And Small Token Of Our Profound And Heartfelt Gratitude For The Unfailing Care And Kindness Shown By You To Our Loved Ones When At Duty's Call. They Went To Uphold Their Country's Honour Some Thousands Of Miles From The Dear Homeland.

It Was A Source Of Strength And Comfort To Us To Feel That You Were With Them And That In Perils Faced On Sea And Land They Had Someone To Lead Their Thoughts To The Great Father Who We Trust In His Good Time, Will Bring Them Safe Home Again.

We Pray That God May Be Pleased To Spare You For Many Years To Come, To Carry On Your Good Work For The Uplifting Of The Manhood Of Brecon, Fighting The Good Fight, Beneath The Blood-Stained Banner Of The Cross, Which Shall Lead Us All, At Length, To The Crowning Glory Of His Eternal Peace.

Beneath the address (which includes a pictorial scene of Aden, the battalion badge and Arms of Brecon) are recorded one hundred and five family names - sets of parents and other relatives of those members of the Brecknockshire Battalion that were serving overseas.

Formed in 1859, the Brecknocks were the only Territorial Force battalion of the South Wales Borderers. Chosing to be known by their county name rather than a numerical designation (as was the case in other regiments) the Battalion in 1914 was located: Headquarters and "A" Company at Brecon; "B" Company, Brynmawr; "C" Company, Crickhowell; "D" Company, Hay; "E" Company, Builth Wells, with a detachment at Llanwrtyd Wells; "F" Company, Talgarth, "G" Company, Cefn-Coed and "H" Company, Ystradgynlais, Brynamman and Seven Sisters.

Having volunteered for foreign service, the Battalion would be disappointed when it was not chosen to go to France. Instead it would be sent to undertake garrison duty in Aden - thus enabling a regular regiment to proceed to France from this important coaling station.

On 29 October, 1914, the Brecknockshire Battalion, now numbered as 1/1st Brecknockshire, sailed from Southampton on the Dilware. Arriving on 25 November, the Battalion would for its first months in Aden, enjoy a quiet time. Sickness, however, took its toll, and unused to the tropical climate of the area, four men would die from illness within the first half of 1915. Many others being invalided home.

In June, 1915, the Turkish Army adopted a more aggressive attitude and from their camps in the Yemen began a series of provoking attacks to the north. Subsequently, on 3 July, some four hundred of the 1/1st Brecknockshire Battalion set out for Lahej. Forming the main body of a force known as the "Movable Column", the detachment on its first day's march (six miles to Sheikh Othman) suffered badly from the heat - two men actually dying, while many others were forced to fall out, unable to continue. With another nineteen miles to go, what remained of the column pressed on. Only to incur many cases of heatstroke and leave just one hundred men fit for service upon arrival at Lahej.

Some action was seen at Lahej, the Brecknocks helping keep the advancing Turks from a defensive position that had been set up in a large walled garden. Soon, however, a withdrawal was ordered and the column fell back to the Khor Maksar lines, where, an account of the operation was undertaken. There had been thirty deaths from heatstroke (half of this number being men from the Brecknockshire Battalion); four of the Battalion were missing (one had been taken prisoner) and three were wounded. In addition to these casualties, many men were subsequently considered to be unfit for active service and were sent home. Those that remained were relieved by a battalion of the Buffs and on 5 August sailed for India. Reaching Bombay on the 11th, the 1/1st Brecknockshire Battalion were then sent to Mhow (where it would remain until August, 1919) - moving then to Calcutta. As a battalion, the only action seen by the Brecknocks would be that at the walled garden in Lahej. This gaining for the Battalion, and the South Wales Borderers, the battle honour "Aden."

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Copyright © Ray Westlake, August, 2002

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