Remembering The Great War

St Margaret's Church
Blackwood, Gwent

At the west end of the church, on the A4048 north of the town, a wooden tablet bears the inscription -

To The Glory Of God And In Memory Of Those Of This Parish Who Gave Their Lives In The Two World Wars 1914-1918 - 1939-1945.

There are twenty names listed, two of which are commemorated elsewhere in the church.

Percival Jones

On a brass plaque at the west end of the church, and below a Naval Crown -

To The Glory Of God & In Memory Of George Percival Jones Homleigh, Gordon Road, Blackwood, Mon. Petty Officer On H.M.S. Macedonia Who Died At Sea While Defending King And Country In The Great War October 28th 1918. Aged 24 Years. This Tablet Was Subscribed By The Officers & Men Of H.M.S. Macedonia. "Rest In Peace."

The Macedonia was an armed merchant cruiser. George Jones serving as a butcher and dying of pneumonia.

Sergeant James Herbert Spencer
[Image] The church bell bears the date - 2 June, 1916, and commemorates the loss exactly one year before of Sergeant James Herbert Spencer. Found by Mears & Stainbank of Whitechapel Road, London, the bell has the following inscription -

To The Glory Of God In Memory Of Sergt. J.H. Spencer, Who Was Gassed At Hill 60, France, June 2nd 1915, When Nobly Attempting To Save A Comrade.

James Spencer was a member Blackwood`s local Territorials, "H" Company of the 1st Monmouthshire Regiment, and sailed with them for France on 14 February, 1915. The Battalion had not been overseas long before volunteers were called for. These to form the nucleus of one of the first units of the British Army dedicated to a tunnelling role. Tunnelling had been in existence almost since the war had began. Certainly since the first trench lines were dug and the idea formed that would see men burrow below no man`s land towards the enemy.

Requiring special skills, the work was initially carried out by the Royal Engineers, but an increase in demand for this new type of warfare saw the formation early in 1915 of nine new "Tunnelling" companies. These numbered as 170th to 178th, thirty-eight men from the 1st Monmouthshire Regiment, together with others from Abergavenny`s 3rd Battalion, all experienced miners, provided the 171st.

As such, the volunteers, in March, 1915, began operations in two areas close to Ypres. A piece of high ground just south of the town at St. Eloi and known as "The Mound of Death," would be one location, another, a man-made prominence constructed with spoil from the cutting of the Ypres-Comines railway called "Hill 60", being the other. Scenes of horrific fighting, both these areas were fraught with danger. The Germans fully aware of the tunnellers` activities, constantly sweeping the ground with machine gun and shell fire. Below ground the work was vile. Corpses in various states of decay being discovered with every yard of digging.

The enemy were also digging. Their tunnels running close to the British would often be packed with explosives and detonated when work was being carried out. It was one such occasion that caused the death of Sergeant Spencer. A letter sent to his mother dated 4 June, 1915 gave details -

"Dear Mrs. Spencer, I am writing as your sons Officer Commanding at the moment, to express my sympathy with you and to inform you how he was killed. Your son was in charge of a party working up at the trenches on Wednesday evening. The Germans blew in one of our mines, burying one man and partly burying another. There was a large amount of poisonous gas in the mine at the time. Your son very gallantly went down to this end of the gallery to try and rescue one other man, but was overcome by the fumes, and when he was brought out of the gallery, was dead. He had been buried behind the trenches, and his grave marked by a cross. He was always conspicuous in the trenches for his zealousness and he met his end fearlessly and doing his duty as a soldier should. I can only again express my sympathy with you in your loss, yours sincerely - E. Wellesley, Capt. R.E., O.C. 171 Coy, R.E."

James Herbert Spencer. Note the dragon cap-badge and black buttons (as worn by Rifle regiments) of the 1st Monmouths. Also, worn on the right breast, the Imperial Service brooch introduced in 1908. This indicated a willingness to go overseas if required. Territorials were normally obligated to home service only.

The grave site mentioned, like many others in the area, was later lost. With no known grave, twenty-seven year old James Spencer`s name now appears on the Menin Gate Memorial at Ypres.

Headquarters of H Company, 1st Monmouthshire,
just yards from the church, c.1915

Headquarters almost unchanged

Copyright © Ray February, 2002

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