On Christmas Day 1910, Owen Morgan married Louisa Dixon at Christ Church, Summerfield on the edge of the Edgbaston reservoir in Birmingham. This relationship started a family which is still going strong today, one hundred years and two world wars later.
Owen Morgan was the son of an Ivory Bone Turner and, according to the 1901 census, was the eldest of four children and was born a year before Queen Victoria’s grandson, Kaiser Wilhelm II ascended the throne of Germany in 1888.
Owen Morgan grew up and became a Smith’s Striker – a job that demanded great physical strength to repeatedly hammer away at the blacksmith’s metal. He was tall and blonde, and whilst in his early twenties, he met and presumably fell in love with a lady by the name of Louisa Dixon. In 1911, she gave birth to my nan, who would be their only child.
In June 1914, perhaps whilst this young family were in their tiny three room house in Icknield Port Road, a student in Sarajevo assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir apparent to the Austria-Hungary Empire. After one hundred years of relative peace in Europe, vast empires were now taking positions that would take Owen Morgan, and many more like him, away from their families forever.
Great Britain was not in an economic position for war, and was led by a liberal government dominated by pacifists. It was a nation troubled by many domestic issues – the vote for women and the tactics the suffragettes employed to win their cause; Ireland and the arguments about home rule and independence; industrial unrest and national strikes that needed military intervention to quell. It was a country demoralised by the sinking of the titanic in 1912, and the tragic attempt by Captain Scott to reach the South Pole before the Norwegians in the same year (although it took another year for the story to reach home).
The events leading up to war were complex, global and interconnected making it difficult to give a simple summary of the cause of the war. But it is clear that great countries and empires had been drawn into a war which involved soldiers from all over the world and included major battles across Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Ordinary people like Owen Morgan never stood a chance.
In all probability, Owen Morgan volunteered for war as there was no conscription until 1916. He was in the 2nd Battalion of The Border Regiment, and according to The Forces War Records¹³, they were stationed at Pembroke Dock from the 4th August, 1914, then moved to Lyndhurst before finally being mobilised for war and sent to Zeebrugge on the 6th October, 1914. He may have felt excited as he left the squalid conditions of Birmingham and headed towards the coast. This could have been his first ever trip to the sea, and his first break from work in years – paid holiday entitlement was still a rare privilege. The excitement may have been fused with sadness as he left the shores of England and with anxiety as his ship approached continental Europe and unknown enemy territory. Within two weeks of arriving in Belgium, he would have fought in the First Battle of Ypres. This battle would have given the volunteers – who may have had only limited training – their first taste of the horrors of war and might have provided an early indication that this war was going to be like no other. The fighting for this ancient Belgium port on the North Sea lasted until the bad weather arrived in November, by this time there had been heavy casualties.
Britain and France (the Allies) were lined up against Germany on the Western Front, which stretched from just north of Ypres in Belgium down to the Swiss Alps. Often referred to as the war of attrition, the two sides were locked in a stalemate that lasted years.
After reading some of the material listed in the bibliography below, I can imagine what the trenches might have been like for Owen Morgan. Despite appalling squalor, the trenches provided relative safety for the troops. Nevertheless, the horror was immense. Night time raids, sniper fire, disease, and battle slowly but surely killed and wounded unimaginable numbers of soldiers on both sides. This was the first war of the industrial revolution – fire power was a big influence. Men walking up and down the trenches would occasionally get picked off by a sniper’s bullet – the parapets offered no guarantee of protection. Later in the war the British soldiers were provided with tin hats – a brand new invention, and this reduced deaths of this kind. But an over stretched Britain, fighting war on more than just the western front, was struggling to provide sufficient weaponry, and the quality of that provided was often poor. The skilled workers in Britain were sent to fight and weapon production was left to unskilled men and women.
Previous wars of this kind lost most troops to disease and not to fighting; this was the first war that benefited from antiseptics and other medical advances. As a result disease was relatively well controlled. However, rotting corpses – both human and animal – well-manured fields, a lack of sanitation and trench rats meant that the slightest injury could result in serious infection. Amputations had to be executed in make-do theatres that were nothing more than a field or trench out of the firing line. An incredible ninety-five percent of British troops were infested with blood-sucking lice. This caused skin irritation, infection and typhus. Living in cold muddy fields left men with frost bite and trench foot. Perhaps worse than any of this were the poor men inflicted with serious burns. Make-do hospitals may have helped to ease the agony – if they were lucky; if they were unlucky, they were left to suffer out in the field – a slow tortuous death.
On the western side of the Allies’ trenches, vast open fields with dirt tracks linked the trenches to the tiny rural towns and villages of northern France. Men and horses would trudge across one way to the trench to continue fighting or deliver supplies, and back the other way for the odd weekend break away from the misery of the trench. According to The Forces War Records¹³, the Border regiment that Owen Morgan served in participated in The Christmas Day Truce of 1914. In places, the German and British trenches were quite close – close enough to allow opposing forces to exchange banter, songs and Christmas carols. Before the war, there were many Germans working in London restaurants, leading to shouts from the British trenches of ‘Waitor!’¹ There has been lots written about the truce and not all historians agree about the details, but it seems it was not one coordinated truce but rather a lot of separate and spontaneous truces at various points along the Western Front. They did not have the backing of the leaders on either side, but the truce gave troops an opportunity to bury their dead, to regroup, to see the enemy trenches and to take some light relief from the suffering. The troops exchanged gifts, sang songs, played football and created a heart-warming story in the middle of an horrific period in our history.
The war continued soon afterwards, and after months of stalemate, the British tried a different tack. On the morning of 10th March 1915, a massive artillery bombardment of the Germans at Neuve Chapelle began, and soldiers went over the trenches into no-mans land to mount a wide attack on the enemy. The idea was that those who penetrated the German defence would be supported from the sides by their fellow troops rather than attacked from the sides by their enemies. It was the bloodiest battle of the war at the time, and was faltered by a lack of real-time communication between the front line troops and their commanding officers.
Below is an edited extract from my Nan’s memoirs that she wrote in 1998 when she was eighty-seven years old:
My mother one day told me a little about my father. I had only seen pictures of him. He was a young, tall, blonde man. She said he used to call me his little missus and if he had lived he would have liked to have taken me swimming with him on Sunday mornings. I think he hoped I would be a boy but was happy I was a little girl. Mom said he loved me very much and she sent him a little gold locket with her photograph one side and mine the other with a curl of blonde hair of mine and he carried it in battle. He was killed at the Battle of Neuve Chapelle in France. A friend of his from the Black Watch regiment came to comfort my mother with the news that my father would have known no pain as he was killed instantly shot between the eyes. Mom said she’d sent him a parcel with chocolate and a pork-pie with egg – his favourite. This came back with his belongings, including the locket that was found on his body. My great grandmother had me a necklace made with a sixpenny silver piece with a scroll over it engraved in memory of daddy. When the large buff envelope came to report the death of my father my mother was very ill with Pneumonia, which in those days was a killer. They could not give her the news. She said she knew as she saw my father at the foot of her sick bed, his hand on the shoulder of mom’s friend and hearing him say take care of her Pem.
Owen Morgan’s death certificate shows he was ‘Killed In Action’ on the 11th March 2015, aged 28 and in France. His life may have been short, but the family he started is still going strong today. He is remembered with Honour at Le Touret Memorial (see pictures below), just outside Neuve Chapelle along with almost 13,400 other British troops who lost their lives in the area and who have no known grave. He is also remembered at The Birmingham Hall of Memory along with more than 11,000 other people from the city who lost their lives. He would have been entitled to three medals for service to his country. A ceramic poppy was planted in the grounds of the Tower of London along with one for every one of the 888,246 British soldiers who lost their lives in the First World War. These were part of the Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red display that took place between July and November 2014. His life was short, but it was also full of meaning and the sacrifice he made very much appreciated.
© Chris Robinson 2014. All rights reserved.
- Boyle, D. (2014) Peace on Earth: The Christmas Truce of 1914. Kindle Single. Endeavour Press.
- A&E Television Networks (no date) First Battle of Ypres, History. Available at: http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/first-battle-of-ypres (Accessed: 24 December 2014).
- Alexander, C. and Hurley, F. (1999) The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Journey to Antarctica. United Kingdom: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC.
- Ancestry.com. 1911 England Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011. (no date).
- Birmingham City Council (no date) Hall of Memory, Birmingham Roll Of Honour 1914 – 1918. Available at: http://www.hallofmemory.co.uk/search/results.php?name=morgan®iment=&rank=&honours=&bookid= (Accessed: 23 November 2014).
- Blackbourn, D. (2002) History of Germany, 1780-1918: The Long Nineteenth Century (Blackwell Classic Histories of Europe Series). United Kingdom: Wiley, John & Sons, Incorporated.
- Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red (no date) Historic Royal Palaces Tower Of London. Available at: http://poppies.hrp.org.uk/about-the-installation (Accessed: 24 December 2014).
- FAULKS, S. (1994) Birdsong. London: Random House Publishing Group.
- Ferguson, N. (2003) Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World. United Kingdom: Allen Lane.
- Commonwealth War Graves Commission (no date). Available at: http://www.cwgc.org (Accessed: 29 October 2014).
- Fraser, R. (2004) A People’s History of Britain – Rebecca Fraser – Paperback. Pimlico.
- Hopkins, E. (2005) Birmingham: The Making of the Second City 1850-1939. United Kingdom: Tempus Publishing, Limited.
- Record Details for Owen Morgan (Border Regiment) (no date) Forces War Records. Available at: https://www.forces-war-records.co.uk/records/1793744/private-owen-morgan-british-army-border-regiment/ (Accessed: 18 October 2014).
- Robinson, E. L. (1998) ‘Some Memories of an 87 year old’.
- Strachan, H. (2014) The First World War: A New Illustrated History. United Kingdom: Simon & Schuster Ltd. (see pages 3, 159, 170-173)