Somme and Alun Menai Williams
My father James Flynn was on the Somme 90 years ago. A patriot, he had added a few months to his age to become a soldier in the first year of 1914 - 1918 war. He was a machine gunner. Both sides regarded them as pariahs because of the numbers of lives that they took. The canard was that neither the Germans nor British would spare a machine gunner. They would be killed and not taken prisoners.
My father was shot in the leg. He was marooned in a foxhole in no-mans-land and could not escape from his gun. He heard a German speaking group approaching. He took his rosary and he said his 'Hail Mary's”, with his eyes shut. He waited for the bullet. It never came. The officer leading the group was a Catholic. My father believed that his rosary beads saved his life. The officer ensured that my father was well treated and he was dispatched to a hospital camp for the rest of the war. The officer was from Cologne. His name was Paul.
His wound cast a shadow over the rest of his life. Never again could he do what he called a “man's job.” Any occupation that did not call for physical strength, he judged to be demeaning. Work was spasmodic and unsatisfying, including heartbreaking spells trying to sell the 'Golden Knowledge' encyclopaedia. It was an impossible task to persuade enough people to invest in the 12 volumes during the slump of the thirties. Mother remembered with bitterness watching his daily repeated humiliation of a man who could not make a living wage for his family.
In the mid thirties my father suffered his cruellest blow. The inadequate family income was shored up by a pension for his war wound. The Government were out to reduce costs. His war pension was reassessed and cut. The justification was that his health problems were judged henceforth not to be 'attributed' to his war wounds, but to have been 'aggravated' by them. He went to war as a healthy sixteen year and he was shot. Aggravated?
The injustice of this decision was a grievous blow. It happened in the week when Armistice Day was remembered by the great and good. With tears in their eyes, they stood in tribute to our war heroes. Meanwhile the heroes were being cheated of the pittance doled out by an ungrateful Government.
He died a few weeks after the outbreak of the Second World War. At first hand, I recall none of the bitterness. My memory is a rumbustious, lovely man who brought fun and laughter to any company he joined.
93 and computer literate
Today (3rd July 2006) the sad news is announced that Huw Menai Williams has died. I visited him in April and wrote this in my e-newsletter:-
That's the delighted claim made by Alun Menai Williams, Wales' last surviving volunteer in the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil war.
I braved the snow on Sunday morning to visit him in his home at Colcot Barry. Here is deeply happy man. He describes his material life as being as good as a millionaire because he has everything he wants - 'a nice home, lots of friends to visit and everything he wants in life.' He lost his beloved wife Maud three years ago and told me that he would not have written his book without her. She had long asked him to write the story of his remarkable life. 'From Rhondda to Ebro' is a moving exciting account of his early life in the poverty of a mining family in the Rhondda in the first years of the last century.
He came close to losing his life when he was buried in shale up to his neck in a mining accident as a young boy. He witnessed sudden death on the battlefields in Spain. As a 'medic' he bound up the wounds of ex TGWU General Secretary Jack Jones another one of the handful of survivors of the International Brigade.
He feared returning to Spain because of the memories that would be churned up. 'Some I enjoy but some memories come screaming at me like demons'. He is glad that he returned because he has laid some of those demons to rest.
'There are no heroes in war” he told me, 'we are all frightened. Heroism is just by chance.” Asked what he would do if he were Prime Minister today he said ' I would bring the boys home from Iraq and Afghanistan. We cannot solve their problems. They must find their own solutions.'
“My political heroes are Attlee, Nye Bevan and Tony Benn. I also liked Macmillan. I like Tony Blair when he was first elected I thought with this thumping majority we are going to change the world. We could have done anything. We could have ruled forever. We threw the chance away.”
Alun Menai Williams, miner and soldier: born Gilfach Goch, Glamorgan 20 February 1913; married 1944 Maude Goldie (died 1998; one son); died Cardiff 2 July 2006.
Among the 2,000 British volunteers who took up arms in defence of the legitimate Spanish Republic against the insurgent Franco and his Fascist forces between 1936 and 1939 there were 174 Welshmen, of whom most were miners, and 33 of them were killed in the conflict.
Alun Menai Williams survived only by luck, a powerful physique and a steely determination to do all he could to help thwart the Nationalists' attack on the democratically elected government of Spain. The young man who had been buried in a roof-fall underground - he had been a collier - found himself swimming for his life when the boat carrying him and a few dozen of his comrades into Barcelona was torpedoed and most of them were drowned. "Lady Luck was always on my side," he would say wryly.
After leaving the mines - work was scarce in his native Gilfach Goch, a small valley in the East Glamorgan coalfield - he joined the Army in 1931 and served in the Royal Army Medical Corps. In his autobiography, From the Rhondda to the Ebro (2005), he describes the animus he felt towards his often unemployed father, a minor poet who wrote under the name Huw Menai, castigating him for his dreamy ways and, in particular, his failure to put food on the table for his wife and children.
Later the young Williams made his way to London, where he took part in the famous demonstration against Oswald Mosley's Blackshirts in Cable Street on 4 October 1936, in which he was badly injured and saved from almost certain death by his brother. The civil war in Spain offered this idealistic young man a chance for adventure in a cause to which he was instinctively drawn.
Crossing the Channel thinly disguised as a tourist and then making his way by train and foot to Perpignan and thence to the Spanish border, he had only a week's training before joining the British Battalion which was attracting left-wingers like him. At the battle of Jarama he served as a First Aider, tending the wounded and comforting them by his cheerful and gentle manner.
He saw action mainly in the Sierra Pandol and along the Ebro. Food and water were scarce, they were poorly equipped and short of ammunition and medical supplies. The ground was so hard they were unable to dig trenches. He served in a field hospital in a cave high in the Sierra, where he witnessed the most horrific scenes. After some of the fiercest fighting of the war, he escaped the advancing Nationalist army by swimming the Ebro under machine-gun fire, despite being shot in the leg, and left a hundred men of his group dead or wounded in the water.
Eventually captured, he spent the rest of the war in Franco's jails, though he took part in the farewell parade in which the Brigades were addressed by La Pasionaria, leader of the Spanish Communist Party:
You are history. You are legend . . . We shall not forget you, and, when the olive tree of peace puts forth its leaves again, mingled with the laurels of the Spanish republic's victories - come back!
Alun Menai Williams felt unable to return while the dictator was still alive and it was not until 2005 that he made the journey back to the dreadful scenes which had stayed so vividly in his memory. Accompanied by his only son, this frail old man was filmed visiting a memorial to the International Brigaders at which he was able to lay to rest the ghosts which had plagued him for 70 years.
On the grave of Harry Dobson, a Welsh miner who had been shot as he stood at Williams's side, he placed some lumps of coal and, with tears in his eyes, gave the clenched-fist salute as "The Internationale" was sung.
He was touched, too, by the presence at the ceremony of Geoff Cowling of the British Council who saluted the bravery and dedication of the Brigaders. "About bloody time too," someone was heard to mutter.
Alun Menai Williams also took part in the ceremony at which a plaque to the memory of those Welshmen who died in Spain was unveiled at the South Wales Miners' Library in Swansea in 1976, largely on the initiative of Hywel Francis, now the Labour MP for Aberavon.
He may not have been as prominent as some other ex-Brigaders such as Tom Jones of Shotton or Lance Rogers of Cefn-coed (both now dead), but his Republican ardour was undimmed. What made him bitter was the fact that the British and French governments had refused to intervene in the conflict, thus providing Franco, Hitler and Mussolini with an opportunity to rehearse the atrocities of the Second World War.
"We lost because of the democracies," he said, "and that always stuck in my gullet."