At this poignant time of commemorating the Battle of the Somme, a service of commemoration and reconciliation has taken place at the memorial to Welsh soldiers killed during the battle of Mametz Wood in northern France 100 years ago.
The 38th (Welsh) Division attacked Mametz Wood between 7 and 14 July 1916, with more than 4,000 of them killed or injured. The battalions were drawn from all over Wales and represented north, south, rural and industrial areas, as well as men from the London Welsh.
As part of this commemoration medals that were awarded to Private Thomas Lewis, from the collections of the Regimental Museum of the Royal Welsh (Brecon) have travelled out to the battle field site with his Great-Grandson, Major Howard Smith who also went on to be a soldier serving with 1st The Queen’s Dragoon Guards.
At High Wood , The Somme, 8th September 1916; Private Thomas Lewis carries out an act of gallantry finding himself in No Man’s land to rescue a soldier who has been left to die, all the time being subjected to shelling and continuous machine gun fire. An ordinary Miner from the Rhondda known as “The Silver Tenor” because of his passion for singing, now finds himself in the position of being recognised as an extraordinary Welsh Hero awarded a medal second only to the Victorian Cross.
Thomas Lewis was born in 1878 in Pentre, Rhondda, the son of an iron moulder and the Grandson of a Cardiganshire Baptist Minister. He was destined to enter the mining industry, starting life as a collier door boy until his move into manual mining at the age of 14. Having married his wife Mary Kavanagh in Tonypandy in 1900, he moved into the Rhymney Valley taking up a position at Elliott Collieries in New Tredegar.
It was in 1916 that his sense of civic duty saw him volunteer and enlist into the 2nd Battalion The Welsh Regiment as 36123 Private Thomas Lewis. Headed for the Somme, and at 38 years of age, he left his wife, five children and his job behind him.
September 1916 saw fierce trench fighting in The Somme and Thomas was at this point in Reserve at Albert, later moving into Lozenge Wood before finally being held at the North-Eastern corner of the Welsh Division holding area at Mametz Wood. His Battalion were to be involved in some of the fiercest trench warfare of the campaign, and he formed part of a group relieving the South Wales Borderers at High Wood, long established in WWI folklore as ‘hell’. It was during artillery bombardments and hostile machine gun fire that Thomas and his battalion were subjected to aggressive grenade and mortar attacks.
On 8th September, Thomas Lewis carried out a remarkable act of gallantry at High Wood that would later earn him the Distinguished Conduct Medal awarded on 14th November 1916. A soldier had been left to die in No Man’s Land, laying there for several days. Lewis made his way to the man and rescued him to safety, all the time being subjected to continuous machine gun fire.
Thomas had sustained injuries North of Flers and he showed signs of having been subjected to mustard gas. As a result of his injuries, he was sent to Kinmel Park in North Wales to undergo a period of rest and recuperation. On his return to the Rhymney Valley, Thomas was regarded as a local hero and was greeted back home with a Street Party. His community presented him with a gold hunter watch bearing the following inscription:
“Presented to Thomas Lewis DCM by the inhabitants of New Tredegar & District in appreciation of his bravery on the battlefield, 1916”.
Thomas returned to coal mining and lived at Brithdir for the remainder of his life. He passed away in June 1944 with members of the Brithdir and Tirphil Home Guard providing Thomas with a military funeral complete with firing party.
The medals have been on display at the Firing Line Museum of the Welsh Soldier at Cardiff Castle and it is hoped that on their return from France they will be re-displayed at the Regimental Museum of the Royal Welsh in Brecon.