Photo of Chief Bard Hedd Wyn 1917, winner at the National Eisteddfod 1917 who had died during the Battle of Pilckem Ridge during World War I

Hedd Wyn and the Empty Chair

by james w thomas

The Bardic Chair was center stage and waiting for the Chairing of the new Chief Bard, “Y Prifardd.” Archdruid Dyfed called out his pen name, Fleur de Lys. The trumpets summoned the winning poet to the front. At the National Eisteddfod of Wales in Birkenhead on 6 September 1917, the audience waited. Prime Minister David Lloyd George waited. But no one answered. Then came a simple statement. The winning poet, Ellis Evans, known by his bardic name of Hedd Wyn, had been killed in action in Flanders.

The Archdruid noted “the festival in tears and the poet in his grave,” before the Chair, draped in memorial black, was sent to his parents from the Eisteddfod of the Black Chair, “Eisteddfod y Gadair Ddu.” The prize had been handcrafted by the Flemish war refugee Eugeen Vanfleteren in Birkenhead.

Weeks earlier, on the rain-soaked Tuesday morning of 31 July 1917, British troops of the 38th (Welsh) Division went over the top and into the mud. Their attack on Pilckem Ridge in Belgium was the opening drive in the Third Battle of Ypres. The objective: attack from the city of Ypres (called “Wipers” by the troops) and move east to cut the German railway resupply lines beyond a village called Passchendaele.

From the Yser Canal Bank, men of the 15th Battalion, Royal Welsh Fusiliers, advanced into enemy fire and up the ridge itself. Fellow Fusilier Simon Jones saw Evans, crossing the ridge, take “a nosecap shell in his stomach.” Stretcher bearers carried him back to an aid post where he died later that morning.

Two weeks earlier, on 15 July, Evans’ entry, his awdl, or ode, “Yr Arwr,” or “The Hero,” had been posted to the National Eisteddfod. In the 1992 Welsh film, Hedd Wyn, Evans’ commander, who can’t read Welsh, thinks the piece may be a coded message to the Germans. (In 1994 Hedd Wyn was the first British film to be nominated at the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language [Welsh] Film, but it didn’t win.)

Born on 13 January 1887 to Mary and Evan Evans in Trawsfynydd, Meirionydd, Ellis Humphrey Evans grew up on the family hill farm Yr Ysgwrn (“strong wood” for the large oak tree nearby). The “shepherd poet” had a talent for verse, winning five other bardic chairs at local eisteddfodau. In 1916, he won a second at the Aberystwyth National before joining the Fusiliers (the spelling was “Welsh,” not “Welch,” during the Great War).He wrote home with his impression of France in June 1917: “Heavy weather, heavy soul, heavy heart. That is an uncomfortable trinity, isn’t it?” – a reversal of his bardic name Hedd Wyn, “blessed peace,” taken from the sunlight-softened feeling of the Prysor Valley mist of Meirionydd.

Evans wrote of the landscapes of peace as well as war. In his almost haiku-like “Atgo” or “Recollection,” he remembers his home. “Only a purple moon/On the edge of the bare mountain/And the sound of the River Prysor/Singing in the valley.” In “Y Rhyfel” or “War,” his soldier’s experience echoes in the final stanza in one of his most frequently quoted poems: “The harps to which we sang are hung/On willow boughs, and their refrain/Drowned by the anguish of the young/Whose blood is mingled with the rain.”

His Eisteddfod poem “Yr Arwr” presents the Daughter of the Tempests, a symbol of love and creativity, and the Hero, a man of freedom and fairness. In a nod to Shelley’s “Prometheus Unbound,” the poet longs for a better age after the sacrifice of the hero at the end of the ode. Translator Alan Llwyd, himself a two-time Chief Bard as well as screenwriter of Hedd Wyn, called it “a rich, complex, allegorical poem.”

Last May, Cymru’n Cofio, Wales Remembers 1914-1918 “Poetry of Loss” project sponsored “The Empty Chair: The National Poet of Wales [Ifor ap Glyn] on Hedd Wyn,” responses to the poets of the Great War (including former Welsh Fusiliers Robert Graves, David Jones, and Siegfried Sassoon). In September, a new chair, designed by Flemish students, will be presented at the Hedd Wyn Festival in Birkenhead, Merseyside, to mark the centenary of his death. Ellis Evans never came home to Wales. He’s buried at Artillery Wood Cemetery near Ypres, Belgium. His headstone reads “E. H. Evans, Prifardd, Hedd Wyn.”