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'EVEN NOW, READING THEM STILL MAKES ME WELL UP...' Heartbreaking letters from the frontline revealed.

Byline: ELENA CRESCI elena.cresci@walesonline.co.uk

THEY'RE the poignant World War I letters and documents detailing the heartbreak behind the deaths of thousands of Welsh soldiers.

Personal family tragedies are laid bare in messages asking for news from the front - and the devastating official footnotes noting "killed in action" dates.

But nearly 100 years on, the heartrending treasure trove, belonging to one of Wales' leading public figures, may help spur a fundraising push for a fitting memorial to the nation's fallen soldiers.

The documents were the property of Captain Evan Silk - father of Paul Silk, best known as the chair of the Silk Commission which has considered changes to the Welsh devolution settlement.

As an adjutant, Captain Silk was responsible for the Welsh Regiment's administrative work - including the unenviable task of writing letters informing families of their loved ones' deaths.

For his son, the most heartwrenching of letters come from families begging for any news of their boys in Belgium, after months or even years without news.

Others touchingly thank Capt Silk for any news at all - no matter how bad.

Mr Silk said: "Even now, reading them still makes me well up, especially to think of the sheer number of people who died.

"The thing we must remember is my father wasn't especially remarkable in this sense. Many people had to write these kinds of letters - it just so happens he kept them.

"He was like anyone else who was fighting at that time. He was just lucky to survive."

At just 25, Evan Silk left his home in Blaina when he was commissioned to the Welsh Regiment as one of the Artists Rifles in 1916 and swiftly rose to the rank of Captain. He witnessed first-hand the horrors of the trenches and went over the top numerous times. Among the many battles he saw, Captain Silk fought in the third battle of Ypres "He must have been incredibly brave," said Mr Silk. "My son is around the same age as my father was when he went to war.

"It really brings home how young they were, how far away they were from home and in such traumatic and difficult circumstances."

In a twist of fate, his time in the trenches meant Capt Silk went on to study history and law at Cambridge University after the war ended - an opportunity which may not have been open to him before the war.

After university, he became a successful history teacher and eventually went on to become headmaster of Nantyglo Grammar School, near Ebbw Vale.

Like many soldiers who fought in the war, Capt Silk was reticent to revisit his experiences.

Mr Silk said: "I recall as a boy asking my father how many men he had killed. He didn't reply to that and I just remember him looking away quite sadly and never answering."

Much of what Mr Silk knows about his father's time in the war comes from this collection.

He added: "There is a book by [historian] AJP Taylor about the war, which he gave to me shortly before he died. Looking through it, he's made some annotations about his recollections from that time. In one margin, it says: 'Good God - did we really send men to fight in that?'" The extraordinary collection has come to light as campaigners, including Mr Silk, attempt to raise money for a memorial to Welsh soldiers who fought during World War I. Helmed by poet Peter Jones, the campaign aims to erect a memorial in Flanders. It will be the first memorial to Welsh soldiers situated outside Wales.

Campaigners need to raise PS60,000 by September to ensure the memorial is up by the war's centenary in 2014.

Mr Silk said: "These people from all over Wales do deserve to have a prominent memorial in Belgium. There were a lot of people who made an enormous sacrifice, either to their physical or mental health and many with their lives."

EXTRACTS | November 24, 1917 Dear Sir, I am sorry to trouble you in this time of stress and strenuous fighting, but could you possibly let me know anything of Lieut. E James of your glorious regiment. I have not heard from him for several months and I am anxious about him. Just a field card saying he is well etc. will put my mind at ease. Wishing you and the Reg. the best of all good luck and Heaven's blessing on you, your officers and your gallant lads. WR James [A simple footnote added by Evan Silk reads: "Killed in action, July 29"] | September 25, 1917 Dear Mr Silk, Thank you so much for sending me the very nice pen ink sketch of my dear son's grave. Only yesterday I wrote to the director of graves registration to see if it would be possible to have my son's body enclosed in an oak coffin. I do not know whether it is ever done.

Will you please thank Gordon for me. I wonder would he like one of my son's photographs? I should be so pleased to send one to any of the company who would like one. I am writing for my husband who is still too ill to be told of our loss. It is very kind of you to say you will come to see us when you come home. You do not know how hungry I am for every scrap of information about my precious lad.

Yours sincerely, Annie J David.

CAPTION(S):

Paul Silk, whose father Evan Silk, main picture, was in the Welsh regiment during World War I

A selection of the letters written by, and to, Evan Silk
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Publication:Wales On Sunday (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Mar 10, 2013
Words:943
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