The story of a Welsh Tommy; Will O'Brien is one of the 16 million who died in the First World War. His story is not exceptional. It is the story of so many of young men of his generation who never came home. We remember him and them to ensure their sacrifice is not forgotten.
Young Will O'Brien grew up in Newport as the city grew filthily and furiously in the early years of the 20th Century.
His youth coincided with the coal trade hitting its dusty, dirty, prosperous peak in south Wales and his large Catholic family benefited from the opportunities it created.
His stonemason dad John would have had no shortage of work as building began on the biggest expansion of the town's docks in 1905 and the Transporter bridge opened in 1906.
But two of the eight children born to his mum Johanna at their small, terraced home on the town's St Mary Street did not survive, as was common at a time there were no antibiotics to treat common childhood conditions and 15% of infants died.
Into this teeming, changing, modernising world, Will came of age the second youngest of six surviving children full of hope for the opportunities in life and love that the new century might bring.
Yet for him and for millions like him it was not to be. They would never know the social and technological advances of the 20th Century.
Will's life came to an end in 1917 amid the mud, blood and mayhem at Pilckem Ridge as the British Fifth Army launched the opening attack of Third Battle of Ypres. It would later become known as Passchendaele.
Will was one of 27,000 casualties in the three days of the attack. Others included the bard Hedd Wyn. To this day, it is not known where he was buried.
There are at least 16 million stories like Will's from the first World War. Sixteen million lives cut short in the deadliest conflict mankind has known. It is a figure too large to properly comprehend.
Yet on the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day, we honour the stories of the millions by telling the story of one of them. Thanks to the painstaking work of Gwent Archives in compiling it, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, we can tell the story of Private William O'Brien.
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Will's story is preserved thanks to the letters he wrote to his sweetheart and which were found after she died in her attic, tucked carefully under some blouses. He wrote more than a hundred of them between 1915.
The young man was, in keeping with the times, too reserved to tell young Rose Curtis that he loved her yet they are undeniably love letters.
They offer a heartbreaking insight into both the cruelty and depredations of a soldier's life and the contrast with the happier, simpler pleasures he imagines in his letters.
What little we know about Will's life before the war has been uncovered by research in Census records.
They tell us that William Bernard O'Brien was born in Newport on May 3, 1895. He was baptised in local Catholic church St Mary's, on June 2.
The large family lived at terraced house at 45, St Mary Street, near Newport town centre. It must have been something of a squeeze as Will had four older siblings living in the house - John, Mary, Frances and Agnes, and one younger, Winifred. Will attended the nearby St Mary's RC Primary School.
When he finished school is not clear but by the time he was 16 at the time of the 1911 Census, he was working as a scrap cutter for John Lysaght's iron and steel company. It is likely that he would already have been working for several years from his early teens.
Yet Will had dreams of a better life. On August 25, 1914, three weeks after Britain declared war on Germany, he became a policeman. He moved away from the busy streets of Newport to join the Monmouthshire Constabulary and was posted at Abersychan.
Described as five foot 10 inches tall with blue eyes, a fresh complexion and dark brown, curly hair, he cut something of a dashing figure and it was during his time in Valleys town that he met Rose Curtis, who became his girlfriend.
Rose was four years younger than William, having been born on February 6, 1899. When they met, on December 30, 1914, she lived at the Little Crown pub in Abersychan, which her parents kept.
We know some of the things they did together from the memories he would share in his later letters from France, as he dreamt of recapturing happier times.
They went on nights out to the Newport Empire and took walks up to the Folly in Pontypool.
Yet, although he was smitten with his 16-year-old sweetheart, he was unhappy in the police force, being confined to the station for much of his time there.
And it was not out of compulsion but out of hope that he fatefully signed up for the Army. On November 23, 1915, he enlisted in the Grenadier Guards.
His early happiness in his new role contrasts starkly with what was to come. Like so many of the young men who signed up at the start of the war, he was full of pride.
Men from all social classes and all parts of the UK volunteered for the war effort. Whole groups from companies, universities, towns and villages signed up en masse enthused by newspaper advertisements including Reginald Leetes' famous imagine of Kitchener with his pointed finger.
There was a widespread belief that this was a righteous war and volunteering was the right moral choice.
By the time Will signed up in late 1915, the bloodshed on both the Eastern and Western fronts had already been immense. The Gallipoli offensive had been a catastrophe for British and Australian troops. A quarter of a million French soldiers had died at the first battle of the Marne in September 1914.
And yet, after years and years in which war with Germany had been seen as inevitable, Will was one of many who were swept up in the popular belief that they were doing the best thing.
In the very first line of the first letter he writes to Rose he tells her, "I am in the army at last".
Further letters would go on to describe it as the "best job I've ever had" even if "the money is so little".
"I have no need to grumble," he would write from Caterham barracks in Surrey, "as I have nothing to buy except a few odds and ends."
He expected to be there for about three months with a similar period in London, before heading to France.
Will's first letter sets the pattern for those that would follow. Understandably, his thoughts centre on what he's left behind. While the 'food is good' and he is among 'decent chaps', it is evident he is already missing Rose and looks at her photo often.
We see the first glimpse of the insecurities that men at war must have felt with their sweethearts at home. He hopes she won't tire of writing to him and that she'll wait for him.
He asks after her family and the new policeman in Abersychan -- Jack Nash, a friend of Will's. He asks Rose - 'Has she seen him? Does she like him? He begins with 'My Dear Rose' and signs off as 'Will', as he does each of his letters.
As Christmas 1915 comes around Will is facing Christmas in barracks, the chances of leave having diminished as married men were given priority, something which was particularly hard for the couple, who speak in their correspondence of looking at photos of each other and remember the times they had in Abersychan.
It's plain it's a difficult time and draws the most explicit of romantic declarations for Rose from Will - '...in fact Rose I -- you,' he writes. Whether he can't bring himself to tell her he loves her or it's just decorum stopping him is unclear but he tells her she is the only girl he ever properly cared for.
In January 1916, he tells her proudly that he is "getting a real soldier now". He describes going on guard duty after an aeroplane came down a mile from barracks.
It also fostering a surge of patriotism within him. He writes: "I am sure things will all get right in time and then I will be able to say that I have done my bit."
As his training progresses the grim realities of the conflict are moving ever closer to his everyday life and enter the pages of his letters.
At the end of January, the Military Service Act is passed which introduces compulsory conscription. It's something that Will is clearly set against, declaring that "it will be bad if conscription comes" - no explanation is given but it could be an admittance that this will be a prolonged war given the requirement to strengthen numbers.
The ever encroaching war is magnified in early February when a Zeppelin attack takes place near his barracks.
There is some respite when he finally has leave in March returning home to be reunited with this family and Rose for the first time in almost five months.
By the end of April Will has left Caterham for Chelsea Barracks. It's another sizeable step towards the front.
Will's replacement as Abersychan police officer Jack Nash features again in the correspondence between the two when Rose reveals he has been calling at the Crown, although she reassures Will that whenever he visits she wishes it were Will.
As part of his time at Chelsea Barracks, Will takes on guard duty at Buckingham Palace and also at Scotland Yard, which is a source of great pride to him.
But by May, he is moved to a camp at Tadworth in Surrey. By now his early enthusiasm has faded. He is vulnerable and emotional.
For the first time he also appears resentful towards his replacement Jack Nash and wonders if Rose would prefer Jack to him.
Across Britain, public opinion was changing as well. What one writer described as an "awful clutching fear" sapped morale and challenged the government. There were demonstrations against the war. Loyalty and patriotism were no longer the overriding public sentiments.
Almost 18 months into the conflict, the war dead and wounded would have been returning to London. You can only guess at the psychological effect this must have had on those yet to have been transferred to the front.
Will's fears are apparent when he tells Rose: "You might want someone nearer as I have got a poor chance of coming back when I do get to the front."
He was writing as some of bloodiest battles of the war were taking place at the Somme, where 1.1m died between July and November 1916, and in Galicia in what is now Ukraine, where 2.3m died on the Eastern Front in the Brusilov Offensive.
After reassurances from Rose, throughout June and July Will appears in better spirits telling his girlfriend that he is enjoying life in the country at the Tadworth camp, where apart from his training, he is spending time helping local farmers with the haymaking in return for a glass of cider.
Yet the reality of Will's situation was not held at bay for long. By August 16, 1916, he has arrived at Le Havre in France.
From this point, Will's letters are censored and details of his location not disclosed.
The two polar worlds occupied by the pair are brought into sharp focus when Rose informs her boyfriend she is on holiday in Weston.
Will notes this with yearning a week before he is sent up the line to the front, writing: "Think of me when you are sitting on the sands. I wish I was at Weston with you but if fate is kind with me, I hope that someday we (you and I) will go to Weston together."
This reality would seem like a lifetime away when a week later Will is transferred to the front - a journey that involves a 36-hour train ride followed by a three hour march.
Life at the front is unbearably hard. The rain and the mud play havoc. He writes that he is "wet through and nowhere to dry my clothes".
It is obviously affecting him deeply. It's the simple things that he is missing. This can be seen in the wistfulness with which he writes to Rose. "I wish I could have a decent tea again, more so if you were with me."
Will is now writing with pencil. Paper is in short supply and he urges Rose to send him paper.
For someone who finds writing letters a comfort, helping to cushion the harsh realities of what's around him, he is at the same time compelled to describe what is happening.
It's difficult to quite comprehend the stress and the pressure soldiers on the frontline would be facing day in day out seeing the comrades killed in front of him, so a simple letter was his release to another world.
Hearing about that normality was a centring influence for him. He wants to escape the horror of the war and he wants escapism. The letters are a vital link to home, but he then can't help describing what's around him and that again sends him into a despairing mood.
Almost abruptly he'd go from describing something pretty grim around him to asking about the ordinariness of home, which he clings to.
He tries to discourage Rose from taking work in a munitions factory becoming a Canary Girl. He says "you don't want to do that it's dirty work". She's thinking of giving up piano lessons to make parcels for the troops. He's almost hanging on to those things by extension because that's the world he wants to come back to.
In September 1916 the war intensifies and Will describes vividly the scene in front of him. "Where I am is nothing but trenches for miles, all the houses blown up."
Back at home Rose has been to see the Battle Of The Somme war picture at The Pavilion Cinema in Abersychan.
Films like this were crucial in giving the public a sense of being part of the war effort. No doubt Rose would have felt she understood Will's circumstances better for watching it.
Although Will sharply rebukes that particular theory by telling Rose to really know what it is like "you ought to be actually in an advance".
To underline this he adds the graphic description: "Bullets wizzing past you and your mates getting hit and dropping on both sides. It is a terrible sight and one you can never forget."
To add to the soldier's growing sense of desperation on October 26, he learns that his father has died. On November 8, Will is at home on compassionate leave. He writes to Rose that he cannot meet her as planned since his mother is unwell. T
This is very plausible given what has happened and the grief his mother must have been suffering, but it causes tension with Rose, who wonders if there may be another reason and that Will had got tired of her.
On his return to the front he writes her a letter to reassure her: "I ought to have called to see you first but it is too late now but I can [tell] you it will not happen again if I have the luck to come back again, so look it over this once for I can tell you Rose I like you better than any girl I have been with."
The deterioration in their relationship coincides with the deteriorating conditions Will is experiencing in the trenches. Periods in the front line are frequent by now and the conditions are atrocious.
On December 16 he writes to Rose that he is "feeling done up for we have been up the trenches since my last letter to you. They are to go again the next day, the third time in a fortnight". This most recent spell has clearly shaken him.
He writes: "It rained & snowed nearly all the time & for three days we were standing knee deep in mud enough to kill a horse I can tell you I never expect to come out again but I have & going up again tomorrow & I got a bad cold & nearly dead don't sound very cheerful but it is right."
Will played an important role on the frontline as a stretcher bearer.
Advancing troops were not allowed to stop and care for wounded soldiers. All men carried an emergency field-dressing and if possible attempted to treat their own wounds. The wounded soldier then had to wait until the stretcher-bearers arrived.
There were only four stretcher-bearers per company and so it was often sometime before they received medical help. Some dragged themselves into a shell-hole for protection, but this was dangerous as many sank into the mud and drowned.
Will doesn't say too much about his role in the letters. He doesn't want to dwell on it when he's writing to Rose. But it does keep coming back to him that it's a nightmarish situation. You can see the way that thoughts of home have an effect on him in the most vivid of ways. In one letter towards Christmas he wrote: "I dreamt of you last night that we were walking hand in hand together and then I woke up and I was back here."
Christmas 1916 was especially difficult for him, although a food parcel from home helped alleviate the gloom.
"We came out of the trenches feeling fed up on the morning of the 21st wet through & miserable then after a change of clothing etc felt a different chap on Xmas Eve I had a parcel from home & by that coming I had chicken, Christmas pudding for dinner Xmas day & Xmas cake for tea then we went in the trenches on Christmas night & got relieved this morning so you can see that my Christmas have not been a very grand one but I make the best of it & I sincerely hope that next year this war will be over then I will have to make up for this year."
The letter illustrates just how important comforts from home were to the troops. Letters were a boost and so too were the food parcels.
However, the mood gets darker at the beginning of 1917. His letter of January 12 is a desperate one: "...terrible rain, snow & the weather bitter cold at time of writing it is snowing and we are up the line so you can guess how I feel but never mind better days in store I hope I wish I had never left Abersychan but someone had to come & I wanted to do so I must not complain but stick it till the finish then I will have to come to Abersychan again, if you are still there & not married."
There is a level of disillusionment not present in Will's earlier letters and it appears to be provoking a sense of paranoia. His remark about Rose's possible marriage - to no one in particular - confirms the impression that there is a widening rift in their romance.
And if Will's situation is hellish, it must have been very difficult for young Rose corresponding with someone so anguished.
After a three-week gap Will writes to her on February 3 with his hands 'cold to write'. He has been in hospital for a week with a severe cold and there is resentment in his voice.
"You were saying about the weather, it is terrible out here & no fires to sit by like you have," he writes.
The letters show the lack of trust between the two. Rose suspecting Will had someone else at home and Will believing that so did Rose. Of course, both suspicions were unfounded. However, it caused a huge fracture in their relationship and tfrom this point on they agreed to write to each other as friends.
In a letter written on Good Friday (April 6) there is a painful irony. He tells her that he hopes that next year "we will be able to have a peace time Easter once again." Then he asks: "Did you have any hot x buns this year is the first year I have never had any so I hope it will be the last."
Sadly, it was.
There is a gap between their letters and they stopped writing to each other for two to three months. Although in that time Rose had been ill. Also during this time Rose's family. Rose's mother Eda and Rose's sister-in-law Beat started writing to Will. That's how he discovered Rose had been unwell for a bit, she had a nasty cold. They kept writing so whether that is a sign they approved of him or they felt it was the right thing to do for a soldier that was serving risking his life for the cause is unclear.
They do however resume writing to each other. The last full letter was written by Will to Rose on July 12, 1917. In tone and content it perfectly encapsulates the correspondence between them.
To the very end, the young soldier tells Rose that he has affections for no other girl despite her suspicions. Similarly Rose has on several occasions castigated him for suggesting she had a 'young man'.
She sends him a letter on July 21, the content of which is unknown. Will answered with a Field Service postcard on July 27, telling her that he was 'quite well'. His final message to Rose was another Field Service postcard. It bears his name and the date August 3.
From records this is either the day of or the day before his death.
The exact date of Will's death is uncertain. A local newspaper obituary records that 'his name had been sent in after the battle of July 31 for gallant conduct'.
This is undoubtedly the Battle of Pilckem Ridge, the opening attack of the Third Battle of Ypres in Belgium.
The battle is usually dated from July 31 to August 2. There was a German counter-attack after the British offensive, however, and fierce fighting on the Ypres-Menin Road. It is possible that Will was shot at this point and was killed instantly.
He would be cited in an obituary as a hero who repeatedly attended the wounded, tended their wounds and left the in a place where they could be found.
The obituary only said that he would be buried in a field and the grave marked with a cross. It was said that it was not possible for a priest to perform the last rites at the time of his death.
Will O'Brien's name is recorded on the Menin Gate Memorial, a war memorial in Ypres, Belgium, dedicated to the British and Commonwealth soldiers who were killed on the Ypres battlefield of World War I and whose graves are unknown.
Near to where he died today stands the Welsh National Memorial Park.
Private William Bernard O'Brien died a hero's death in the service of his country. He was one of up to 900,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers who died in WWI.
He was 22-years-old.
Three years later in 1920, Rose Curtis married Jack Nash.
Credit: Gwent Archives
Will O'Brien (left) and his sweetheart Rose Curtis
Credit: Gwent Archives
Tadworth Camp where Private William O'Brien trained. Will has marked himself on the picture with a cross
Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
British soldiers lined up in a narrow trench during World War I
Credit: Getty Images
The sunrise burns off the morning mist over the remains of trenches in the Newfoundland Memorial Part in Albert, France.
Credit: Wiki Commons
Credit: Gwent Archives
The final letter that Private Will O'Brien sent to his sweetheart Rose
Credit: Gwent Archives
A photograph of Jack Nash in his Monmouthshire Constabulary uniform
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|Publication:||Wales Online (Cardiff, Wales)|
|Date:||Nov 11, 2018|
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