1915-2015: Abergele & District Commemorations: John (Jack) Edwards

Private 8998 John (Jack) Edwards. 2nd Battalion Royal Welsh Fusiliers, 19th Brigade, 2nd Division. Killed in action, 25 September 1915, Battle of Loos, aged 31. Plot H. 21., Cambrin Churchyard Extension, Pas de Calais, France. Not commemorated in the Abergele district. Dwygyfylchi War Memorial.

Edwards John 2nd RWF

Known as Jack. Son of Robert Edwards, of Pen Pyra Farm, Sychnant Pass, Dwygyfylchi. Born Penmaenmawr, enlisted Wrexham. Lived (1914) at 20, New Street, Abergele. Awarded the Medaille Militaire by France.

Born in Penmaenbach in 1884, Jack Edwards joined the army from school and served with the 2nd Battalion Royal Welsh Fusiliers in India. He left the army in 1912 but remained on the reserve. He was working on the railway extension and widening work at Pensarn for the London & North Western Railway when the First World War began, and was living at 20, New Street, Abergele. As a reservist, he immediately re-joined his old regiment at Wrexham and was posted to France, arriving 13 August 1914 with the 2nd Battalion.
What happened to Jack at Loos is described here.

Jack had earlier distinguished himself in the Battle of the Marne in 1914 and it is worth recounting his exploits. Unfortunately, there is an ‘accepted’ version of what happened and a true one. Both versions follow. The first is based on an article published by historypoints.org. It is, however, almost totally incorrect. Afterwards I offer a more accurate version merely to illustrate how oral testimony and newspaper accounts from the war can be terribly misleading.

Account 1

During the Allied retreat after the Battle of Mons in August 1914, soldiers realised at a roll call that a Lieutenant Thompson, of the Dorset Regiment, was lying wounded in a village which by then was in German hands. Unknown to anyone, Jack Edwards went out into the night and eluded the enemy sentries to reach the village. He eventually found the young officer lying badly injured. Avoiding detection again, Jack carried the officer on his shoulder to British lines. When he re-appeared in the trenches he was given a “hearty ovation”. Unfortunately, Lieutenant Thompson died the next day. A few days later, a senior officer approached Jack, who later recalled that he thought that he was “in for it” and was going to be court martialled for his foray into enemy territory. It came as a “pleasant surprise” when he learned he was to be recommended for the Distinguished Conduct Medal. He was one of the first Welsh soldiers to receive this honour in the First World War. The incident also caught a French officer’s attention, and the French Government awarded Jack the Medaille Militaire. His deeds also resulted in him being Mentioned in Dispatches in the London Gazette of 20 October 1914 (though, sadly, mistakenly by the name E. Edwards).

This account is incorrect in several ways. For a start, there is no record of the death of a Lieutenant Thompson of the Dorsetshire Regiment in 1914. In fact, nobody named Thompson from that regiment died in 1914. The local newspaper report also carries a very different version, suggesting that Edwards rescued a higher ranking Officer and no fewer than ten other wounded comrades. However, this story is total nonsense. Quite how the additional claim, that Jack had carried a further ten wounded men to safety, made its way into the account – given that it was totally untrue – is a reminder of how ‘war stories’ can often grow in the telling, especially when placed in the hands of local journalists eager to enhance the glory of local soldiers. As will be seen below, what Jack actually did was heroic enough, without the need for ridiculous embellishment. The additional claim that “he was one of the first Welsh soldiers to receive this honour (the DCM) in the First World War” is also incorrect. He did not receive the DCM. No such award can be found in the London Gazette, there is no reference to it on his Medal Index Card, and it is not recorded in Citations of the Distinguished Conduct Medal, 1914-1920. The truth is that Jack Edwards may have been recommended for a DCM, but he was not awarded one. Furthermore, in the correct version below we are offered eyewitness testimony that the DCM was never awarded.

Account 2

Early in the morning of 8 September 1914 the 2nd Royal Welsh Fusiliers began marching along the Crécy-Sameron road towards the River Marne. They came under artillery fire and changed direction towards the hamlet of Signy-Signets near La Ferté-sous-Jouarre. Upon arriving at the river the battalion halted and “within a couple of minutes we came under traversing machine gun fire” [Major Geiger, quoted in ‘The War the Infantry Knew’, J. C. Dunn, 1938, p.53]. A Company were “lying down, firing and being fired at, mostly by machine guns” [Lieutenant Colonel Delmé-Radcliffe, quoted in ‘The War the Infantry Knew’, J. C. Dunn, 1938, p.54].

The following day the battalion were in the same place, facing the river near the Perreuse Chateau. Private Frank Richards of the 2nd Royal Welsh Fusiliers would later describe what happened next.

The street below was full of our men. Some were drumming up – that is, making tea – others wandered about on the scrounge, when suddenly a machine gun opened fire from across the river, sweeping the street. Second Lieutenant Thompson of my battalion was badly wounded and most of the men had taken cover when the gun opened out. Two men named Jackson and Edwards rushed forward, in spite of the machine gun, and carried him to safety, Jackson getting shot through the wrist. The young Lieutenant, who had been shot low down, lived about half an hour. Jackson was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal and also the French Medaille Militaire on the recommendation of some French staff-officers who were in the village and happened to be witnesses. Edwards only got the French Medaille Militaire, because his wrists escaped injury. Jackson went home with his wound but came back to France to the First Battalion, and I was told he got killed at Festubert; Edwards was killed at Loos”. [Private Frank Richards, ‘Old Soldiers Never Die’, p.17, annotated edition by H.J. Krijnen and D.E. Langley, 2004 (first published 1933)]

The ‘young Lieutenant’ that Jack Edwards rescued was neither of the Dorset Regiment, nor was he a Colonel, as claimed in the accounts quoted above. He was, in fact, Second Lieutenant James Edward Vibart Collingwood-Thompson of the 2nd Royal Welsh Fusiliers. Private Richards is incorrect in stating that he lived “about half an hour”, as in fact he died the next day. Another witness, though neglecting to mention Collingwood-Thompson’s rescuers, recounted:

I was sent by the CO with a message to Williams….while we were there German machine gun fire started again. We were scarcely back at the château when young Thomson [sic] was brought in seriously wounded; he had been standing at the corner of the open space calling to Wynne-Edwards” [Major Geiger, quoted in ‘The War the Infantry Knew’, J. C. Dunn, 1938, p.58]

From these accounts, it would appear that Privates F. Jackson and Jack Edwards ran into the open space, under heavy machine gun fire, to rescue their wounded Second Lieutenant. The German machine gunners clearly tried to kill the two men, with Jackson being shot through the wrist in the process. Jack came back unwounded.

He also came out of the experience somewhat unfazed. Back in Abergele there was some excitement at the thought of a local man being honoured, but all that Jack could write about the war in a letter to a friend in Abergele was, “it is a fine life we are having out here. Only the weather makes it a bit uncomfortable at times” [Liverpool Daily Post, 16 December 1914].

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