PEMBROKESHIRE’S MOST DECORATED GREAT WAR SOLDIER: LANCE CORPORAL BEN REES OF LOWER FISHGUARD
By John Burgess
‘Stokey’ Lewis was Pembrokeshire’s only Great War VC, as well as Wales’s youngest VC won at the age of 20 in the Salonika campaign in Greece and so he is the county’s highest decorated World War 1 soldier.1 The County Echo acclaimed Lance Corporal Ben Rees of Lower Fishguard as the only Pembrokeshire soldier to receive 3 gallantry medals in the war.2 He won the Distinguished Conduct Medal, the Military Medal and bar in almost exactly six months between 25th March and 2nd October 1918 on the Western Front and therefore he is the county’s most decorated World War 1 soldier. He was one of only three Lancashire Fusiliers to win three gallantry awards and the only soldier in the 35th Division to win these three particular medals and therefore he is one of a very select band of ordinary soldiers numbering probably hundreds of the 8 million or so British soldiers who served in the Great War.3 This article tells his story.
The early history of the Rees family of Fishguard deserves another article because it is a classic microcosm of nineteenth century West Wales history. As one historian has put it, ‘ the dissident south-west of Wales . . . was being transformed into the service centre of a new industrial society in the south-east’.4 Between 1810 and 1837, the family progressed from the slate quarries of North Pembrokeshire to the Tredegar ironworks, to the Bridgend collieries, to the boom town of Cardigan, Wales’s second port, and eventually to Wallis Street, Fishguard as marine store dealers. In 1849 the whole family converted to the Mormon Church and emigrated from Liverpool in April 1855 eventually reaching Salt Lake City. The late 1850s were a difficult time for the Mormon Church with the Mormon War of 1858 and as the Saints split in 1859 so did the Reeses. By 1861, father was back in Fishguard as a china and earthenware dealer leaving mother and one son in Spanish Fork, Salt Lake City.
Ben Rees’s father was born in New Orleans in 1860 as the family was returning from America and he became a respectable shopkeeper and china dealer rentin g premises in Bridge Street, Lower Fishguard, from the Yorke family of Langton Hall. He also owned property in Wallis Street and served on local inquest juries as a pillar of the community. His wife, Jane, is remembered for pushing her china and crockery cart up the steep Fishguard hill from Lower Town to her stall in Market Square.
Ben was born in 1889 and was lucky enough to have a complete secondary education at the new County School in Ropeyard Lane, which was one of the best in Wales for maths in 1901 and had a new science laboratory from 1904. 5 At the 1919 civic presentation to Ben, his ex-headmaster, Owen Gledhill, said that Ben was ‘ a lad who stuck at a thing, however difficult it might be, until he mastered it’. This could be coded language for some academic slowness because Ben left the County School just before his 19th birthday in summer 1908. 6
He landed on his feet with a first post as a draper’s assistant at William James ‘s Siop-y-Bobl emporium next to the church on Main Street, Fishguard, the largest shop premises in the county according to the local paper.
Two of the James children were at school with Ben and Ben’s uncle David Rees, a prominent local councillor, owned a bakery on Main Street and used the passageway next to Siop-y-Bobl to reach his outbuilding s and these factors might explain how Ben obtained this plum position.7 Promotion came in September 1911 with a shop assistant position in David Morgan’s department store in The Hayes , Cardiff. 8
As an unmarried shop assistant of 25, it would have been expected that he would join up at the outbreak of the First World War and a B. Rees, Welsh Regiment, is listed among 70 Fishguard and Goodwick men enlisted before August 27, 1914. He signed on in Goodwick.9 As with 80% of Great War soldiers, his service papers did not survive the Blitz, but the local press enables us to reconstruct his military career in some detail.
In October 1915 he was home on leave as a member of the Royal Flying Corps and 4 months later he was with the Roya l Field Artillery. This was a common progression for signallers, as Ben was to become, because it gave training in coordination of artillery barrages with ground and air operations. At the end of 1916, he was with the Royal Sussex regiment.10 From early 1917 to March 1918 when he was with the 17th Battalion, Lancashire Fusiliers, there is nothing definite about his service career.
The 17th Battalion, Lancashire Fusiliers, was a Kitchener unit raised at Oldham and it became part of 104th Brigade, 35th Division. This bantam division was originally for recruits below the regulation 5′ 3″ height but the blood letting of 1915-16 meant that by 1917 it was restocked with normal sized men. 264 other ranks were drafted into 17th Battalion in September 1917 and another 172 in November – the last major blood transfusions before the Marc h 1918 battles – and therefore it is 1ikely that Ben Rees was in the Lancashire Fusiliers towards the end of 1917 if not earlier, and he may have participated in the Houthulst Forest engagement abut 4 kilometres north of Ypres as part of the battle of Passchendaele . 11
We know for sure that as the British lines creaked and buckled following the Ludendorff offensive of March 1918, 1 7 th Battalion Lancashire Fusiliers marched to the front line at Maricourt on the Somme on the 24th March. The next morning at 7.45 at least five German divisions unleashed gas and artillery onto 35th Division. By the afternoon, Ben Rees’s battalion was in Maricourt Wood and the Germans were shouting through the trees as they advanced. At 18.00, the battalion was part of the rearguard covering a general withdrawal to the Albert-Bray road, which was successfully accomplished by 2.45 on March 26th, and it is during this action of 25/26 March that Ben Rees was awarded the Military Medal. The Brigade War Diary says that no communication was possible with the artillery on 25/26 March and during his civic reception in 1919 it was said that during the retreat:
He kept communications going between his Headquarters and battalion for 48 hours not in the ordinary way by telephone but by flash lamp. I know that the flash-lamp is the last thing a signaller resorts to because it exposes his position to the enemy and subjects him to heavy fire. 12
35th Division was sent to Aveluy Wood near Authuille on the Ancre River, 2 miles north of Albert in April to prepare for an attack to dislodge the Germans from part of the same wood. Zero hour was 3.25 on June 1st and two companies of 17th Battalion and all of 18th Battalion, Lancashire Fusiliers, were committed to the attack. The heavy undergrowth in the wood made communications a nightmare and early on it was necessary to use runners or power buzzers. By 7.30 the 2 battalions had lost contact with each other because shells had broken the power buzzers and nearly all signallers were casualties so there were no runners . It was not until 11.00 that a vital 15 minute communication window was re-established but by the afternoon the Germans had counterattacked and the British were back to square one. Ben Rees won the bar to his Military Medal for his part in creating that 15 minute window and Brigadier-General Sandilands presented the ribbon to him on 24th June.13
July and August were months of recuperation and refitting for 35th Division in readiness to participate in the September offensive to cross the River Lys. 17th Battalion’s objective was to take the Zandvoorde Ridge near Hill 60 and Canada Tunnels. The attack commenced at 5.30 on September 28th in driving rain but by the end of the day 6,000 yards had been gained including Hill 60, Sanctuary Wood, Shrewsbury Forest and Zandvoorde Ridge. The only hiccup had been a temporary communications break between brigades and divisions at midday. 17th battalion attacked again at 14.00 on 30th September in more wind, rain and mud and met stiff resistance. During the night, the Brigade War Diary notes:
Communication by means of wireless and telephone was established and maintained throughout operations between divisional HQ and battalions.
The attack continued to the 2 October but resistance was so strong that little progress was made. Ben Rees was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his role in this battle and no fewer than three Divisional Brigadier Generals recommended him for the award. The citation reads:
For conspicuous gallantry and extreme devotion to duty during operations east of Ypres 28th September to 2nd October 1918. As a linesman he went out time after time under heavy fire, repairing the wires immediately they were broken. Through his splendid disregard of danger and energy, communication was maintained for his battalion and two other brigades. 14
During the night of 26th October, 35th Division was again in the front line at Aveighem, about 40km east of Ypres, where several days of fierce fighting followed to secure the River Scheidt crossings. Brigadier Sandilands called the operation on 31st October to push the Germans back from the south bank of the river ‘the finest achievement of 104 Brigade during the war’.15 The 17th Battalion, Lancashire Fusiliers, attacked at 5.55 and achieved its objective north of Kerkhove by 9.55 and General Plumer, the army commander visited 35th Division HQ to express his appreciation. Ben Rees is listed as wounded in the daily list of 7th November in the War Office Weekly Casualty List and on 5th December he is known to have been receiving treatment in Barry Red Cross Hospital. It is probable that he was gassed during the late October battles because his obituary noted that ‘the effects of being wounded and gassed undoubtedly hastened his death to a marked extent’ and another newspaper mentioned ‘a serious disability suffered during the last war’.16 After the Chlorine (1915) and Phosgene Gas (1916) periods, over 160,000 British soldiers were in capacitated by Mustard Gas between July 1917 and the end of the war. It quickly affected the eyes but skin in flammation took several hours to develop and the treatment included complete rest, light diet and possibly a saline drip and oxygen for several hours a day. Survivors were usually out of danger in a fortnight and fully recovered after a few more weeks and the typical mustard gas casualty had burns, severe inflammation of the throat and lungs and conjunctivitis and bronchitis were very common. Ben Rees’s death certificate includes chronic asthma as a cause of death.17
It is not clear how long Ben was in Barry Red Cross Hospital but he was certainly demobilised and back in Fishguard by 6th February 1919.18 With three gallantry medals won in six months, it is not surprising that Fishguard Council, chaired by his baker uncle, David, honoured him and other Lower Town medallists with a civic presentation in Lower Town Methodist Chapel on 5th September. Lady Jones of Pentower and Miss Chambers of Glynymel presented the medals to Ben who is described as a Lance Corporal in two papers but as a private in the London Gazette, the War Office Casualty List, and the Western Mail. 19
Ben Rees married Frances Owen, daughter of a Cardigan haulier at Llechryd in 1920 and the couple lived at Enslin Villa, St. Mary’s Street, Cardigan, throughout the 1 920s. At some point in this decade he became the South Wales representative for the Leicester clothing company, Wolsey Limited, which is not surprising given his pre-war experience in the drapery business. His only daughter was born in 1922 and in 1929 he was initiated into Teifi Masonic Lodge. The following year he was given the honour or carrying the new Cardigan British Legion standard on the dedication march. In 1935 or 1936 the family bought 13 Greenland Meadows in a leafy new Cardigan housing estate overlooking playing fields and within a stone’s throw of the County School and the war memorial.20
By now his health was failing and the Second World War reduced the retail market so from June 1941 Ben was working in the Royal Naval Armaments Depot in Trecwn as a Temporary Clerk Grade 3 in the Main Office on a salary of £3/12/0 per week. He died on 5th December 1943 aged only 54 having ‘suffered intensely’ for a number of years, as the obituary reported, and he was buried in Cardigan cemetery. His prosperous commercial traveller lifestyle can be judged by the fact that he left effects to the value of £2,584/8/0.
If this ‘most modest of men’ who ‘never spoke about his war achievements was indeed Pembrokeshire’s most decorated Great War soldier, as the County Echo suggested , it is time that the achievements of this ‘Fishguard Superhero’ were more widely known in his home county and that has been the purpose of this article. 22
- W. Ireland, The St01y of Stokey Lewis VC (1985).
- County Echo 5/12/1918.
- J.C. Latter, History of the Lancashir e Fusiliers 1914-18, 2 volumes (1949 ) and H. M. Davson, History of the 35th Division in the Great War (1926).
- G. A. Williams, The Welsh in their History (1981), 45.
- County Echo 16/12/01 1/09/04.
- County Echo 11/09/19 and Pembs. Record Office, Admission Register Fishguard County School 1901-9.
- County Echo 28/09/11 and 11/05/05 and 28/06/06 and 27/06/07 and 24/06/09.
- County Echo 28/09/11.
- County Echo 03/09/14 and 10/09/14.
- County Echo 07/10/15 and 04/05/16 and 10/02/16 and 21/12/16.
- Davson, 35th Division and J. W. Sandilands, A Lancashire Brigade in France ( 1919) and PRO, WO95/2484, War Diary of 17Bn. L.F.
- PRO, WO95/2483, 104 Brigade War Diary and WO95/2484 and County Echo 25/4/18 and 11/09/19 and London Gazette 12/06/18.
- Latter, Lancashire Fusiliers 1914-18, I, 354-6; Davson, 35th Division, 230-3 and Sandilands, Lancashire Brigade in France, 53-5. PRO, WO95/2484, War Diary of 17Bn. L.F., PRO, WO95/2483, 104 Brigade War Diary and County Echo 27/06/18 and 11/09/19 and London Gazette 07/10/18.
- See note 13 and Supplement to London Gazette , IO January 1920, 453.
- J. W. Sandilands, A Lancashire Brigade in France (1919), 759.
- PRO, War Office Weekly Casualty List, Nov. 12, 1918, 31 and County Echo 05/12/18 and 09/12/43 and Cardigan and Tivyside Advertiser 10/12/43.
- L. F. Haber, The Poisonous Cloud: Chemical Warfare in World War 1 (1986 ).
- County Echo 06/02119.
- County Echo 11/09/19 and Pembroke County Guardian, 10/09119 and Western Mail 06/09/19.
- Tivyside Advertiser 1920 ‘s and l 930’s and Library of United Grand Lodge of England.
- RNAD Trecwn Letter, Western Telegraph 11/12/43 and Somerset House Wills Letters of Administration.
- Western Telegraph 11/12/43 and County Echo 05/12/18.