23 February 2018

Cemetery of Great War poets restored

The CWGC cemetery containing the graves of First World War poets Lance Corporal Francis Ledwidge and Private Ellis Humphrey Evans – better known as Hedd Wyn – is being restored a century after their deaths.


The restoration of CWGC Artillery Wood Cemetery in Belgium has been made possible thanks to a grant of 3.9 million euros from the Flemish government. The grant was agreed in 2017 by Flemish Minister-President Geert Bourgeois and CWGC Vice Chairman Sir Tim Laurence.

The subsidy will be spread over five years and will be used to renovate 24 CWGC Military Cemeteries in the Ypres Salient. It has been made in recognition of the huge sacrifices made by Commonwealth forces in Belgium during the First World War and the historical, architectural and artistic value of the cemeteries and memorials maintained by the CWGC with such care for more than a century.

The restoration works at Artillery Wood Cemetery include the dismantling and reconstruction of the entrance building, tool shed and cemetery walls. To ensure the sustainability of the project, every element is carefully taken apart and if possible repaired and re-used. To this day, bricks are made by hand, baked in traditional ovens and chosen to ensure that the cemetery walls have the same color palette as a century ago.

Django Maekelberg, CWGC’s Head of Works in Western Europe, said: “The emotional value of a hundred year old cemetery is enormous to visitors from all over the world. By receiving this generous subsidy of more than 3.9 million euro, we are able to preserve and restore these monumental places of commemoration with respect to the original cemetery plans and with use of authentic materials and techniques. Undeniably, it is so important to safeguard these priceless treasures for future generations to come.”

Artillery Wood is the final resting place of two of the most well-known poets of the Great War – Irishman Francis Ledwidge and Welsh language poet Hedd Wyn.

CWGC historian Dr Glyn Prysor said: “Like so many Welsh men and women, Ellis Evans left his home to serve in a war which at times defied imagination. Writing as Hedd Wyn, his poetry was among the most profound, moving and inspirational to emerge from the war. Artillery Wood Cemetery is a place of pilgrimage for those of us who come here to reflect on his life, and the lives of thousands of his countrymen who now lie in Commonwealth War Graves, or whose names are inscribed on Memorials to the Missing, across Flanders, Europe, and the world.”

Headstone of Private Ellis Humphrey Evans – better known as Hedd Wyn - in CWGC Artillery Wood Cemetery

Ellis Evans came from a farming family in rural Gwynedd and enlisted in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers in February 1917. On 31 July 1917, the first day of the Battle of Pilckem Ridge (part of the Third Battle of Ypres), he was hit by a piece of trench mortar shell near Langemark and died at a nearby aid post. He is buried at the CWGC Artillery Wood Cemetery in a plot close to fellow poet Francis Ledwidge.

Evans was largely self-educated and showed an early talent for poetry in the Welsh bardic tradition. He took the first of the six poetry chairs he would win in competition in 1907 and was awarded his bardic name Hedd Wyn (‘blessed peace’) in 1910. Soon after his departure on active service, he completed Yr Arwr (The Hero), his entry for the 1917 National Eisteddfod, for which he was posthumously awarded the poetry chair.

Francis Ledwidge was brought up in hardship and poverty and yet despite his humble origins he became one the most highly regarded poets of his generation.

Francis had a natural flair for writing and this was spotted at an early age. He worked in agriculture and as a labourer, but his first poem, published in 1910, helped him to gain the patronage of the writer and literary figure Lord Dunsany.

Francis was a keen patriot and Irish nationalist, but on the outbreak of the First World War he joined the Royal Iniskilling Fusiliers in the belief that he ‘could not stand aside while others sought to defend Ireland's freedom’.

Francis served with distinction at Gallipoli in Turkey and Salonika in Greece before arriving on the Western Front in December 1916. By July 1917 he was in the Ypres Salient.

On 31 July 1917 Francis was one of a group of men making repairs to a road when he was killed by a German shell. A prolific poet, with an innate love of nature, only a handful of his poems make subtle reference to the war.

Peter Power-Hynes, a military historian, said: “Lord Dunsany was paying him a stipend to stay at home and write, but Ledwidge justified his decision to join the Dunsany’s regiment, the 5th Battalion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers as, ‘I joined the British army because England stood between Ireland and an enemy common to our civilisation, and I would not have had it said that she defended us while we did nothing at home but pass resolutions’.”

The work is scheduled for completion by the end of February. During the work, visitors are free to access the cemetery. The restoration work on the 24 CWGC cemeteries is phased to end in 2022.

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