By Derek Rees

IT’S a sobering thought that I was born a mere 15 years after the end of the First World War so “the last war”, as we called it then, was still a factor in everyday conversation when I was a child.


First World War postcards

There were still many relatively young men whose lives were affected by that war to end all wars, some of them young enough to have enlisted in the next conflict as the youngest were barely into their forties, some with children of my own age.

Many bore the scars of battle, both physical and mental, and I knew as a lad a church warden of St Mary’s Church, Jack Rogers of Spring Gardens, with a dent in the middle of his forehead as deep as a teaspoon, and a well-known local huntsman, Tom Jones (Mrs Glenys Warren’s father), with a sticking plaster over the empty socket of one eye, which enemy shrapnel had removed in 1914.


My English teacher in the grammar school was Mr G Douglas James, of Albert Street, the noted local historian, who used to regale pupils with stories of the war, including the tale of the ‘Pork and Beans’.


Douglas James

At one stage Portuguese soldiers were coerced into joining up and war records show that they had no appetite for trench warfare.

“We would be advancing one way after going over the top,” Mr James told us, “and they would be running past us in the other direction – we called them the ‘Pork and Beans’.”

Our Latin master was another survivor of the Somme, George Phillips, or ‘Georgie one-arm,’ who lived in Merlin’s Hill, and who lost the lower part of one arm in the fierce fighting in Mametz Wood.

He was a lovely man who remembered his past pupils long after he retired, stopping them in the street to ask them in the Latin idiom: “How old a man would you be now?”

To this query on one occasion I told him I was 45 and he replied: “Exactly half my age.”


FIRST World War veterans - and heroes - were everywhere.

Harry Morgan from Prendergast and Tom Thomas from Dew Street both won the Military Medal for bravery in 1917 and the borough council took the opportunity, while they were home on leave, to hold a ceremony in their honour on Castle Square, conferring on them the freedom of the borough.

Mr Morgan’s son Haydn was also a war hero, winning the Croix de Guerre as a young Marine Commando for rescuing some French servicemen off the D-Day beaches by forming a human bridge between his boat and their sinking craft while wounded by enemy fire.

Other Military Medallists were Ted Mortimer of Herbrandston, Bob Griffiths of Lamphey and Ald Claude Davies of Prendergast.

My chief reporter in the Western Telegraph, W T (Billy) Jacks, may not have won a medal but had the distinction of becoming one of the youngest sergeants in the army while still in his teens.


MR Bill Thompson, whose newsagent’s shop was in Bridgend Square until the late 50s, served as a rigger on airships, risking his life working 60-feet up on those dirigibles in huge hangars at Cardington, Bedford.


Mr Thompson told me over 50 years ago that he had a narrow escape, when he slid off the curved top of an airship in the hangar, but lived to tell the tale when he grabbed a rigging wire on his way down the side.


BILL Crockett, father of teachers Betty Crocket and Barbara Tubb, was a flight engineer in the crew of a large Handley Page V/1500 bomber which flew all the way from England to Kabul in 1918 to drop one bomb on a government building there.


Bill Crockett


The flight took a couple of weeks (no need for early warning systems) and the plane had to make a forced landing for repairs in a seemingly unoccupied desert – that is until hordes of Arabs materialised out of the sand. But they were curious rather than threatening and the pioneer flight was able to continue.

How on earth they managed to land safely and, even more amazing, take off from the sand in such a huge and basic flying machine defies imagination.

Mr Crockett had joined the RFC but it had changed to the RAF by the time of the raid.


ONE of the most fascinating interviews with a WW1 soldier that I ever experienced was one I had in 1976 with Colonel L Hugh Higgon at his home in Manorbier.


Colonel L Hugh Higgon

His matter-of-fact delivery in describing the most horrendous conditions he and his troops withstood in that nightmare scenario in the Flanders mud, was testimony to the tremendous courage and fortitude which earned him an MC and bar and two mentions in despatches.

Two of his brothers were killed in Gallipoli in 1915 and France in 1916, the latter, his older brother Major John Higgon, dying only seven days after Col Higgon had visited him in the trenches.

He told me in 1976: “I saw quite a bit of action. It was very exciting you know. I was in Ypres for 16 months in what was called the Salient. It was very unpleasant because they could shoot at you from both sides. But on the days we weren’t in action it was rather boring.

There were thousands of rats there, so I thought it would be nice if I could get some ferrets out there.

“I had 16 ferrets eventually and one of the bombardiers was a gamekeeper from Norfolk and was put in charge of the ferrets. We went ferreting every Thursday as far as we could manage. We had enormous numbers of troops from various regiments join in, perhaps 60 or 80 men, and it was difficult to control them, and in this free-for-all it was far more dangerous than the Germans, and they had all sorts of weapons to kill the rats.

“One of the Australians came out with an axe, but that was a bit much and I had to ask him to return the axe and find himself some wood. It was great fun - not for the rats but for us.”

I couldn’t draw Col Higgon to expand on the grimmer aspects of the war. All he would say was “it was sometimes uncomfortable and unpleasant.”

Col Higgon, at one time Lord Lieutenant of Pembrokeshire, died aged 103 in 1987.


ANOTHER remarkable soldier I had the honour of knowing was Pembrokeshire’s only VC of the war, Private Hubert ‘Stokey’ Lewis of Milford Haven, who was only a little over five feet tall but showed amazing courage in Macokovo, Salonica, in October 1916.


'Stokey' Lewis

Twice wounded while carrying out a raid on enemy trenches, he refused medical aid and was wounded again while searching enemy dugouts.

Seeing three Germans approaching, he immediately attacked them single-handed, capturing all three, and, as the raiding party returned to their own lines, he heard a call for help from a wounded British officer lying in an enemy trench.

Without hesitation, he went to his aid and managed to bring him back safely before collapsing exhausted and badly injured. He was presented with his VC by King George V at Buckingham Palace.

I got to know ‘Stokey’ as a teenage cub reporter for the Western Telegraph in the 1950s during news-gathering visits to Milford Haven Fish Market, and could well understand his wartime exploits.

He was an unpredictable prankster prone to sudden attacks, once lunging at me with a large fishknife which I failed to avoid, he left me with a slit shirt and a small nick in the skin on my stomach. He also once reached into a fish box behind him during a conversation with Herbert Thomas, News Editor of the Telegraph, swiping him with a hake, just for fun.

Sadly, Stokey lost a son in a WW2 RAF raid over Germany and was devastated again in the sixties when his grandson died in an accident involving a reversing bus at Hobbs Point.

It was Stokey who unveiled the WW2 Cenotaph at Salutation Square in 1921 and his VC is now on display at the Lord Ashcroft Gallery at the Imperial War Museum in London.


WHEN Leslie Gibbon of Haverfordwest left his job as a clerk with the Borough Council to go to war, the council presented him with a silver cigarette case.

And when he retired in the early sixties, he responded to the Mayor’s comments on his long service as a Chief Clerk by producing his gift, which had a deep dent in the side. “This saved my life during the war,” he told members.

“I carried it in my breast pocket right through the war and, when I was hit by a bullet, it saved my life.”


WHEN Dick John of Rock House, Salutation Square, was a young soldier out in France he met a Cardiff Tommy called Len Wynde.


Lance Cpl Dick John (seated) and Benje Phillips, father of Western Telegraph reporter Peter Phillips

Inevitably, they lost contact when the war ended, and it was about 45 years later, thanks to a chance remark, that it was discovered that they had a family relationship which neither knew anything about. The Cardiff man was my uncle, one of my mother’s older brothers, and, during a visit to my parents he happened to mention that he knew a Haverfordwest man named Dick John during the war and asked if we knew him.

Dick John, the well-known builder and undertaker, was my wife’s uncle, and my uncle Len was astonished to know that I had married his old WW1 pal’s niece.

It’s a small world.