“A brave and cheerful soldier”: The first Glamorgan school teacher to die on active service in France

Over fifteen thousand teachers joined the armed forces and fought in the First World War. Head teachers were required to keep a log of activity at the school and the log books for the Caerphilly schools, held at the Glamorgan Archives, tell the stories of many teachers who fought in the war. The log book for Cwmaber Boys’ School has a particularly poignant story in that it records the death of the first teacher from the Glamorgan area to die on active service, William Clifford Harris.

Cwmaber Boys’ School, with their motto ‘Better brains than brawn’, opened in 1909 and provided education for up to 250 boys from the Abertridwr and Senghenydd areas. From the autumn of 1914 onwards the school log book, kept by the Head Teacher, George Davies, made frequent reference to staff leaving to join the Forces.

ECG18_1 p94

During the holidays Mr W C Harris (U.T) joined the New Army and the staff is therefore short of one teacher [Cwmaber Boys’ School, 4 Jan 1915, ECG18/1 p.94]

Mr John A Roberts terminated his duties as Certificated Assistant here today. He has enlisted in the Royal Flying Corps and proceeds to Farnborough tomorrow [Cwmaber Boys’ School, 27 Sep 1915, ECG18/1 p.109]

Mr W S Trigg left school today. He has been granted a Commission in the 23rd Pioneer Batt’ and will commence his new duties tomorrow [Cwmaber Boys’ School, 31 Oct 1915, ECG18/1 p.111]

Mr Jno Ellis Williams returned to school today. He terminates his engagement at this school today and enters an O.T.C on 16th inst, after which he is taking a Commission offered him in the Welsh Guards [Cwmaber Boys’ School, 14 Dec 1915, ECG18/1 p.112]

Mr Haydn P Williams terminated his duties as Student Teacher at this school having been today called up for military service [Cwmaber Boys’ School, 14 Jan 1916, ECG18/1 p.130]

Mr Herbert H Beddow (Student teacher) left on Military Service this morning [Cwmaber Boys’ School, 5 March 1917, ECG18/1 p.133]

From the log book and other records at the Glamorgan Archives we can build up a picture of William Clifford Harris. In addition to the Cwmaber school log, he had been a pupil at Lewis School for Boys, Pengam and the Glamorgan Archives also holds detailed records for the school for this period.

William Clifford Harris was a local boy born at Rudry in January 1895. His father was William Harris and, therefore, to distinguish the two, William junior was referred to by his middle name Clifford. He lived for most of his life at the Post Office, 16 Garth Place, Rudry. His father was a grocer, born in Rudry and his mother, Ida, was from Stoke St Mary in Somerset. He had a brother, Harold, and 4 sisters and was educated, initially, at Rudry Council School. In October 1907 he applied to and was accepted at Lewis School for Boys. He finished his education at the school before moving to take up a post as a student teacher at Rudry Council School in October 1912, aged 17. He subsequently moved to Cwmaber Boys’ School as an Uncertified Assistant Teacher on 17 September 1913.

Four months after the outbreak of war, on 31 December 1914, he enlisted with the Royal Welsh Fusiliers at Caerphilly. Conscription was not introduced until 1916 so Clifford, aged 19 at the time, was one of the many young men from South Wales who volunteered for active service. Along with other recruits to the 16th Battalion of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, Clifford completed his initial training in North Wales, probably at Llandudno, and then moved with the Battalion to Winchester in September 1915 to complete his training before embarking for France. The school log book records that before leaving for Winchester he returned on leave to South Wales and called at the school to catch up with colleagues and pupils [Cwmaber Boys School, 26 Jul 1915, ECG18/1 p.107].

ECG18_1 p107

Sadly six months later and just days after Clifford’s 21st birthday, George Davies recorded in the school log book:

ECG18_1 p114

News reached the school today that one of our staff, Pte W C Harris, 16th Batt’ Royal Welsh Fusiliers, had been killed in action on Sunday, Jan 30th 1916.  He was shot by a German sniper in the chest, but continued firing until he was again shot in the head [Cwmaber Boys School, 7 Feb 1916, ECG18/1 p.114]

The 16th Battalion of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, part of Kitchener’s New Army, had landed in France in December 1915 and moved into the frontline near Neuve Chapelle on 6 January. The Battalion then moved to the St Vaast area on 27 January and Clifford died 3 days later. On 16 February the following press cutting was pasted into the log book:

 ECG18_1 p115

Caerphilly Teacher Killed

At a meeting of the Caerphilly school managers yesterday (Councillor Joseph Howells presiding) a letter was read from Dr J. James, Chief Education official, stating that he had been informed that a teacher in the Caerphilly group – Mr W C Harris – had been killed in action. He was attached to the 16th Royal Welsh Fusiliers.  The Headmaster of the school had sought permission to affix a brass tablet to the wall in the school, on which would be engraved the names of any old scholars and teachers who gave their lives for their country.  The letter also stated that Mr Harris was the first teacher under the Glamorgan Authority who had made the great sacrifice in defence of his country. Votes of sympathy were passed with the relatives of both families, and it was decided to recommend that permission be given for the tablet to be placed in the school as requested [Cwmaber Boys’ School, 16 Feb 1916, ECG18/1 p.115]

There is no further reference to the brass tablet in the Cwmaber School log book and it is possible that it was lost when the school closed in 1973. Clifford Harris was not the only teacher from the Cwmaber School to lose his life in the war. On June 4 1917 an entry in the school log recorded:

News has been received that L Corp JJ Wibley (a former teacher at this school) has died from the effect of wounds received in action in France [Cwmaber Boys’ School, 4 Jun 1917, ECG18/1 p.136]

However, Clifford’s death, the first of many young teachers from the Glamorgan area in the First World War, must have been particularly poignant and he is remembered, along with 12 other local men, on the parish memorial at St James’ Church, Rudry. There is also a memorial at the Ebenezer Congregational Chapel.

Sacred to the memory of Pte W Clifford Harris (16th Battalion, Royal Welsh Fusiliers). Aged 21 years who was killed in action at St Vaast, France, January 30 1916. He died as he had lived. A brave and cheerful soldier.

Tony Peters, Glamorgan Archives Volunteer

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One thought on ““A brave and cheerful soldier”: The first Glamorgan school teacher to die on active service in France

  1. Thank you so much for posting this entry.

    William Clifford Harris was my mother’s first cousin and was actually born on 10 Feb 1895 so was killed just 12 days before his 21st birthday. His last letter home (which was sadly lost nearly 50 years ago) was written to my mother who continued to mourn him until her own death in January 1980 . Clifford was a very popular boy in Rudry and my mother used to tell the story of skating on the ice in the village. Clifford would say that he was crossing the Straits of Dover. When telling this story, my mother would end tearfully by saying, “He never thought he would really cross them one day, never to return”.

    His brother, Harold, also served and was gassed but survived and lived until 1969. Of the sisters, the eldest, Irene, followed her father as Postmaster but never married, Daisy (or Marguerite) became a hospital Matron before she was 30 and after her marriage became very involved in the St John Ambulance Brigade. She represented the Priory of Wales at the Coronation in 1953 and was invested as a Serving Sister of the Order of St. John. Maureen Templeman, the daughter of the youngest sister, Nancy, followed her uncle into the teaching profession and taught in London and Caerphilly. She still lives in a house opposite the former Post Office in Rudry at the age of nearly 88.

    I have two photos of Clifford in uniform, one of which is a group photo of the 16th Battalion and I often wonder how many of the young men survived that dreadful War. One day, I hope to be able to make the pilgrimage to he little cemetery at St. Vaast to visit Clifford’s grave. Although there is no one left who knew Clifford, he is still proudly remembered in the family.

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