WHEN Ellis Humphrey Evans was born on January 13, 1887, the first of his parents’ fourteen children, it’s difficult to imagine anyone would have thought he would be one of Wales’ best known poets nearly 135 years later. 

Like millions of his generation his life would be cruelly cut short by what has since become known as the First World War – it is also the conflict that has in many ways defined Evans and his poetry in the collective mindset. 

The war had removed the poet, who had worked as a shepherd since leaving school at 14, from his native Meirionnydd and transported him to the killing fields of the Western Front and loaded his triumphant moment as a poet with grief and poignancy. 

Better known by his bardic name, Hedd Wyn, Evans won the cadair, or chair, at the National Eisteddfod in Birkenhead on the Wirral in September 1917. Tragically he couldn’t be there to take his place as he had lost his life on the first day of the Battle of Passchendaele a little over a month earlier. 

It is this tragedy which has almost certainly ensured Hedd Wyn is a name that still resonates today and which was also judged feature film worthy, with the film itself nominated for an Oscar. 

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The 1992 Welsh language film showed how Evans had won a certain local celebrity in Trawsfynydd, where he was born and spent most of his life, and he had first entered the National Eisteddfod in 1915 and taken second place at the 1916 competition. 

Both those entries reflected Evans’ interest in nature and celebrated the areas hosting the annual competition. His 1915 entry, for the Eisteddfod in Bangor, was Eryri an ode to Snowdonia and his second place poem, the following year at Aberystwyth, was written in honour of Strada Floridia the medieval abbey ruins in Ceredigion. 

But as the Great War, that began in 1914, three years before what should have been Evans’ proudest moment, continued it had not only encroached on his mindset but had taken him from the landscape and home life that he cherished through conscription. 

Though farming was a reserved occupation the 1916 Military Service Act meant the family were required to send one of their sons to fight "for King and country". Evans was a Christian and a pacifist but aged 29 enlisted to ensure his younger brother, Robert, wouldn’t have to. 

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Now a soldier, he was released from training in spring 1917 as the government called for help with ploughing. Evans was able to return to the family’s small hill farm near Trawsfynydd to help work the land.  

He also used the opportunity to craft his poem Yr Arwr (The Hero) which was to be his entry for the upcoming National Eisteddfod and which he first began working on the previous October before he was called up in February. 

His final submission however, wouldn’t be posted until after his arrival in France, as part of the 15th Battalion of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, in June. 

The National Library of Wales, which has one of the final handwritten drafts - 25 pages long with corrections in pencil -  in its collection, has described the war as slowly taking hold of the poet. 

“With the outbreak of the Great War in 1914 the tone of Hedd Wyn’s works changed to discuss the horror of the war, and he wrote many poems in memory of friends who had died on the battlefields.” 

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The winning poem reflects the uncertainty of the time and the longing for a peaceful state when millions of lives were thrown into turmoil. 

The National Wales: Ellis Humphrey Evans known as Hedd WynEllis Humphrey Evans known as Hedd Wyn

The poem, which is an ode, is divided into four parts and has two main characters ‘Merch y Drycinoedd’ (The Daughter of Tempests) and ‘Yr Arwr’. 

According to the library the poem can be seen as offering hope of a better future, though its meanings have been the subject of debate and interpretation. 

“It can be said with certainty that Hedd Wyn (like his favourite poet Shelley) longed for a perfect humanity and a perfect world during a time of great instability in the shadow of the First World War. 

“It is believed that ‘Merch y Drycinoedd’ is a symbol of love, the beauty of nature and creativity. It is believed that ‘Yr Arwr’ is a symbol of goodness, fairness, freedom and justice, and that it is through his sacrifice, and his union with ‘Merch y Drycinoedd’ at the end of the ode that a better age will come.” 

Sadly though, the moment Evans had surely dreamed of, when ‘Fleur-de-lis’ his ffug enw, or nom de plume, which translates as his fake name or nickname, was called had materialised, he had already passed away. 

Slain on the battlefield, with a friend having reported seeing a shell hit his stomach, there was no winner in Birkenhead for the ceremony which was attended by the Prime Minister, and Welsh speaker, David Lloyd George. 

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Fleur-de-lis was called out three times and no one stepped forward at Birkenhead Park. The Archdruid then announced that the winner had been killed in battle six weeks earlier. 

The chair, which Evans should have sat in, was draped in a black shroud and sent on its way to the family farm Yr Ysgwrn in Trawsfynydd, where the village turned out for a homecoming for the prize which it couldn’t give its famed son. 

The 1917 Birkenhead Eisteddfod became known as ‘Eisteddfod y Gadair Ddu’ – the Eisteddfod of the Black Chair’. 

It is also the beginning of the legacy of Hedd Wyn, celebrated as a Welsh war poet, who in contrast to some in the English language, hadn’t romanticised a conflict which had shaped his poetry and his place in history but of which he wanted no part. 

The chair remains in the farmhouse to this day with Yr Ysgwrn having been bought by the Eryri National Park in 2012 having for years been maintained by Evans’ nephew Gerald Williams. 

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Gerald, who died in June last year aged 92, had kept a promise to his mother, one of Evans’ sisters, that he would keep the poet’s memory alive. The friendly farmer had run the farm single-handedly since 1954 but would stop what he was doing to welcome visitors to his home and show them the chair. 

Emyr Williams, chief executive of the park authority, paid tribute to Gerald at the time and said: “We were honoured Gerald entrusted Yr Ysgwrn to us to safeguard for future generations and to ensure the continuation of his promise to his grandmother to 'keep the door open'." 

The National Wales: Hedd Wyn's nephew Gerald WilliamsHedd Wyn's nephew Gerald Williams

At the 2017 National Eisteddfod, the centenary of his uncle’s triumph, Gerald told an event at y Maes in Bodedern on Ynys Môn: “I have grown up with the story of Hedd Wyn, it has been my life, keeping my uncle’s memory alive, and the farm open for people to see where he lived. 

“It is emotional and very poignant being here on the anniversary of his death and 100 years since he won the chair.” 

The symbolism of the black chair, and the loss felt by Evans’ family and friends, would prove powerful in ensuring the lasting legacy of the poet and his work. 

JR Jones, the headteacher of the school in Trawsfynydd, was the chair of a committee formed to preserve the legacy of Hedd Wyn and a statue of him, dressed as a shepherd, was erected in the centre of the village in 1923. It also published a collection of his work, Cerddi’r Bugail (the Shepherd’s Poems) in 1918. 

In 1934 Jones had donated the manuscript, and other items related to Evans, to the National Library. 

Today Hedd Wyn remains one of Wales’ best loved poets. 

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