Hedd Wyn : The Lost War Poet

BBC Wales | 1 x 60minutes

Ifor ap Glyn tells the story of Hedd Wyn, Wales’ most famous poet. Killed on the battlefields of Belgium he came to symbolize the tragic loss of Welsh lives during WW1.

The story of Hedd Wyn is one of Wales’ enduring tragedies. A young man with little or no education succeeds in winning The Chair, one of the main literary prizes at the National Eisteddfod, but is killed in the Great War, before he could claim his prize. To mark the centenary of the poet’s death, National Poet of Wales, Ifor ap Glyn re-assesses the poet’s life and work.

His journey takes him from Trawsfynydd, where Hedd Wyn was born and raised, to Liverpool, where he was trained to fight, and onwards to France and Belgium, where he was killed in action on 31st July, 1917.

In 2013, Hedd Wyn’s home at Yr Ysgwrn was sold by his nephew Gerald Williams to the Snowdonia National Park Authority. Gerald, who is 88 years old, never married and wanted to preserve Hedd Wyn’s legacy for future generations. The SNPA have just completed a Lottery funded transformation of the site into a visitor centre. Gerald was raised at Yr Ysgwrn by his grandmother, Hedd Wyn’s mother, and was always instructed by her that the door to Yr Ysgwrn should always remain open to visitors.

Seeing the furniture leave the farmhouse for essential conservation work was particularly hard on Gerald, though he understood the need. The dresser, clocks, beds, and of course Hedd Wyn’s collection of six chairs were all packed up and taken away for a year, including the most famous of all the chairs, the Chair of the National Eisteddfod of 1917. Whilst Hedd Wyn became an iconic figure here in Wales, so too did this chair. When it became known to the eisteddfod committee that the bard had been killed and would not be there to collect it, it was decided that the chair be draped in black during the ceremony. From then on, it would forever be known as The Black Chair, and the eisteddfod itself as The Eisteddfod of the Black Chair.

Ifor visits Hugh Hayley, one of Britain’s leading furniture conservators, to gain an insight into the remarkable woodcarvings embedded into the ancient oak of the Black Chair, a living testament to the skill of Belgian master craftsman Eugeen Vanfleteren. One of the 250,000 Belgian refugees forced from their homes by the Germans, Vanfleteren settled with his family in Birkenhead. Six months before the eisteddfod, he was commissioned by a local businessman to construct a chair worthy of the main prize. His chair was to become his masterpiece.

In France and Belgium, Ifor re-traces the poet’s final weeks, days and minutes. His successful poem, aptly titled Yr Arwr (The Hero), was finished and sent from the trenches, and his florid yet absorbing letters from the front seem to paint a picture of a young man who still felt the creative urge, amidst all that went on around him.

Featuring fascinating first hand accounts, interviews recorded during the 1960s and 70s with family and friends, and contemporary archive material from WW1, Ifor re-assesses the poet’s legacy. Why does this story continue to fascinate us so? What would Hedd Wyn have achieved had he lived? Maybe these are questions that can never be fully answered, but one thing’s for certain, Hedd Wyn’s legacy persists.