FIRST PERSON: Remarkable life of a Blaenavon war hero’s daughter
6:20pm Wednesday 18th September 2013 in News
Christopher Davies was a WWI hero who led 20 other prisoners of war back home. His daughter Phyllis Roberts, 89, told Jen Mills his amazing story as well as describing her own experiences in WWII and serving her community as a councillor, news agent and magistrate.
“It’s a story I’ve known all my life, only it wasn’t much talked about because my father never talked about the war.
He was a prisoner of war in Germany for two years. He was still young, about 17 when he went to the war. He was taken prisoner - I think it was at the Somme. His mother was notified he was missing, presumed dead. They never heard anything from him for two years.
When the war was over the Germans didn’t tell them that the Armistice had been signed. They just opened the doors and said, “You can go.” My father was a very young man but he was very intelligent. He must have been good at geography. There were about 20 of them he brought through Germany into Belgium. By the time they had walked all that way they didn’t have any shoes on their feet. Their clothes had dropped off because they had lost so much weight.
But the Belgians welcomed them with open arms. They fed them and gave them shoes and clothes and a map. They had to come to the French coast to report at Dover. Nobody helped them to get there. That was the way they found out who had survived the war and who was returning.
But when he came to Dover, I don’t know if the others went to report but he didn’t. He came straight home. He’d had enough of the war and enough of anybody that had anything to do with militarism whatsoever. He just came home to Blaenavon on the train.
One of his neighbours told me, years and years after, that when he came home they went back to the bottom station. They carried him up through the town shoulder high.
When I was about nine, he used to write letters to the press because he was a prominent miners’ leader. He wrote about what was going on with the government, the way they were treating the miners.
A man from Cardiff whose name was Bridge wrote him a letter and said “Are you the Christopher Davies that led us through Belgium to France?”
The only thing he ever said about the prison camp was that they were short of food. There was a bin where the slops were put, but the Germans had a machine gun trained on it. They knew they couldn’t even eat the waste.
He had an abscess in the palm of his hand, He had to have it cut out without anaesthetic. Because he wouldn’t let the Germans see he was suffering he didn’t murmur or make a noise. When they finished, they said “Good Tommy.”
When he came back he never wanted anything at all to do with the military. He wasn’t even willing for me to join the Girl Guides or the Brownies because they wore a uniform.
He was always playing practical jokes. When I was four he gave me this war medal and said: “Go down Mrs Price’s to the chip shop and ask her for some fish and chips.” My mother said: “Oh Chris, don’t do that to her.” I went to Mrs Price and she called her husband and said: “Look what this Chris has done now!” She gave me the chips but she gave me the medal as well to come back with.
He never talked about the war but he suffered from it. There were days when he couldn’t go to work because he’d been awake all night having nightmares. He used to say to my brother, don’t ever let me see a gun in your hand. Not even playing cowboys and Indians. He used to say, “Everybody in war is somebody’s mother’s son.”
My father was an outstanding man. He was president of the local branch of the miners’ union. When he came back from the war he went back underground. In later years he took his fireman’s examination and then he was a fireman at Big Pit.
He used to take my brother and I up the mountain for a walk every Sunday morning. Rain, hail or snow, we didn’t mind going because he was such an interesting person to listen to. I think that’s where I started getting my political convictions from. We knew everything that was going on with the miners. His friends were people like Jim Griffiths and Aneurin Bevan.
When I was four I had smallpox and I had to go to a sanatorium. I was taken out of the house on Christmas Eve and I went to Llanfoist. I was there until my birthday in April. When you had it, you had to notify the health inspector. I don’t remember crying to come home – I was up on the table dancing and reciting. I came from a family like that. The kids would be crying because they were brought from their mothers. The nurse used to say, “Come on Phyllis, look after them.” I think I was grown up at four years old.
I went to church school, then Hillside High and Elementary. I married Tom Roberts, who was well known in Blaenavon. He passed away 30 years ago. We met at a dance in Mostyn Hall. It was a good meeting place, especially in the black-out. We did have air-raids here although we didn’t have a lot, but we had the home guard, who were very officious! Once my husband and I were walking down the Abergavenny Road at about 9am. These two men who I knew, and another one who was the sergeant, said: “Halt, who goes there? Can we see your identity cards please?” I hadn’t got mine - we didn’t carry them all the time. They said, “We’ll have to take your names and addresses and you’ll have to spend the night in the guards’.” I knew them both. One of them lived on my street!
They’d shout up to the bedroom window, “Put that light out or we’ll put a bullet through it!” There’s nothing like a little bit of authority for some people.
I had a news agents business. I joined the Labour party and I became chairwoman of Blaenavon District Council, in 1970, for only the second time in the history of the council a lady had been chosen. It was a man’s domain then. I was a magistrate for 30 years. I’m now acting chairwoman for the over-50s forum.
I’m well known that if I’m in a meeting or on a committee, I will have my say.”
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