A PROJECT hopes to uncover stories of the hundreds of Newport men from Lysaghts steelworks who went to fight on the First World War. MARTIN WADE finds out more.

Among the many memorials to the dead of the First World War in Gwent are those found in places of work. They tell of the bus drivers or the postal workers who joined up never to return. Often they are small plaques with a handful of names.

But one place of work in Newport has a memorial like that which often graces a village or a small town. The sacrifice of the Orb workers was on that scale. The names of the 121 of the fallen from these works was unveiled in 1924.

The Orb Steelworks is a name which resonates still as synonymous with industrial Newport. The vast works were created when the firm, owned by the Lysaght family, moved from its base in Wolverhampton to build a factory on the east bank of the Usk.

Whole streets were built to house the workers who came in their thousands. Many are still there, their names inspired by the quiet villages scattered across rural Monmouthshire, like Portskewett Street.

When war came in 1914, hundreds at the Orb works answered the call to arms. Historian Stephen Berry, author of the Orb Steel Works Centenary Book says the contribution of the Orb workers to the war effort was astounding. “Between August and December 1914 alone 852 men from the steelworks enlisted, but many more followed subsequently.”

“During the First World War everybody was encouraged to sign up or join the war effort. The men of the Orb Steelworks answered that call in their droves and were encouraged by their employer to go."

A project launched this week wants to tell the story of these men.

'First World War - Steel Remembered' is led by Linc Cymru, the organisation behind the restoration of Newport’s Lysaght Institute, named after WR Lysaght, the chairman of the steelworks.

The project aims to uncover the stories of the Orb steelworkers who served in the First World War through events, workshops and outreach programmes. It aims also for people of all ages to take part in the research, learn new skills and create a digital archive.

One story already known is that of a steelworker Thomas Swatman. Born in 1889, he came with his family from Wolverhampton to work in the sheet mills at the Orb works. All eight of them lived in a four-room house on Magor Street. Life at the Orb works, although hard, saw Thomas’ lot improve. In 1912 he married Elizabeth Masters and they went on to have two daughters, Elizabeth and Florence. He played regularly for the Lysaght cricket team.

But with the coming of war, he had to leave this life behind and he joined the South Wales Borderers in early 1915. By September he was fighting in France.

Thomas’ unit, the 10th Battalion (1st Gwent) South Wales Borderers saw fighting for much of the war on the Western Front. Having survived actions like the Battle of the Somme, where the unit was involved in bloody fighting at Mametz Wood.

One evening in February 1918, Thomas was part of a patrol tasked with moving into no-man’s land to repair torn barbed wire and report on enemy positions. The patrol was spotted and the Germans opened fire several times. Thomas was on his way back to his trench when he was killed.

At home, his wife would receive his 1914-1915 Star, Victory Medal and British Medal. She would also have £20, 14 shillings and 9d from the War Office for war gratuity and pay that Thomas was never able to collect.

Stephen Berry says they hope to find many more stories like that of Pte Swatman. Long though the roll of honour is telling of the many steelworkers who died, the stories of those who returned are harrowing too.

“No-one who enlisted came out of the experience unscathed and we are keen also to explore the social effects on those who survived and the families of those who did not.”

He adds: “My great uncle, who worked at the Orb Works, survived the war but was profoundly affected by it. He was gassed, but eventually came back to work.” Eventually he had to leave. “He simply could not hold the job down and he ended up giving out handbills on the trams in Newport.”

The project will last two years and has been supported with a £32,900 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Linc’s community engagement assistant Suzy Bowers says the aim of the project is to involve local people in bringing stories like Pte Swatman’s to life.

“Everybody is invited to get involved in the basic research, to learn about how information is archived, share stories and gather evidence that can be documented as part of the project. We hope that the project will also give people a sense of ownership and local pride by celebrating the huge contribution made by the Orb steel workers as Britain prepares to mark the centenary of the Great War.”

Also involved are the National Museum Wales, Gwent Archives and the University of South Wales, as well as several local schools, tenant groups from Linc and the Lysaght Community Focus Group.

The project will culminate in exhibitions held in 2018 at the Senedd and at the Lysaght Institute to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the end of the war.

For more information, including how to volunteer to take part in the research, visit facebook.com/steelremembered or contact Suzy Bowers on 07773 180993.