13 Jul 1893-24 Mar 1918
Arthur Owens was born at Gelli in the Upper Rhondda Valley, Glamorganshire on July 13th 1893. He was the second of ten children born to Edward Owens and Mary Jane Speed who were married in Gelli in the summer of 1889. Their first child Mary Jane was born the following year followed by Arthur in 1893, Ellen in 1894, Wesley in 1897, Sylvester in 1890, Mildred in 1900, Olive in 1905, Mabel in 1907, Ernest in 1908 and Minnie May in 1909. The family attended the local chapel and were thus not baptised as infants but, as often happened in the valleys, the first five children were baptised together on 24 Apr 1901 at the parish church. The family were then living at Lloyd Street and Edward was a coal miner. Gelli and its surrounding villages were mining communities so it is surprising that on the 1911 census, when the family had moved round the corner to Rees Street, Arthur then aged 18 is listed as a boot shop assistant. There must have been a reason why he did not follow his father into the mines, presumably health related.
Three years later, on June 14th 1914 Arthur married Ada Jane Price (my great aunt) at St Sannan’s Church, Bedwellty in Monmouthshire. Their daughter Phyllis Audrey was born in July 1915 in Bedwellty.
Arthur joined the 5th Battalion South Wales Borderers in. The 5th battalion was formed in Brecon in September 1914 and converted to a pioneer battalion in 1915. By July 1915 they were in France. They took part in all of the battles on the Western front over the next three years. As pioneers their work was heavy. They made roads, railways and tramways, dug trenches and tunnels and moved supplies. By March 1918 the battalion was part of the Third Army and were called upon to fight on the front line.
From the beginning of March the pioneer battalions were engaged in digging new trenches in the area around the Somme river. Intelligence had uncovered a plan for a major German attack in order to push the allies back towards the coast. They did not quite know where or when but knew it was coming. The United States would soon be reinforcing the allies and the Germans had to attempt to stop the allies before this happened. The attack was later named The Spring Offensive.
The first attack came on March 21st when at 4.20 in the morning, thousands of guns and mortars suddenly began a massive bombardment. The allies had become used to almost static warfare for many months and this sudden advance took them by surprise. At the front of the line were elite German soldiers who carried nothing but weapons and so could move quickly into the attack followed by reinforcements. They broke through the lines and attacked from all sides.
Hand to hand fighting ensued as the allied lines were continually broken before troops regrouped and pushed the Germans back. The battle continued over several days and the war diary of the 5th battalion records on the 24th the desperate efforts to defend the allied lines.
“At 2pm the right flank gave way suddenly and, without warning, two platoons were moved across the Fremicourt-Buapume Road to push back and hold the enemy the reverse side of the ridge. Very severe fighting took place until 4pm when the company had to withdraw owing to right flank being enfiladed.”
With German soldiers inside the allied trenches, the men were withdrawn to the Red line In fact the entire third and fifth armies were ordered to retreat and the Somme area conceded to the Germans.
Inevitably many thousands of men on both sides were killed, wounded or lost. Arthur Owens was listed on March 24th as wounded and missing. It appears that he was never found as he is commemorated on the Arras Memorial
His wife Ada became a nurse and never remarried. By the beginning of World War 2, she was living and working in Brighton but died in Ebbw Vale ten years later at the age of fifty-six. Their daughter Audrey remained in South Wales, marrying in 1940 in Bedwellty and having four children. She died in Cwmbran in 1976.
In Memory of
Private ARTHUR OWENS
39344, 5th Bn., South Wales Borderers
who died age 24
on 24 March 1918
Son of Edward and Mary Jane Owens, of Ystrad, (Rhondda), Glam.; husband of Ada Jane Owens, of 48, Tredegar Rd., Ebbw Vale, Mon.
Remembered with honour