From Tbilisi with love

In 1914, three brothers left their sleepy village of Brynteg in Anglesey to join their battalions destined for France. Only one would return. The survivor, Morris Owen, became the Great Gandfather of Kathryn Lewis who currently works with 1st Military Working Dog Regiment. Here is her account.

My Great Grandfather had often talked about his wartime experience and especially about one incident when he had been moving horses between positions in France when he heard his name being called out in a very familiar Welsh lilt. He realised that his brother Edward was marching with his battalion in the opposite direction and for just a few minutes they were reunited. It would be the last time they would see each other. Edward was killed on 16 December 1917 aged 25 and is buried at Lembet Road cemetery in Thessaloniki.

It would be the last time they would see each other Kathryn Lewis

William Owen joined the 7th Battalion South Wales Borderers and sailed from Marseilles to Salonika on 10th October 1915 to join the British Salonika Force to oppose the Bulgarian Forces’ advances on the Macedonian Front. But it was events occurring in Allied Russia that would bring William to the Caucuses. By 1917, support for the Tsarist government had evaporated. The Russian Revolution led to the Tsar’s abdication and rise of the communist Bolshevik “Reds” saw Russian withdraw from World War One in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. The counter-revolutionary “Whites” were supported by the Allied Forces with Winston Churchill convinced that they could stamp out the Bolsheviks.

The involvement of the Allies in the Caucuses was twofold; the Allied military mission to support the White Army against the Reds and the elite Dunsterforce led by Major General Lionel Dunsterville. In December 1917, Major General Dunsterville led a coalition specially selected soldiers from across all Allied forces in the Western and Mesopotamian Fronts who were required to be “of dash and intelligence”. Their mission was to organize, train and eventually lead the Armenians, Georgians and Tartars (these being the people of the Southern Caucasus) for the prevention of the spreading of German propaganda to Afghanistan. Then to India, the protection of the BAKU oil fields, the prevention of the Cotton crop stored at KRASNOVODSK getting into German hands and to provide an additional force to operate against the Turks from the East, and to hold the BATOUM – TIFLIS – BAKU – KRASNOVOSK line to Afghanistan. Despite heroic efforts, Dunsterforce were overpowered in the Battle of Baku and were forced to withdraw. Although widely criticised, the legacy of Dunsterforce was celebrated as Churchill wrote:

“The British forces, about 20,000 strong, were, by the end of January 1919, in possession of one of the greatest strategic lines in the world, and both flanks rested securely on superior naval power on two inland seas. What the British Government was going to do with it was never fully thought out”

Records are unclear on the cause of William’s death on 5th February 1919 aged 27, but he was buried at Tiflis Military Cemetery shortly afterwards. In 1920, the 31 recorded occupants of Tiflis Military Cemetery were exhumed and reburied in the British Military Cemetery Tiflis. The reason for this is unknown, but it was not uncommon for hastily buried soldiers to be reinterred at a different location later. They rested in relative peace until Georgia was invaded by the Red Army in 1921 and remained a part of the Soviet Union until 1991. Sir Fitzroy MacLean documents his visit to the cemetery in his book Eastern Approaches when he travels to the Southern Caucuses as a young diplomat in 1937 and records that it was well maintained by a small group of British expats. The iron grip of the Soviet Union made the area too volatile for volunteers to maintain the cemetery and the Soviet haphazard approach to urban planning meant that the location of cemetery was lost to memory. The Commonwealth War Graves Committee erected a monument in their memory at Haider Pasha cemetery in Istanbul which proudly records their names and battalions.

When researching my Great Great Uncle William, I searched for the cemetery and kept coming up with a blank. It was only by chance that when I responded to an excellent article on the Defence Intranet that I was put in contact with the Defence Attaché Lt Col Dave Ethel at the British Embassy in Tbilisi. He was able to confirm that the location of the cemetery was unknown but that there was a memorial in a garden of a local Georgian home in Tbilisi. He said that the memorial was often visited by visiting dignitaries and on Remembrance Sundays with wreaths being laid.

I expressed that although disappointed that the cemetery was indeed lost, that I would been keen to visit the memorial on behalf of my family during Remembrance weekend. He very kindly offered to make the arrangements for my visit and on Friday 9th November 2018, I boarded a plane to Tbilisi. On Saturday 10th November 18, slightly feeling the effects of the infamous Georgian drink “chacha” that I had been introduced to the night previously, Dave and his lovely wife took me into the suburbs of Tbilisi. The house belonged to an elderly Georgian man who looks after the memorial and graciously showed us into his garden. The memorial stands proud underneath the vines and between the bushes of a lush fertile garden. It was a peculiar juxtaposition to be remembering the dead amongst the vivaciously living.  But there it was in all its glory, surrounded by wreaths of poppies from a recent visit.

I attended the British Embassy on Sunday 11th November 2018 for what is the most emotional and poignant Remembrance service that I have ever been to. I thought my visit to Georgia would purely be a learning experience. But as the bugle rang out the Last Post, the weight of where I was and the reason for being there hit me like a sledgehammer. As we stood in silence, I thought of the war memorial in Benllech, Anglesey where my Great Great Uncles are remembered. I thought of the headstone erected in Llaneugrad church in Brynteg where their names are recorded with their parents. I thought of my Great Great Grandmother Catherine who waited for her sons to return from war and whose absence confirmed their demise. I realised as we stood as a united congregation of British and Georgian citizens, how important the words “We Will Remember Them” truly are and how it is our duty to never forget their sacrifice. This is as true now when we support our veterans as it is to remember everyone who made the ultimate sacrifice in World War One.  

Thank you very much to the staff of the British Embassy in Tbilisi and especially to Lt Col Dave Ethell for his superb hospitality and assistance.