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Delving deeper into the stories behind the Great War

Soldiers marching Photo: ITV Wales

The scale of loss and suffering brought about by the First World War seems too big to comprehend by itself. Over the last few months, I've had the opportunity to retrace some of the human stories behind the facts and figures of this epic conflict. Along the way I've come to realise how keen people are - even 100 years on - to research and remember family members who fought and - in many cases - died in the fighting.

Penarth war memorial Credit: ITV Wales

At Penarth in the Vale of Glamorgan, there's a push to find out more about the lives behind the 307 names on the town's war memorial. Names like that of Howard Hooper, a pacifist who nonetheless joined the war effort as a stretcher-bearer, only to meet his death in France.

Howard Hooper Credit: ITV Wales

There's also the tale of the Gillies family: Jack fell in combat and is commemorated on the Menin Gate; brothers Charles and Alec were both injured and gassed; even sister Agnes served at the front with the Womens' Army Auxiliary Core. Four children fighting from one family - by no means unusual judging by the repetition of surnames on most monuments.

Perhaps surprisingly, many of the men whose stories I've followed survived the fighting - often leaving behind remarkable stories. Robert Phillips, from the Rhymney Valley, was taken prisoner by the Germans at the Second Battle of Ypres. He managed to escape and painstakingly made his way home across Europe, only to find that when he finally returned to Wales his family - believing him to be dead - had sold his precious motorbike! Sadly Robert, a collier, died in a mining accident while still a young man.

Robert Phillips Credit: ITV Wales

There's also the tale of Ivanhoe Avon, who joined up with the Cardiff pals aged 17 and survived all four years of the war. For decades afterwards he barely mentioned his experiences, but after his death in the late 1980s his family discovered an amazing collection of keepsakes - including a union flag given to him by his parents to carry for good luck at the front. Despite the terrible nature of the fighting, the war inspired amazing acts of courage. But few displayed the consistent gallantry of John Henry Williams VC. By 1918, Williams, a blacksmith from Nantyglo, had already won the Distinguished Conduct Medal and Military Medal with Bar for actions at Mametz Wood and in Flanders.

Then, a month before the armistice, he led a charge on a German machine gun post, single handedly capturing 15 enemy soldiers. His Victoria Cross citation continues: "These prisoners, realising that Williams was alone, tuned on him and one of them gripped his rifle. He succeeded in breaking away and bayoneting five enemy, whereupon the remainder again surrendered." Injured just weeks before the war ended, Williams became the first soldier to receive four decorations at once when presented with his medals by King George V.

He remains Wales' most decorated ever non-commissioned officer.

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