Thursday, 1 March 2012

Ivor Gurney's 'First Time In' and 'the Welsh'

What better way to mark St David's Day than to honour the Welsh regiments which served in the First World War? Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves and David Jones all fought in that most poetical of regiments, the Royal Welch Fusiliers, as did the Welsh-language poet Hedd Wyn. We also glimpse Welsh soldiers through Ivor Gurney's writings when he describes his first experience of a front-line trench in early June 1916. Having landed in France, the Gloucesters were immediately marched to the battlezone and, Gurney reports, 'put in trenches with another battalion for instruction'. There, he enjoyed what he described as one of the most notable evenings of his life. 'I have been told that I may say that we are with the Welsh', Gurney informed Marion Scott. 'They sang David of the White Rock, and the Slumber Song... And O their voices! I thank God for the experience.' To Herbert Howells, Gurney wrote that the Welsh were 'absolutely first rate chaps' who 'didn't try to frighten us with noribble [sic] details.' After the War, Gurney commemorated their kindness in one of his most brilliant poems:

First Time In

After the dread tales and red yarns of the Line
Anything might have come to us; but the divine
Afterglow brought us up to a Welsh colony
Hiding in sandbag ditches. Then we were taken in
To low huts candle-lit, shaded close by slitten
Oilsheets, and there but boys gave us kind welcome,
So that we looked out as from the edge of home.
Sang us Welsh things, and changed all former notions
To human hopeful things. And the next day's guns
Nor any Line-pangs ever quite could blot out
That strangely beautiful entry to War's rout;
Candles they gave us, precious and shared over-rations—
Ulysses found little more in his wanderings without doubt.
'David of the White Rock', the 'Slumber Song' so soft, and that
Beautiful tune to which roguish words by Welsh pit boys
Are sung—but never more beautiful than here under the guns' noise.

If anyone knows to which 'Beautiful tune' Gurney refers in the penultimate line, please comment below.


  1. "Sang us Welsh things, and changed all former notions
    To human hopeful things"

    Why those two "things"? It seems a weak, inexact word used once; twice in two lines is downright odd. What's his aim?

    Not sure what he means by the "slumber song", either.

  2. You're a hard one to please, Sheenagh! But that's the deal with Gurney: there is no poem without brilliance, and no poem without fault. He needed an editor. The 'Slumber Song', I imagine, is 'Suo Gân'.

  3. 'If anyone knows to which 'Beautiful tune' Gurney refers in the penultimate line, please comment below.'
    Cwm Rhondda or Sospan Fach, at a guess, as they seem to be the most common bases for impromptu verses by rugby supporters

  4. Thank you! I'll look them up.

    1. I am not to shure but i think it might be a welsh tradition. you play that song on your death bed hoping that it will be played at their funeral, maybe?

  5. Just a guess on THE SLUMBER SONG.

    Ar Hyd y Nos or All Through The Night?

  6. Ar Hyd y Nos (All Through the Night) is the most likely candidate. The tone of the music and the words fit the setting in which Gurney found himself that evening. He sets the scene with "Afterglow" and, "candles" while his reference to "'Slumber Song', so soft, and that Beautiful tune" all fit the sense of peace and calm that this particular traditional song brings to those who sing it and those who hear it sung. "Hill and vale in slumber sleeping, I my loving vigil keeping All through the night".

  7. Thre are two traditional songs which were often parodied in English - "Llwyn Onn" (The Ashgrove) which had a children's version and a rugby club version,and "Bugeilio'r Gwenyth Gwyn" (Watching the wheat). The Kings Singers recorded an English translation, but there is a comical Welsh parody. My father was in the Somme in July and August 1916 with the Royal Welsh Fusiliers.