Cwmbran soldier's tale of escape uncovered

Robert Phillips fought in the trenches in WW1. Pictured is grand daughter Lynda Osbourne with her grandfather's medals. (9443007)

Robert Phillips fought in the trenches in WW1. Pictured is Robert's army photo aged 21. (9442976)

First published in Pontypool news
Last updated
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THE tale of a Torfaen prisoner of war who was determined to make his way home after escaping has been uncovered by his granddaughter.

Robert Phillips, of Llandowlais Street, Cwmbran, never spoke to his family about the events that occurred after he, age 21, signed up to fight during the First World War in 1914.

But his story has been uncovered by his granddaughter Lynda Osborne, 64, after started her research 20 years ago.

She said: “My father, Glyndwr, only knew that his father has been a prisoner of war and escaped, and later died in Bedwas Pit, when my father was only eight.

“My interest grew when I discovered a war medal in a button box belonging to my grandmother, Mary Jane, and my father said that she had sold two of them.”

Mrs Osborne learned that her grandfather had written a diary after he returned from war, so her first task was copying out the diary using an eye glass so that her father could read it.

She then tracked down the missing two medals and bought them back from a private seller and presented them to her father for his birthday.

Mrs Osborne said: “I started writing letters and door knocking in areas where my grandfather lived to uncover his story.”

After signing up, Pvt Phillips was sent to the Western Front with the Welsh Regiment in early 1915, where he fought in the trenches.

He was involved in the Second Battle of Ypres in May 1915, where the platoon was gassed by the Germans.

Pvt Phillips survived the attack, while over 59,000 other Brits died.

With little protection, soldiers used material soaked in bicarbonate of soda or cotton pads that soaked in urine, to protect against the chlorine gas.

But he was captured by the Germans while fighting in Vermelles, where he was taken to Germany as a prisoner of war and arrived at a camp in Homsburg in western Germany.

He was held there for 15 months, he documents “hellish conditions” where “prisoners were regularly beaten by guards” and Pvt Phillips was forced to work in a mine.

The men were given one small loaf bread divided amongst ten men to eat.

Pvt Phillips hatched a plan of escaped after realising that the camp was vulnerable during the changing of the guard.

He learnt the routines of the guards before walking out of the front gate during one late night shift change.

He travelled by night, navigating northward by the stars, to make it to Holland.

Mrs Osborne explained that her grandfather would raid homes for food or kill chickens and take the eggs from farms along the 200 mile route.

He would sleep in holes that he dug and eventually made it to the border, where it is believed he was helped by a family in Holland and either returned him to British forces or arranged for passage back to England smuggled aboard a ship.

Mrs Osborne recalls how her father, who passed away last year, told her that his father returned covered in fleas and suffering from trench foot but was overcome with happiness when he made it home on Christmas Day 1916.

His family home was at this time in New Tredegar and his family had sold all of his clothes and his motorcycle believing that he was dead.

He also lost his brother Eli and brother-in-law Thomas Drummond in the war.

He suffered with the shakes, nightmares, shell shock and had damage to his lungs due to the poison gas and was treated at a military hospital in Yorkshire, but was put back on the reserve list.

Luckily he did not have to return to the war, which ended soon after.

Instead, he went back into mining, moving to a family home with his wife and son to a house in Ystrad Mynach.

But only a year later was killed in the mine in 1934, age just 40 years old, when the roof caved in.

Mrs Osborne explained that her father was raised by his uncle, Arthur, who felt it was his duty to care for the family, and he even married his brother’s widow, Mary Jane.

She said: “It’s a sad tale that it ended in such a way, but I am so proud of what my grandfather achieved and the fact that he never gave up, and I’m glad to have uncovered the details for my father before he died.”

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