frank's book a great inspiration

RETIRED weatherman David Langley has never been a soldier yet he probably knows more about the lives and deaths in World War One of men in the Second Battalion Royal Welch Fusiliers than anyone alive.

David has made a lifetime's study of that particular band of brothers which landed in France in August 1914 and included Great War poets Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon.

And this year, as the world remembered on its 90th anniversary the start of the war in August 1914, David has published a new edition of the war memoirs of a remarkable private soldier in the battalion Frank Richards.

For the first time in its history Frank Richards' book Old Soldiers Never Die has been illustrated and annotated - by David and his Dutch colleague John Krijnen, who between them have added fascinating contextual notes and pictures of the battlefields and the men who fought on them.

At home in Baston, where he's lived for seven years since retiring at 60 and is a parish councillor and keen bell-ringer, David said:"I'd always hugely admired Old Soldiers Never Die. It was a runaway best-seller when it came out in 1933 and has never been out of print since.

"So I couldn't have been more interested when John Krijnen e-mailed me after he'd bought a book I co-wrote about the Welch Fusiliers called Duty Done.

"John knows everything there is to know about every engagement of the Great War and together we had the idea for the Old Soldiers Never Die project.

"My interest has always been in the people involved and their stories - how they got to be in the war and what they did afterwards if they'd survived. Between us we already had a huge amount of knowledge which tied in with Frank Richards' account.

"We started by exchanging our copies of the book with all the notes each of us had scribbled in the margin and the project was already well underway!

"It was harder finding the copyright for Old Soldiers Never Die. We knew Richards had a daughter. The curator of the Royal Welch Fusiliers' Regimental Museum had an address for her and told us she was married to a solicitor. She'd moved...

"Then eventually Margaret Holmes heard she was being sought and contacted us.

"That was a great discovery as she was very supportive of the project and, in fact, is a financial partner in the publication as well as having told us all about her father as she knew him. She wrote the foreword to our book.

"We decided to publish ourselves, with a first print run of 1,000 because that way we had more freedom."

David's deep interest in the motives and lives of soldiers and specifically in the Royal Welch Fusiliers started with studying the Napoleonic wars as a youngster who wasn't eligible for National Service thanks to an ulcer.

He trained to be a civilian Met officer serving in the RAF from the age of 18 and different postings allowed him to follow his developing focus.

A period in Cardiff, for example, gave him unlimited access to the Royal Welch Fusiliers' Regimental Museum.

When he was posted to Germany he was conveniently close to the Flanders battlefields where the Fusiliers were so tragically decimated along with other comrades.

For 24 years David and his wife Joyce have been running trips to the battlefields for a group of friends each year, tracing graves for relatives who may not be able to make it themselves and visiting different sites every time.

But Frank Richards' book has been his greatest inspiration.

He said: "It's a stunningly accurate yet lively and readable blow by blow account of his four years in the war by a working class boy of negligible education, with a superb ear for speech and an eye for beauty.

"He was also an outstanding soldier. He had joined up from his home town of Blaina in 1901 had been a regular soldier with the Indian Army and was a reservist when he was called up in 1914.

"He won the Distinguished Conduct Medal but he would never leave his mates in the ranks, though he could certainly have won a commission.

"Frank Richards remembered day to day events and impressions with amazing accuracy though he didn't keep a war diary (it wasn't allowed) and didn't start to write his book until 14 years after the war was over.

"It took him just 18 months to write in halfpenny notebooks by candlelight in his lodgings then. He was 50, unmarried and an inveterate gambler, in and out of casual work.

"He could barely afford the postage to send the manuscript to Robert Graves, who'd been a captain in the Battalion. Graves saw its merit and helped him knock it into shape.

"Graves was already a successful poet and author yet the two men admired each other greatly. Graves said of Richards: 'He was a natural genius and had the greatest measure of courage and honour I ever met in the Great War.'

"The book does what it set out to do - it shows the war through the experience of a common soldier which was so very different from the accounts given by the famous poets and writers about the First World War who were all officers!"

Frank Richards, who received no war pension and returned to live from hand to mouth in Blaina for years after the war, had his life transformed in the early 1930s after the success of his book.

Robert Graves persuaded him to write a prequel about his pre-war experiences in the Indian Army called Old Soldier Sahib, which was even more successful.

He also got a regular job as a clerk and in 1936, aged 54, got married and had a daughter, Margaret. He died in Monmouthshire in 1961.

Old Soldiers Never Die is on sale for 25 at Bookmark, Spalding.

David Langley and John Krijnen are already annotating Old Soldier Sahib, intending to publish soon.