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Last Updated: Monday, 14 June, 2004, 11:22 GMT 12:22 UK
Letters show war's Welsh 'censor'
Private Owen Ashton
Owen Ashton wrote home in English from the trenches
Letters home by a soldier during World War I have revealed a little known fact about life in the trenches in France - the censoring of letters in Welsh.

Private Owen Ashton received his basic training in Yorkshire and while there he was permitted to write to his family in his native Welsh.

However, when he moved to the frontline in France in 1916, it appears as though the 35-year-old, faced a censorship issue.

Archivists in mid Wales, who now have the letters, believe officials in the War Office in WWI were unable to translate Welsh and ordered Welsh-speaking soldiers to write in English for purposes of censorship.

The letters contain interesting details about life in the trenches, depicting the quiet courage and resilience of an ordinary man transplanted from his rural Welsh roots into a scene of utter carnage.

A county council spokeswoman, on behalf of the authority's archives' unit, said: "Private Ashton's first few letters from France in English were understandably not that good.

Private Owen Ashton
Mr Ashton at his home after the war

"But as the weeks passed his English letters improved, but it appears as though he was prevented from writing in Welsh to his family because the War Office couldn't censor them."

Private Ashton, who fought with the Lancashire Fusiliers, was conscripted in 1916 and the letters were sent to his family back in Llawryglyn near Llanidloes before, during and after his time in action.

'Very fragile'

"They contain interesting details about life in the trenches, depicting the quiet courage and resilience of an ordinary man transplanted from his rural Welsh roots into the trenches," added the spokeswoman.

Letters from Private Owen Ashton
An example of some of the letters sent home in English from France

"When writing from training camps in Yorkshire, Owen was able to write in his native Welsh.

"But when writing from France he had to write in English as the letters were censored and presumably the War Office did not employ Welsh-speaking censors."

Fifty letters dating from 1916 to 1919 have been donated to the archives unit by Mr Ashton's daughters, Olwen, Dora and Clarice.

The letters are written in pencil and are very fragile.

Dr Gerwyn Wiliams, from the University of Wales, Bangor,has researched the Welsh literary response to WWI said writing correspondence in Welsh was probably contrary to military regulations.

"There are instances of this type and my understanding is that it was contrary to military regulations," said Dr Wiliams, who has also written a book, Tir Neb (No Man's Land), on the issue

"It was forbidden to write war diaries in Welsh, but Welsh soldiers did it and kept it away from the prying eyes of officers, so it's fair to assume letters came under the same restrictions."

Mustard gas

Clarice Grist, who now lives in Cheshire with her husband Edward, said the letters were discovered in a cupboard by the family.

She said: "The letters are very touching and it's clear that on some occasions my father was nearly in tears writing them.

"They are very real and and story carries on from one letter to another."

Mr Grist, who helped collate the letters, added: "There is mention in one of the letters of mustard gas being thrown into the British lines and an occasion when German prisoners were taken.

"The impression you get from Owen's letters are that they could be the last he ever writes.

"Some of the Welsh letters have not yet been translated, and the archive office would welcome offers to carry out this task," said the council spokeswoman.

Mr Ashton survived the war and died, aged 81, in 1963.

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