Cruel twist of fate as hero survived two world wars to be killed in mine tragedy
A Welsh Guard who fought on the front line and helped evacuate Dunkirk died in a mining accident when he returned home. LAURA CLEMENTS shares Jack Duffy’s story
ASWANSEA man survived both world wars but was killed in a mining accident when he came home. Jack Duffy fought on the front line for the Welsh Guards in the First Word War and returned in the Second World War to help evacuate Dunkirk.
He won a medal for his bravery, but in a cruel twist of fate, he died only months after starting a job in the mines.
“Fate is a terrible thing,” said his son, 74-year-old Keith Duffy, on the centenary of the end of the First World War.
“He wasn’t even supposed to be a miner.”
Jack Duffy was one of the first men to enter the Welsh Guards, which was founded in 1915. He was a bit of a “loose cannon”, being caught several times in the nurses’ quarters and going awol in London, Keith said.
But that didn’t mean he wasn’t a brave man.
While under German attack in 1918, Jack Duffy stayed behind to carry his lieutenant, who had broken his pelvis, back to safety and then immediately volunteered to search No Man’s Land for missing comrades. He headed straight back out and helped bring four men home alive.
The Welsh Guards had been ordered to retreat by Lieutenant Paul Llewellyn, after coming under German grenade attack on March 10, 1918. They were on a mission, masterminded by Captain Claude Insole, to raid German trenches to gather intelligence.
They launched their attack, under the cover of darkness, at 5am. Led by Llewellyn, 30 men piled out of their trenches and reached the German trenches without any casualties.
But they were caught out by German soldiers hiding in nearby shell holes, who attacked the Welsh Guards with grenades.
The Welsh men launched a counter-attack, throwing grenades back towards the Germans, before retreating.
Jack was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his bravery and selfless actions.
“His sergeant didn’t think he was up to the job, but every time he lost his stripes, they kept giving them back to him,” Keith said. “They would have given him the Victoria Cross if he was more obedient.”
Jack Duffy was from Greenfield Street, in Swansea. He was one of three brothers, all of whom fought in the First World War. His older brother, James, was sent home after losing both his legs. When he enlisted, Jack was happily married, with three children. Tragically, his ninemonth-old daughter died during his first months as a serving soldier.
“I have old cinefilm of the Welsh Guards training, before they went out to the front line,” said Keith, who lives in Penlan.
“They really toughened them up, they must have told them they were meeting the Germans – they were really laying into each other.”
Keith started researching his father’s life after he came across the four medals, which he loaned to Swansea Museum for its centenary display.
“Rather than have them locked away, I thought I would put them on display,” he said.
“Dad was out there and with everything he faced, it must be fate. There must be 50 of us who wouldn’t be here today if he had got hit by just one bullet or machine gun.
“He lived for 57 years but he had a far more interesting life than I ever will.”
As well as the DCM medal, Jack Duffy was awarded three campaign medals for his service during the First World War. When he returned to civilian life in Swansea, he discovered his wife had been unfaithful and the couple divorced.
He remarried the heiress of the Empire Theatre, and became a successful and welloff business man. But after recession hit, Jack found himself penniless.
His second wife died but Jack soon remarried. He set up home with his third wife, Sophie, in a council estate in Mayhill, where Keith was born.
“It was a bit of a comedown for dad, but he said although he was at his poorest, he was also at his happiest with Sophie,” his son said.
By this time, Jack was working for the Merchant Navy.
“My older sister Jeanne used to tell us he was a true gentleman – she only heard him swear once, when he took her to the football,” Keith said.
“During the Second World War, we would go into the air raid shelter when the German fighters arrived, but he would go to bed instead – he had no fear. I guess when you have been through what he must have heard and saw, then it probably seemed like nothing to him.”
Keith can’t remember much about his father, apart from a “smart man in a suit”.
“Somehow he commandeered some Royal Navy uniforms and took himself off to Dunkirk to help in the evacuation of soldiers in the Second World War,” said Keith. “He just couldn’t stay
His sergeant didn’t think he was up to the job, but every time he lost his stripes, they kept giving them back to him
- Jack’s son, Keith Duffy
away from the front line.”
But after he returned home in 1940, his wife issued him an ultimatum. “She told him ‘It’s either me or the sea’ and he settled down to become a docker in the early 1940s.”
But the dockers’ strike in 1947 forced Jack to find a temporary job down the mines in Swansea. He was only weeks into the job when tragedy struck. Jack was killed by a rock fall, and Keith was left without a father. He was 57.
“Since researching his life, it’s only now I realise how brave he was, like all the men who went to the front line,” said Keith.
“I am really proud of what he did. I wish I knew him.”