Sunday 7 April 2024

Frank Richards, DCM, MM, born Francis Philip Woodruff (1883 -1961) – Welsh soldier and writer

With thanks to John Daniel for finding this information for us - Frank Richards, better known by his birth name Francis Philip Woodruff, wrote his account of the First World War from the viewpoint of an ordinary soldier entitled “Old Soldiers Never Die'”.

Born on 7th April 1883 in Upper Machen Farm, Monmouth, Wales, Frank’s parents were Francis Augustus Woodruff, a Colliery Proprietor.and his wife, Mary Ann Woodruff, nee Richards.  Frank’s grandfather Philip Woodruff, from Surrey, was a tin plate manufacturer. 

Orphaned when he was nine, Frank was brought up by his aunt and uncle in the Blaina area of the South Wales Valleys in industrial Monmouthshire. Frank’s uncle was his mother's twin brother and he adopted Frank who then changed his surname to Richards. 

When he was twelve years old Frank went to work in coal mines and the tin plate industry before joining the Royal Welch Fusiliers in 1901. He then served in India and Burma.   

He joined the reserves and re-enlisted with the Royal Welsh Fusiliers at the outbreak of The First World War, serving in all of Britain's major British campaigns on the Western Front.  Frank was awarded  the Distinguished Conduct Medal and the Military Medal.

After the war, Frank was unable to work due to injuries sustained during the conflict and in 1933 he published his recollections of the war with the help of a fellow soldier in the RWF - Robert Graves the poet and writer. 

In 1936, Frank published a second memoir, “Old Soldier Sahib”, covering his time in the British Army of India. Private Frank Richards aka "Big Dick" features in Captain J. C. Dunn's “The War the Infantry Knew 1914-1919”.

In 1937 Frank married Mary James and they had one daughter, Margaret.

Frank, who at no point rose above the rank of Private during the war, refusing any offer of promotion, was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal and Military Medal. Frank always denied any element of bravery in his character, simply saying that he was doing his job. His account of the Christmas Truce was the first to be published by a soldier who was not an officer.  In 1954 he was interviewed by the BBC for their classic multi-part documentary of the conflict, “The Great War”.

Frank continued to correspond regularly with Robert Graves until his death in 1961 at the age of 78.

Frank’s memoir 'Old Soldiers Never Die' is considered a classic insight into soldiers lives and has been described as "arguably the greatest of all published memoirs of the Great War". 

Preliminary Source: Information sent by John Daniel

Additional sources:  Find my Past


The soldiers' folklore song “Old Soldiers Never Die”:

Old soldiers never die,

Never die, never die,

Old soldiers never die,

They simply fade away.

The song is a British Army's parody of the gospel song Kind Thoughts Can Never Die.

In the United States, the phrase was used by General Douglas MacArthur in his April 19, 1951 farewell address to the U.S. Congress (which has become known as the "Old Soldiers Never Die" speech):

"... but I still remember the refrain of one of the most popular barrack ballads of that day which proclaimed most proudly that "old soldiers never die; they just fade away."

And like the old soldier of that ballad, I now close my military career and just fade away, an old soldier who tried to do his duty as God gave him the light to see that duty.

“Soldiers’ Songs and Slang of the Great War”, collected by Martin Pegler, ISBN 9781472804150, p. 123; an update of John Brophy and Eric Partridge's “Songs and Slang of the British Soldier” (1930). Partridge, Eric (1985). “A dictionary of catch phrases : British and American, from the sixteenth century to the present day”. Beale, Paul. (2nd. ed.), London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.