Britain's oldest poppy seller, Ron Jones, has died aged 102. In an interview from 2017, he spoke about his time as a prisoner of war at Auschwitz and the love of his life, Gladys
At 100 years old, Ron Jones should be living a quiet life in his small village near Newport, Wales. But this has been one of the Second World War veteran’s busiest years. He has received two letters from the Queen: one in April when he became a centenarian, and another last week when he was awarded a British Empire Medal (BEM) for service to the community. And, in the process, he has been transformed from a local hero into something of a national celebrity.
Jones has been lauded as Britain’s oldest poppy seller for years. This week a 102-year-old Buckinghamshire rival Walter ‘Wally’ Randal claimed he should, in fact, hold the crown. But Jones has already won hearts.
The veteran hasn’t let the fame distract him from raising money for the British Legion. After the silver and pink BEM was pinned to his jacket on Wednesday morning, it wasn’t long before he was getting ready for work again. By 4pm, he was inside the entrance of his local Tesco Extra, selling poppies for Remembrance Sunday.
“We’ve got a job to get done,” he says, adding that he doesn’t get tired. Jones, sent to Auschwitz as a prisoner of war, considered hanging up his collecting-box last year. But, when the legion asked him to return, he couldn’t say no. “Last year, I said that’s it, I’m finished, but they dragged me in again,” he says. “I’m alright up here, see?”
Jones has attracted donors from across the country - and world. Deborah Jones, a fan from London, has travelled from the capital to Newport two years running. “She phoned Tesco to find out when I was there and came to see me, she wanted to see me in person,” he says. “She did it again this year and she put five £10 notes in my box.”
The day after his BEM ceremony, Jones also received a letter from Qatar containing £20, his fourth international donation of 2017. “Your story and commitment to the support of your fellow soldiers is amazing,” Pete Williams wrote. “I often feel disconnected from the UK while I am here but your story and service make me proud to be British.”
His story certainly warrants the attention. Having been born at the height of the Great War in 1917, he was surprised, at the age of 23 and working in a reserved occupation, to be called to fight. It was 1940, and he had been married to his soulmate, Gladys, for two years. He was a wire drawer at a local iron and steel works but, thanks to a clerical error, was conscripted to fight for the South Wales Borderers regiment.
“I was the only one of 42 wire drawers that got called up,” Jones recalls. “Some silly typist had put my form into the incoming mail rather than the outgoing.” But a year into the war, with Germany advancing across Europe, arguing about paperwork mistakes wasn’t the done thing.
“When the First Battalion of the Welsh Regiment got shot up in Crete, what was left of them came back to Cairo and they sent a contingent of Borderers out to make them up,” says Jones. “That’s how I came to be captured.”
Having gone to war in 1940, Jones wouldn’t return home to Gladys for five years. He was captured in Benghazi, Libya, in 1942, and taken to Italy, only to be transferred to the POW camp within Auschwitz following Mussolini’s arrest in 1943. Jones was kept separately from the concentration camp, but was acutely aware of the “queer smell”.
To this day, he wears a rudimentary handmade steel ring given to him by a Jewish inmate of the concentration camp after Jones smuggled them a piece of sausage. “I took it down to work and I gave it to a Jewish person called Joseph. A couple of days later he gave me this ring. He says he made it out of a steel pipe,” says Jones. “I never take it off. I put it on my finger and more or less forgot about it.”
Jones kept himself going at Auschwitz with weekly football games, a monthly letter from Gladys and a photo of her he pinned above his bed. He still has the photo, which he now keeps alongside a picture of his fellow prisoners, and a Welsh flower he embroidered on a sock while at the camp, “for something to do”.
After enduring three years in captivity, Jones made his way home on “a 17-week death march” across Europe. He lost four stone before eventually being picked up by American soldiers. “They dressed me up as a Yankee soldier and sent me home,” he says. As he approached his house, after five years away, Gladys was just leaving to go to the toilet. “She didn’t go to the loo for a few hours, believe me, I wouldn’t let go of her.”
It took Jones around four years to recover. “I was in a heck of a mess. I was covered in boils and abscesses. I used to get nightmares,” he says. “Gladys looked after me. If it weren’t for my Gladys, I wouldn’t be here today.” When he recovered, Jones returned to his old job, which he worked until he was 60. Two years after he retired, he started selling poppies.
Gladys died in 2005, which left Jones heartbroken. “I’m afraid my house has gone to rack and ruin since Gladys left,” he says. “I’ve missed her terribly.”
Recalling the ordeal from a raised armchair, in the pristine home he and Gladys moved into new in 1948, Jones is surprisingly healthy. He says he has never had a vaccine in his life, has never been ill, and has a lower blood pressure than his 71-year-old son.
When he isn’t poppy-selling, Jones busies himself cooking fish and chips in the fryer in his garage and speaking to friends. “There’s always somebody calling me… always.”
Jones says he won’t attend his village’s Remembrance Day commemorations this year, “because my legs can’t cope”. But he doesn’t mind – and he’s earned a sit down.