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Letters from the Holy Land: the influence of the Middle Eastern campaign in WW1 on Welsh culture and society

In this latest Guest Blog by Gethin Matthews, he talks about the imagery of the Holy Land and how middle eastern culture came ultimately to affect Welsh culture and society.

The First World War was a world-wide war which transported millions of young men away from their homes to foreign lands. Often these men sought an anchor which could help them make sense of their unfamiliar surroundings as they tried to convey their experiences to their loved ones. In the case of Welshmen who found themselves in Egypt and Palestine, they had a ready vocabulary to describe these countries which came straight from the Bible. The idea of the campaign in the ‘Holy Land’ struck a chord with newspapers and opinion-formers back in Wales, and shaped ideas which persisted with the Welsh public.

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Aspects of Representation of the People Act 1918

In our latest Blog post, Dr Nick Mansfield looks at the profound and far reaching aspects of the Representation of the People Act, 1918, outside that of women’s right to vote.

BBC WW1 at Home

Pulpits, mutinies and ‘khaki fever’: The unsettling stories of WW1

Matt Shinn has unearthed some unsettling stories as part of the World War One at Home project, which might not otherwise have got an airing.

Lester Mason, Lecturer in History at University of Wales Trinity Saint David, singles out the treatment of German immigrants in some communities in Wales, as a particularly dark aspect of the Great War in the Principality. ‘We might think of ourselves as liberal-minded,’ he says, ‘but look at how ordinary, law-abiding people of German descent were dealt with in the First World War – arguably, much worse than British immigrants in Germany were treated.’

Examples include the case of a liberal-minded, anti-Kaiser German Professor at the University College of Wales Aberystwyth, a Dr Ethe, who was forced to leave his post after there were disorderly street protests against him (several papers at the time sided with the protestors). ‘It’s a rather ugly story of anti-German sentiment, which was repeated throughout Britain,’ says Lester Mason – often mobs would go looking for German workers in barbers and hotels, where they had traditionally been employed. But the trouble wasn’t confined to so-called ‘enemy aliens’: there were also problems between locals and American naval personnel in Pembroke dock, and disturbances involving Belgian refugees in Milford Haven. ‘These are some of the less savoury aspects of the war, which have been forgotten or sidelined.’

These are some of the less savoury aspects of the war which have been forgotten or sidelined

British prisoner, 1918 (IWM)
British prisoner, 1918 (IWM)

A hotbed of immorality

Also unsettling is the way that the authorities treated young women in many parts of Wales, fearing an outbreak of what was called ‘khaki fever’ (the supposedly overwhelming attraction felt by young women towards a man in uniform). Women in Wales were policed under the Defence of the Realm Act, with arrests being made among those who were caught committing ‘indecent acts.’ Women in Cardiff faced a curfew. And at the same time, concerned citizens took things into their own hands: in Swansea, one councillor called the town a ‘hotbed of immorality,’ because of evidence of sexual activity between young women and visiting Scandinavian seamen – the Swansea Women’s Citizens Union subsequently launched a ‘Purity Crusade’ to ‘stem the tide of immorality sweeping over the town’.

Feeding the guns
Elsewhere in Wales, and throughout Britain, women were finding work in the many munitions factories that supplied the Front with bullets and shells. One of the largest munitions factories and weapons stores in Wales was at Pembrey, where dynamite and TNT were produced: from 1916 women were employed on the shop floor, alongside the men.

In July 1917 an enormous explosion left four men and two women dead. But it was the funeral of the two female victims – Mildred Owen aged 18, and Mary Watson, 19 – that drew the most mourners, including from among their fellow workers, some of whom wore their overalls to the service.

The war and Welshness

According to Lester Mason, ‘there has been a perception that the Welsh were less keen to go to war than people elsewhere in Britain. Recruitment figures for Wales are on a par with those for England and Scotland. But there is some anecdotal evidence of farming communities being reluctant to give up their labour. And then there’s the Welsh tradition of Non-conformism: the perception has been one of a more distinct pacifism in Wales.’ This remains a controversial subject, and there is a need for further research into ordinary people’s enthusiasm for war in Wales, based upon changing attitudes during the conflict, as well as gender, town and country, and even class distinctions.

Did the war change the way that people in Wales saw themselves in relation to England? ‘There’s a strange mix. There was nothing wrong in saying that you were fighting for England’s glory, or fighting in England’s war – some Welsh war memorials even said that, including the Cenotaph at Pembroke, which carries the inscription, ‘Forget us not o land for which we fell. May it go well for England, still go well’.

But at the same time, ideas of nationhood were also emerging throughout Britain during the First World War, and throughout the Empire. Though Plaid Cymru didn’t emerge till the Twenties, there was a growing sensitivity to being Welsh. People’s attitudes were flexible, and could accommodate the paradox: that you were both Welsh, and fighting England’s fight. And oddly enough it was the sense of belonging in the British Empire – even as the war brought about the beginning of the end of that Empire – that enabled them to do that.’

Rioting in Rhyl
Gerry Oram, Lecturer in History at the University of Swansea, singles out another dark story that the World War One at Home project has uncovered.

The Canadian army mutiny at Kinmel Park in Rhyl, North Wales, was one of a series that crept across Britain, in the latter years of the war and immediately afterwards. It was also one of the most serious. In March 1919 rioting broke out among 20,000 exhausted and disease-ridden Canadian troops, who found themselves stuck for months in a dilapidated training camp, waiting to be taken back to Canada. By the time that order was restored, five of them, having come through some of the great battles of the war, had been killed by their own countrymen. The tombstone that was provided by locals for one of the soldiers that was killed, Corporal Joseph Young, reads: ‘someday, sometime we’ll understand.’

By the time that order was restored, five of them, having come through some of the great battles of the war, had been killed by their own countrymen

Welsh women after the war
According to Gerry Oram, in Wales especially there is more to the traditional narrative concerning women in the First World War – of opportunities becoming available as the men went off to fight – than meets the eye. ‘We can see clearly that women in Wales were far worse off than in the rest of the UK,’ he says. ‘Their rates of employment were lower before the war, then there was some munitions work, but then after the war the percentage of women who were employed dropped to below the 1911 census figure. In 1931 it dropped further still.’

But then, according to Gerry Oram, the effects of World War One on the Welsh economy were catastrophic. ‘The war made Welsh industry very disjointed. The coalfields took on an importance that they didn’t warrant. Many industries that were given over to war work subsequently declined. And in agriculture too, which had traditionally employed many women, employment rates dwindled. This all led to a huge migration of young women, especially, away from Wales. It fits with one of our key narratives of the First World War: that Wales suffered disproportionately, compared to the rest of Britain.’

Two versions of history

Of course, one of the things that sets Wales apart from much of the rest of Britain is the fact that the country is bi-lingual. Gethin Matthews, who is a Lecturer in History at the University of Swansea, is in a good position to understand the implications of this, as he speaks both Welsh and English. ‘Some narratives come across differently in Welsh and English language sources,’ he says. ‘Take a figure like John Williams, the best-known preacher in North Wales during the First World War: he preached in uniform in the pulpit, encouraging men to enlist. He was seen as quite mainstream during the war itself, but in the Welsh language sources he really comes across as a hypocrite, as someone who had turned his back on the traditions of the Welsh chapel, in preaching for a just war. He’s seen as betraying the old traditions of pacifism and anti-militarism – of betraying the idea of Welshness itself.’

But then, in Welsh language sources ‘disillusion with the war starts earlier, and goes deeper, than it does in the English ones. And indeed, in economic terms the consequences of the war were awful for Wales: it’s impossible to say that the war was worth it. It’s no coincidence that the first conscientious objector to be elected to parliament, after the war, was elected in Wales.’
What the World War One at Home project has shown, though, is that Welsh chapels responded to the war in very different ways. Two Baptist chapels in Briton Ferry (near Neath) illustrate the point. One, Rehoboth, preached the message of a just war, and has 99 names on its roll of honour. Another, Jerusalem, just down the road, was known by its detractors as the ‘Kaiser’s Temple’, being strongly anti-war: it hosted anti-conscription meetings. There was a plurality of attitudes to the war, in other words. But while many historians have focused on the stories of Welsh conscientious objectors, for Gethin Matthews this is ‘more than their numbers warrant.’

 It’s quite clear that remembrance is more a matter of community in Wales than it is elsewhere in Britain

Finally, the long-standing narrative of Wales suffering more than the rest of Britain during the war, or being worse treated, has also led to there being a slightly different culture of remembrance in the country, according to Gethin Matthews. ‘The official commemoration is a devolved issue. But it’s quite clear that remembrance is more a matter of community in Wales than it is elsewhere in Britain. In England, money is given to schools to take children to visit the World War One battlefields. In Wales, there are initiatives to encourage children to find out about the men who joined up, and how their communities were affected by their going. That’s quite a different emphasis.’

With thanks from Lesley Hulonce, history lecturer at Swansea University, who undertook research for the ‘hotbed of immorality’ section.

Find out more about what research reveals about WW1 and its legacy in the AHRC’s Beyond the Trenches publication. Read it online or order a free copy here.


The Black Chair of Birkenhead

As the 2014 National Eisteddfod gets underway in Llanelli, Meic Stephens recounts the 1917 winner who was unable to take his seat on the Bard’s chair.

hedd-wynnFew poets achieve fame solely on account of the circumstances of their deaths, but in the case of Hedd Wyn (Ellis Humphrey Evans;1887-1917) it was the manner of his passing that caught the public mood and ensured that he would be remembered a hundred years later. The soldier-poet’s fate would be the stuff of one of the most abiding folk-narratives of twentieth-century Wales. Every schoolchild in Welsh-speaking Wales has heard of Hedd Wyn and many have visited Yr Ysgwrn, his former home in the hills above Trawsfynydd, which is now a small museum maintained by the National Trust. Just as familiar is the bronze statue to ‘the Shepherd Poet’ that stands in the village.

In 1917 the National Eisteddfod was held at Birkenhead, near Liverpool, one of the rare occasions when the festival has been held outside Wales. Because there was a war on, it was only a three-day event rather than the week-long celebration of the nation’s music, art and literature that it continues to be to this day. The Chairing of the Bard, generally considered to be the principal honour to which a Welsh poet can aspire and the main ceremony in the proceedings, was held on the second day, the sixth of September. The three adjudicators, all distinguished men of letters, were of the opinion that the most accomplished poem submitted for the competition had been written by a poet using the pseudonym Fleur-de-lis, and that in their estimation, the poem was worthy of the prize. The ceremony took its usual form: the Archdruid asked Fleur-de-lis to stand so that he could be acclaimed by the crowd that always gathers on these occasions. But no one got to his feet. He called a second time, again with no response, and a third, by which time it had become clear that the winning poet was not present.

After a pause, the Archdruid announced that the winner of the Chair competition had been killed in the war, paying the ultimate sacrifice shortly after sending his awdl (a long poem in the traditional, strict metres) to the Eisteddfod. He also informed the audience that Fleur-de-lis was the pseudonym of Ellis Humphrey Evans of Trawsfynydd, better known by his bardic name, Hedd Wyn. He had been serving as a private with the 15th Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers (Ist London Welsh), and that he had fallen ‘somewhere in France’. The prize was therefore awarded posthumously. The empty chair was then draped in black, to the great emotion of the audience, and would be known ever after as Cadair Ddu Penbedw (The Black Chair of Birkenhead), one of the most potent icons of tragic loss associated with the Great War. Hedd Wyn, virtually a monoglot Welsh-speaker, was thirty years old when he died but he is usually depicted as a sturdy youth full of idealism and promise. It was a poignant scene and, according to newspaper reports, there wasn’t a dry eye in the pavilion. Wales lost a disproportionately large number of its sons during the Great War but it has kept a special place in its affections for Hedd Wyn.

Statue of Hedd Wyn in Trawsfynydd, Gwynedd, Wales. Image by Oosoom (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The winning poem was entitled ‘Yr Arwr’ (The hero) and related the myth of Prometheus to Christian symbolism. With the possible exception of some of his much shorter lyrics, it is generally thought to be his finest poem. It had been started in Trawsfynydd and polished in camp at Litherland, near Liverpool, and then taken to Flanders, where it was finished and posted back to Wales. Having enlisted early in 1917, the poet was killed after being struck in the chest by shrapnel on the day he first saw action, on Pilkem Ridge, on 31 July in the same year – the first day of the third battle of Ypres (Passchendaele). ‘He was a silent fellow,’ an officer commented, ‘it would appear he could speak but little English, or if he could he did not.’ Hedd Wyn was one of the 31,000 soldiers who died that day. ‘A fine day’s work,’ Douglas Haig wrote in his diary.

A volume of Hedd Wyn’s poems, Cerddi’r Bugail (The shepherd’s poems), was published in 1918 and with the profits from this book, supplemented by subscriptions, the statue was raised to him in his home village, a permanent reminder of the sacrifice of a whole generation. The poet was buried in Artillery Wood cemetery at Boezinge, and is commemorated by an inscribed slate at Langemarck. The story of Hedd Wyn was made into a film that was nominated for an Oscar in 1992. The Black Chair, together with other artefacts associated with the poet, is kept at Yr Ysgwrn.


‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’

In this guest blog, Meic Stephens explores the history of a popular war-time song which made it from a concert to the front in a matter of weeks.

KeepTheHomeFiresBurning1915Ivor Novello (David Ivor Davies; 1893-1951) was not yet at the height of his fame as a man of the musical theatre when, one wet evening in the autumn of 1914, the Welshman sat down at his piano in his Aldwych flat and played the first few bars of a melody that he’d been humming to himself for the past few days. He was still only twenty-one and, although he had had a few small successes as a composer of light music, his was not a household name and he was living quietly with his mother as the war entered its first winter. All that would change overnight: he was about to become the celebrated author of a song so popular that it summed up the stoicism of the British people during the crisis and was to live on as one of the best-loved songs of the years entre deux guerres. There were to be other songs inspired by the war, and Ivor wrote some of them, including ‘The Laddie in Khaki’ and ‘When the Great Day Comes’, but none would take off like ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’, and all are forgotten now. Only ‘Tipperary’ could rival it in popularity and poignancy. Ivor’s creation was different from the rest in that it avoided outright jingoism and expressed the yearning of the civilian population for peace rather than the martial prowess of those on the front line.
There is more than one version of how Ivor came to write his masterpiece. According to one of his biographers, W. Macqueen-Pope (1951), the song was prompted by his ambitious mother, the formidable Clara Novello Davies, music teacher and choir-mistress, who pestered him to write a patriotic tune that she could promote at concerts and in the music-hall where her own compositions found an outing. When he didn’t comply, she wrote her own song, ‘Keep the Flag a’Flying’. Ivor found it embarrassing and so he wrote his own tune which he thought was passable. Now he needed the lyric to go with his first line, ‘Keep the home fires burning’. He had a friend, Lena Guilbert Ford, an American long resident in England, who was the first to hear Ivor singing the opening phrase and some of the chorus. She was asked to go home and come up with the lyric for his tune. When she rang a few days later and heard her sing the verse:

Keep the Home Fires Burning,
While your hearts are yearning.
Though your lads are far away
They dream of home.
There’s a silver lining
Through the dark clouds shining,
Turn the dark cloud inside out
Till the boys come home.

he knew he had the makings of a hit song. There are other versions of how the song came to be born, including one in which the composer bade the maid bank up the fire in his sitting-room with the words, ‘That’s right, my dear, we must keep the home fires burning . . .’ but the collaboration between Ivor and Lena G. Ford are not in dispute.

The song still had to be launched and this was where Mam played her part. Accompanied by Ivor, a young Welsh singer and pupil of his mother’s called Sybil Vane, brought the house down during a Sunday League Concert at the Alhambra. To his great astonishment, the composer heard the audience – mainly working-class people with whom he felt a special rapport — joining in and, to the wildest applause, they kept on singing the words over and over again, even as they made their way out of the theatre and into the street. Within weeks the song had swept the country and reached the Front. Its popularity showed no sign of waning, especially after the Americans entered the war. The composer’s mother, ever eager to boost his reputation, is said to have paid organ-grinders to play the song in the streets of London. A year after its first performance, it had earned Ivor the nice fortune of about £15,000, which helped set him up as a man of the theatre for many years thereafter. Only Lena G. Ford, who shared his triumph, did not live to enjoy the wealth she had helped him earn: she was killed, with her son, in an air-raid over London in 1918. Ivor Novello would go on to write musicals set in Ruritania that included Glamorous Night (1935), The Dancing Years (1939) and King’s Rhapsody (1949) and to enjoy a career as ‘King of Make Believe’ like no other.

Performed by Frederick Wheeler for Edison Records in late 1915

The song’s immense popularity has outlived its creator. Recorded many times by singers such as John McCormack and, in our own day, Cerys Mathews, it has been featured in films such as Oh, What a Lovely War (1969), Chariots of Fire (1981) and, more recently, Gosford Park (2002), in the last of which the country-house guests are entertained by Jeremy Northam acting the part of the composer as he sings ‘The Land of Might-have-been’ at the piano.

As part of Glamorous Night: A Celebration of Ivor Novello, Sir Mark Elder leads the Hallé and Toby Spence (tenor) in Keep The Home Fires Burning.


BBC WW1 at Home

The First World War in Wales – Bring along your memorabilia

The contribution of Wales and Welsh people to the British First World War effort was immense. Some 40,000 Welshmen died during the War while its impact reached into every aspect of Welsh life. Its legacy lives on in countless ways and not least in the memories, objects and artefacts handed down through the generations and still treasured today.

Those objects and artefacts will be the focus of a special free event being held as part of the first Connected Communities Festival at the Motorpoint Arena in Cardiff on the 1st July. Three academic experts from Welsh universities will be on hand in a special ‘Antiques Roadshow’-style event to look at First World War memorabilia brought in by members of the public. Objects can include medals, photos, letters, coins, antiques, maps, clothing, jewellery, publications and anything else with associations with the First World War. The academics will explain the context and significance of these objects and outline what they say about the military, domestic, social and political aspects of the War one hundred years ago.

Colleagues from People’s Collection Wales will digitise, preserve for posterity and, with the permission of the objects’ owners, share more widely the objects brought in.

Dr Gethin Matthews of Swansea University, one of the experts on hand during the event, said: “The First World War impacted upon Welsh society and culture in a multitude of different ways, and the evidence for this is often to be found in ‘family attics’. The range of material that families have treasured through the decades is remarkable, and it is always exciting to see ‘new’ material that can give us a fresh perspective on how Welsh people experienced and understood the war.”

Dr Gerard Oram of Swansea University and Dr Lester Mason of the University of Wales, Lampeter will also be taking part in the free event that is open to the public. All three have been supporting BBC journalists and broadcasters through the World War One at Home project in Wales.

This event will be one of many events open to the public on the 1st and 2nd July as part of the Connected Communities Festival. These will include archaeological demonstrations at the Caerau Iron Age hill fort, a talk by National Poet of Wales Gillian Clarke, an intergenerational procession of banners celebrating the industrial history of Cardiff, Merthyr Tydfil and other places in South Wales and many opportunities to get involved in dance, music, crafts and many other activities.

The free event will begin at 10.00am at the Level 2 Conference Suite, Motorpoint Arena, Cardiff on the 1st. The Festival as a whole runs for two days, on the 1st and 2nd July. For further information, please go to:


The significance of the centenary


What does the nature of a centenary commemoration tell us about collective memory and current social attitudes? How have commemorations changed over time? What are the most appropriate ways to handle the remembrance of traumatic or politically sensitive events?

These are just some of the questions explored by ‘The Significance of the Centenary’, an AHRC-funded research network. Find out more in a feature article just published on the AHRC website.

The network is led by the University of Birmingham in collaboration with the Universities of Cardiff and Sheffield, the National Library of Wales, and Historic Royal Palaces, an independent charity looking after sites such as the Tower of London and Hampton Court. 

BBC WW1 at Home Research

World War One at Home – Launch Day Highlights

Across the BBC, stories from the home front were shared on local radio and news programmes to mark the launch of the World War One at Home programme. Some selected highlights of yesterday’s broadcasts included:

Professor Jane Chapman appearing on the BBC Look East to discuss the legacy of the war not only for women in the workplace, but as the birthplace of the modern twentieth century as we now understand it.

Jenny Agutter narrating the story of a child, Joan Burbidge, who corresponded with a ‘Chocolate Soldier’. After writing her name on a box of chocolates posted to British soldiers in France, Bombadier Edward Hassall exchanged letters with Joan throughout the war, although the pen pals never met.

Making traditional clothes for uniforms on BBC Radio Wales. Welsh homespun cloth used for Welsh Army Corps uniforms which was made at mills in Carmathenshire. As the war progressed, demand for the ‘brethyn llwyd’ (grey cloth) outstripped supply.

Fergus Keeling, BBC Northern Ireland’s Head of Radio, marked the launch of the programme in Northern Ireland by saying that the stories “shed light on familiar places we know and love, places right on our doorsteps”.