Welshness, Welsh Soldiers and the Second World War

Welshness, Welsh Soldiers and the Second World War

Martin Johnes

This chapter was first published in Wendy Ugolini and Juliette Pattinson (eds), Fighting for Britain? Negotiating Identities in Britain during the Second World War (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2015), pp.65-88

On the heights of El Rhorab, looking out through the Fondouk gap, and on the rocky hill that stands over Hammam Lif facing blue distances across the sea, two marble stones were raised later bearing the names of those who fell in battle, with the Regimental crest and motto ‘Cymru am Byth.’ Rupert Brooke wrote that where he fell would be ‘for ever England.’ So to the 3rd Battalion the hill tops by Fondouk and Hamman Lif are marked as ‘Wales for ever.’

Maj. L. F. Ellis, Welsh Guards at War (1946)[1]

 The Second World War is often thought of as a time when Britishness peaked. Some historians have argued that propaganda, bombing, the threat of invasion, the shared sacrifices of serving in the forces and enduring rationing all created a common sense of purpose amongst the British people, bringing together its different nations and regions. That sense of solidarity also cut across gender and class lines in a war where everyone was ‘in it’ together.  This was a feeling that the state was only too keen to encourage and it helped ensure that the news and popular entertainment were dominated by the ‘shared national predicament’.[2] Such perspectives have also been adopted by Welsh historians. John Davies’ seminal history of Wales argues that the war ‘did much to strengthen Britishness. At the same time, it seemed to be a death blow to Welshness’.[3] Similarly, K. O. Morgan suggests that ‘Culturally the second world war seems largely to have passed the Welsh and Scots by. The quintessential images of the war, and of what the country felt it was defending, were essentially timeless English concepts.’[4]

There is little reason to doubt the argument that, just as the shared experience and fear of mass unemployment had sustained a powerful consciousness of class that cut across local, regional and national identities within inter-war Britain, the shared experience of war did much the same for a British identity. The Welsh people probably did feel more British during the Second World War than at any other time during their history. Moreover, war meant people in Wales travelled more, listened to the radio more and had more contact with the English; even the most remote Welsh villages gained inhabitants from elsewhere in Britain.  Psychologically and physically, the British nation came closer together. The war thus, as Morgan puts it, further integrated Wales into Britain.[5]

Yet the idea of a united Britain is not quite as straightforward as is often imagined and other historians have emphasised the disunity that also existed. Angus Calder, in particular, has questioned the extent of British national unity, arguing that beneath the propaganda were low morale and ongoing social conflict and inequalities.[6] Building on Calder’s work, Sonya Rose has emphasised the difficulties women, ethnic groups and colonial peoples had fitting into dominant ideas of British national identity. She also highlights the ongoing potency of Welsh and Scottish identities, arguing that ‘The very existence of these “regional” nations, and the continuing issue of national/cultural difference, suggested that “Britain” both historically and contemporaneously was less a nation and more an empire.’[7] Neither Rose nor Calder go as far as saying there was no British national unity or identity but they do demonstrate that there was no single notion of a British national identity that people united behind. Britishness was subject to different meanings and it was read and constructed differently by different regions, sexes, races and classes.

The plurality of British identity meant that a sense of Welshness was neither lost nor subsumed during this period of heightened Britishness. More contact with England made people more aware of not just what they had in common but also their differences, especially in the context of a war that was being fought over issues of national identity and self determination. With national identity being discussed in pubs, papers, pulpits and programmes on the radio, it is unsurprising that at least some of Wales reflected on what it meant to be Welsh. Central to this question was the sense of difference engendered by the popularity of Nonconformity and the Welsh language. Both, however, were in clear retreat and struggling against the influences of mass education, class-based politics, the wireless and cinema, and the economic and demographic upheavals brought first by inward migration from England before 1914 and then, between the wars, by outward migration to England. By the 1931 census, just 36.8 per cent of the population spoke Welsh and that figure was as low as 30.5 per cent in Glamorgan, by far the most populous county in Wales. The cultural and economic pull of both England and working-class consciousness did not, however, mean that Welsh people who could not speak Welsh did not feel Welsh, something only too evident in sport.[8] Thus what war did was sharpen Wales’ faltering sense of its own identity, particularly amongst those for whom it was generally a rather unfocused and diffuse feeling. Rose is quite right that the war activated expressions of cultural distinctiveness. Its challenges, its opportunities to debate what was being fought for, and the way it increased the role of the state and the state’s interest in what its people thought, all created a space for Wales to have a public profile. Moreover, she suggests, ‘It seemed almost as though the very efforts on the part of the Government to recognize Britain’s cultural heterogeneity in order not to antagonize those who felt themselves to be equally Welsh or Scottish and British fostered identity politics.’[9] This chapter explores how these themes played out for men who served in the armed forces. It embraces the argument that national identity during the war was a plural concept but it adds that this was as true of Wales as it was of Britain. Just as there was no single understanding of Britain, nor was there was a single understanding of Wales. Moreover, the Welsh could actually find it easier to embrace Britishness than the English because they had always had to balance and react to two nations, whereas for the English there had been traditionally little understanding of the nuances of nationality within the mainland of the United Kingdom.

Welshness and the war

The continuing power of Welsh identity during the war was only too evident in the names, traditions and insignia of Welsh regiments, all of which were examples of what social scientist Michael Billig called banal nationalism, the subconscious but influential flagging and reminder of the existence of the nation.[10] The Royal Welch Fusiliers’ emblem, for example, was a red dragon; it had choirs that sang Welsh hymns and a tradition where men ate a raw leek on St David’s Day (although shallots sometimes had to be substituted when the regiment was on active service aboard). Such was the power of these traditions that part of the regiment even wore leeks in their hats when fighting on St David’s Day 1945.[11] Their pride in Wales was further evident in a notice in The Times in memory of the soldiers of the 6th battalion killed in northwest Europe in 1944; it finished with the words ‘Cymru am Byth’ [Wales forever].[12] Welsh regiments also had a keen sense of history, despite the way that history could emphasise disunity between Wales and England. David Lloyd George addressed the Royal Welch Fusiliers’ 250th anniversary celebrations at Caernarfon castle in August 1939, claiming ‘It is a source of confidence to us that we know that this Regiment will once more face its responsibilities in a way which will be worthy of its glorious past and which will uphold that reputation for bravery which the Welsh people won in their age-long struggle for freedom.’[13] Similarly, the official history of the Welsh Guards, whose emblem was a leek, began by making connections between the regiment and Celts fighting the Romans and medieval Welsh princes fighting the Normans.[14]

The regiments were very proud of their identities and traditions and, like all parts of the army, promoted them to ensure men felt they belonged to a unit of consequence.[15] By St David’s Day 1943, part of the Royal Welch Fusiliers was in North Africa and its men celebrated with leeks, beer and a ‘Wales versus the Rest’ soccer match, in which one Sergeant-Major ‘carried an enormous leek with which he belaboured opponents foolish enough to come within reach’.[16] The needs of military operation however were complicating the identities of regional and national units by leading to relatively frequent reorganizations. When, in November 1938, the 5th (Flintshire) battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers was converted into an anti-tank unit and made part of the Royal Artillery, there was some resentment and senior officers secured the right to continue wearing Royal Welch Fusiliers’ uniforms. The regiment’s official history claimed ‘These units and their offshoots, although part of the Royal Regiment of Artillery, and despite numerous drafts of replacements from every corner of the British Isles, clung tenaciously to the old Royal Welch traditions, customs, and memories.’ A merger with two other units from London regiments to create the 101st Light Anti-Aircraft and Anti-Regiment RA led to the Royal Artillery uniform being worn in the battalion but Welsh traditions continued and St David’s Day 1940 was celebrated ‘with, if possible, even greater fervour than usual’.[17]

Military needs and a growing policy of cross posting personnel to where they were needed also meant there was no guarantee that Welshmen would end up in Welsh units. The records (or indeed official definitions of Welshness) do not exist to know how often this happened but the issue was a matter of periodic public and private concern. For Glyn Ifans, a trainee teacher from Carmarthenshire, being in the RAF led to a feeling of being detached from his comrades and superiors and it fed his growing sense of political nationalism. With no units existing just for Welsh troops, he exclaimed ‘Are we a nation? Certainly the authorities running this war do not believe so’.[18] Great War veteran Sir Henry Morris Jones, a Liberal MP and chairman of the Welsh Parliamentary Party in 1941-2, was the leading voice of such concerns. Accusing the War Office of broken promises, he told the House of Commons in 1941: ‘Judging from my correspondence and the feeling expressed in the Principality there is a very distinct and a justifiable grievance that the War Office has not met them’ on the issue of keeping Welshmen in Welsh units.[19] Part of the blame for this was thought to be the issue of whether Welsh was used in recruitment processes and in 1940 a question was raised in Parliament about how many recruiting officers actually spoke Welsh.[20] In 1941, Wyn Griffith, a civil servant, broadcaster and former captain in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, noted:

That young Welshmen should join the armed forces is, of course, only right and proper. They have no wish to shelter behind the sacrifices of others, and they are proud of the fighting qualities of their race. They remember their fathers. All they ask is that they should be allowed to serve in Welsh units, as Welshmen. But this is denied to them, not out of malevolence, but out of sheer indifference: it does not seem important enough for any great trouble to be taken to contrive it.[21]

Whether it actually did so or not, the War Office always maintained that those who volunteered and expressed a desire to serve in a Welsh unit were posted to one where vacancies existed. It also claimed that territorial connections were taken into account in allocating conscripts but this was always subject to the vague proviso ‘where possible’. The government was not, however, willing to repeat what had happened in the Great War and form a separate Welsh division of the army.[22] Similarly, in 1943, a request from Sir Henry Morris-Jones that Welsh soldiers be allowed to wear a distinctive mark on their uniform was turned down by the Secretary of State for War because it would be too complicated to administer.[23] How many Welshmen were actually concerned about such issues is a different matter. The likes of Wyn Griffith were what might be called cultural nationalists, people deeply committed to the identity of Wales. In contrast, one Welsh-speaking Meirionnydd man, who found himself in the South Lancashire Regiment, wrote in his memoirs, ‘this did not really bother me: the army was the army, and it hardly made any difference which badge I was given’.[24] With comrades sharing the same experiences, hardships and routines, other Welsh speakers also described their wartime experience in terms that centralised a common bond with their English comrades over any sense of national difference.[25]

It was not just Welshmen who were being posted to English units; the reverse was happening too. In 1940, after hearing that some Welsh units drew as much as 40 per cent of their strength from outside Wales, a military correspondent at the Western Mail visited one unit with the permission of the War Office to investigate. He found a ‘mixed bag. B.A.s, M.A.s, bakers, butchers and candlestickmakers. Cambridge University men rubbed shoulders with miners in this democratic army.’ But the unit was 99.5 per cent Welsh.[26] Yet this was far from typical and there was a long history of Welsh regiments recruiting from England.  Between 1883 and 1900, just 28 per cent of men in Welsh regiments were from their regimental districts.[27] The recruitment patterns of the Great War intensified the locality of regiments but casualties and reorganizations still led to Welsh units drawing on men from across Britain.[28] Unable to rely on local or national identities to bond regiments, there was instead an emphasis on teaching men regimental traditions and using associated rituals to enhance a sense of togetherness and regimental loyalty. Thus what on the surface might appear to be national symbols were in practice driven more by the need to create personal relationships and a common bond between diverse sets of men. This does not mean that national pride played no role for soldiers who were Welsh in their personal sense of regimental identity but it did mean that Englishmen also partook in the first of March tradition of ‘eating the leek’.[29] Non-Welsh servicemen thus do appear to have been assimilated easily into Welsh regiments. This was made easier by the fact that the Welsh Guards were actually based in London. One of its sergeants recalled recruits from outside Wales were made to feel part of the regiment: ‘They are Welsh Guardsmen and once they joined us they were treated equally, the same as if they had been born and bred in Wales. They also learned that the family spirit is more binding in the Welsh Guards than in any other regiment … I think it’s just the way we are in Wales’.[30] But it happened in other regiments too. A man, who in 1939 was allocated to the 81st (Welsh) Field Regt RA, recalled ‘the Welsh boys were extremely friendly and gave us a genuine warm welcome, sharing their food parcels, mainly of Welsh cakes.’[31]

The experience of fighting together in combat tends to produce a powerful bond between men so the lack of influence of cultural differences should not be surprising.[32] An officer who served with the Welsh Guards argued that he had a very close relationship with his men from their time training together and that he knew many of them better than his own family. The pride in themselves and the fear they might let their comrades and friends down intensified that and led, in his opinion, to many of the acts of bravery. One of his sergeants similarly argued ‘We developed an obsession to help each other, sharing ourselves without expecting reward’.[33] Thus the war certainly developed a sense of group consciousness amongst troops in Welsh units but it was not necessarily based on the nation. This is further evidenced by the fact that battalions from Welsh regiments were put in the same brigades as battalions from English regiments without any problems. A history of the Welsh Guards noted, ‘No Welsh Guardsman who fought in the Second World War would like this account to close without special mention of the Leicestershire Yeomanry, the Lothian and Border Horde, the Ayrshire Yeomanry, or the Light Aid Detachment from REME, which gave such unstinted backing to the 2nd Battalion.’[34] Of course, this does not mean there were not tensions and army morale reports suggested that the cross posting of men and officers across units detracted from the development of an esprit de corps.[35] Yet, on the whole, the sense of unity within and between units that had fought together was strong.

This was not down to the experience of combat alone. Most of a serviceman’s time was not spent in the frontline and the dominant experience was preparing for war rather than fighting. Indeed, perhaps only a fifth to a quarter of the army actually directly experienced combat during the war.[36] As Jeremy Crang has summed up, for most soldiers ‘the experience of war was not one of daring deeds at the sharp end, but rather of a sedentary existence in camps and depots across the country polishing their brasses and wondering why they were there.’[37] The hardships, sacrifices and monotonies of military service pulled men from different parts of Britain together. One Welsh Guardsman thus recalled that the talk in the military huts ranged from:

sex to the absolute bloody awful life of the British Soldier and then inevitably to the schemes for ‘working your ticket’, i.e. being thrown out as unfit for duty. Schemes like holding the little finger of the right hand just over the barrel of a 2″ mortar and getting it blown off were discussed and discarded, the impact might blow the lot off, and in any case, the loss of a little finger was considered too trivial, there were many cases of soldiers with three fingers. Threatening the Sergeant Major with a bayonet, and many similar enterprises were all discarded. Surprisingly all this talk did no harm at all to the general moral[e] and discipline. Quite the opposite in fact, it kept the dream alive to beat the system, now that would be something![38]

When people were thinking along such lines, rather than serving first and foremost from a strong sense of patriotism or ideology, it is unsurprising that different backgrounds and understandings of nationality could be easily assimilated. Indeed, many soldiers were acutely aware that their sense of individuality was actually being eroded by their experiences of military life.[39]

However, the boredom and discomforts of camp life also gave opportunities for pre-existing tensions and cultural tensions to fester, especially when mixed with alcohol and the nerves and tensions of battles been or forthcoming.[40] Raymond Williams, the son of a Welsh railway worker and an officer in the Guards Armoured Division, never felt comfortable with the English officers that he mixed with in the mess, although that probably owed more to class than nationality.[41] Others objected to being referred to as the ‘bloody Welsh’.[42] Those from strict Nonconformist backgrounds could feel uneasy with the drinking and swearing of their comrades. Even when the powerful bonds that existed between comrades did transcend any differences arising from different cultural backgrounds, individuals’ Welshness or personal beliefs were not completely subsumed beneath a wider Britishness and loyalty to one’s comrades. Servicemen and women for whom English was a second language were hardly going to forget they were Welsh. But for English-monoglot Welshmen and women too, being surrounded by people from other parts of the UK, probably for the first time in their lives, could make them more aware of their own Welshness and the diversity of Britain.  A Welsh member of the Women’s Royal Naval Service recalled: ‘I don’t think I’d ever heard of a Scouse person or a Geordie until I joined up. Then, suddenly, all these different accents all around you. A lot of people didn’t know my accent. I’d be asked what part of Scotland I came from. Or Ireland – was I north or south?’[43] The unfamiliarity of the accent of one nurse from west Wales, together with her white cap and long uniform, even made some men regaining consciousness after anaesthetic think she was an angel.[44] Whether others initially knew the accent or not, many men and women spent their war being known by everyone as Taff or Taffy, making their nationality central to who they were, even if this did not make for a distinct Welsh experience of military service. One result was that when Welshmen outside Welsh units met they often quickly felt something in common, regardless of where in Wales they were from.[45] The autobiography of a Welsh-speaking Royal Engineer from Caernarfonshire records that the small crew from Wales in his unit would come together to swap news. Such encounters were a link back to home but they also reinforced differences within Wales too, reminding those from the north in particular that not everyone spoke Welsh. This Royal Engineer found he was called Taff by everyone except men from south Wales who called him Ianto, an archetypal Welsh-language name.[46]

With around a third of the Welsh population able to speak Welsh, it was unsurprising that the language was spoken and, by and large, tolerated in the forces. In October 1939, a Welsh-speaking censor was posted to the British Expeditionary Force to deal with soldiers’ writing home in Welsh and in May 1940 it was reported to the House of Commons that there had only been one known case of a letter being returned to a soldier because it was written in Welsh.[47] Welsh was included in BBC broadcasts to the forces and the secretary of the National Eisteddfod organised Cofion Cymru (Memories of Wales), a newsletter with stories, poems and the like, which was distributed with official support to Welsh speakers in the forces between 1941 and 1946.[48] In Cairo, another Welsh-language paper was set up, Seren y Dwyrain (The Star of the East). The toleration of Welsh was further evidence of how the state was aware that while all the men were fighting for Britain, their conception of what Britain actually was could be very different. Welsh had practical uses too. The Western Mail told readers in 1945 that Welsh had been used to ‘deceive the Germans on the Western Front and confound the Japanese in the swamps and jungle of Burma’.[49] There was some truth to such claims. In 1943, for example, the Royal Welch Fusiliers were able to re-establish contact with a company that had been cut off during fighting in Burma by asking them in Welsh over loudspeakers to fire rifles to indicate their position and strength. During the ensuing battle, further orders were given in Welsh over the loudspeakers. This lesson led to it becoming standard practice in the regiment that one wireless operator in every company be Welsh speaking.[50] Such actions could be rather confusing for the enemy. After the Welsh Guards used Welsh in radio communications at Cassino in 1944, the Germans responded twenty four hours later with propaganda leaflets in Urdu.[51] There were other occasional military advantages to Welshness too. One battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers spent some of the war stationed in Northern Ireland and the regiment’s official history claimed that it was probable that the Welsh nationality of soldiers had helped keep the peace amidst tensions on the border and poor relations with the police.[52]

Yet the British authorities could also be rather perplexed or just indifferent to the needs of Welsh-speaking soldiers. In November 1939, the government was worrying that Welsh might be used to leak information to Germany via Eire.[53] In 1941, the Minister of Information was asked in Parliament why a telephone conversation in Welsh between a parent in north Wales and his soldier son in Northern Ireland had been prohibited by the Liverpool Telephone Exchange.[54] Such cases owed much to misunderstandings and were never the result of official policy but they happened repeatedly and added to the sense that Wales was not being treated fairly. In 1942, a deputation of Welsh MPs saw the Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs to complain of a general failure to recognise that Wales was a distinct nation. Amongst the issues raised was the placing of Welsh men and women in Welsh units, especially when they did not speak English, and the issue of being allowed to write home in Welsh. Attlee recommended to Cabinet that ‘care should be taken’ to see that Welsh men and women were posted to Welsh units and that ‘Unless security grounds render it undesirable, they should be allowed to send and receive letters in the Welsh language’.[55] Cabinet agreed that it ‘was desirable to avoid action which might foster the growth of an extreme Welsh Nationalist movement’ but it was pointed out that ‘the Ministry of Labour and National Service and the Fighting Services went to great trouble to ensure that Welsh-speaking men were posted to Welsh-speaking units’. A reminder was sent to all departments on the need to recognise Welsh nationality.[56] The greater importance given to placing Welsh-speaking soldiers in Welsh units than was attached to where English-monoglot Welsh soldiers was sent owed much to the practicalities of censoring Welsh letters in English units. A Royal Engineer in Egypt found himself summoned before one of his officers and asked to write home in English because the difficulties in censoring his letters was causing delays in getting them sent. Because he saw the officer as a gentleman who had taken the time to explain the situation to him, the soldier agreed, although he noted it felt repugnant to write to his parents in English. He did continue to write the occasional letter or passage in Welsh and sometimes they would be crossed out.[57] He was not the only one to find it strange but still accept the situation with the resignation that characterized so much of military life. Meurig Evans, of the 31st East Africa Infantry Brigade, recalled that it was ‘strange’ to write to his parents in English ‘but that’s how it was’.[58] In contrast, one RAF serviceman felt insulted when a Welsh-language telegram he sent to his parents was returned to him. For him, this was part of a wider process of politicization and alienation caused by his feeling that his nationality was not recognized.[59]

Yet not everyone was able to write or even speak English. The 1931 census reported that there were 97,932 Welsh monoglots, 8,831 of whom were males between the ages of 10 and 24.[60] It is thus unlikely that there were no Welsh monoglots in the armed forces. The census did not define language ability and it was up to people to classify themselves. Compulsory education meant there cannot have been people of service age who were completely unversed in English but if they recorded themselves as Welsh monoglots their English skills must have been very rudimentary and many others who returned themselves as bilingual may also have had relatively limited commands of English. There are no records of any official discussion of the implications of this but this does not mean there were not problems. In 1955, the Council for Wales and Monmouthshire set up a committee to investigate whether Welshmen faced any special problems in their national service. It found that the army’s personnel dossiers did not record Welsh-language ability and that recruits were told that Welsh should not be recorded in the section on foreign languages spoken. It also found that Welsh-monoglot recruits and those with a poor command of English suffered in the intelligence tests. This affected where they were posted and it may be that in the Second World War too those with poor skills in English found themselves sent to service units where the emphasis was on manual labour.[61]

These interactions between the Welsh and British authorities were thus creating a situation where some people at least contemplated their place in the world and the meaning and relevance of where they came from. In 1943, one soldier wrote in a journal entitled Wales:

This is a time when members of the fighting generation everywhere should be expressing themselves and their opinions strongly – without cynicism – and nowhere more forcibly than in our small green oblong country. For the war has made the Welsh realise that they are a nation with a country, a people, a culture and a tradition different from England’s to fight for. There is a new wave of national feeling about among our people. There is, in truth, a Welsh renaissance.[62]

Another even suggested that the experiences of Welshmen in military service would lead to a growth in Welsh nationalism.[63] Nor was it just Welsh soldiers who were becoming more conscious of Welsh identity. Back home too, that intensifying awareness of Welsh difference was beginning to be felt through greater contact with people from other parts of the UK. As in the forces, this simultaneously led to a sense of a common interest and difference. The isolation that had kept Welsh strong in the west and north was being eroded, not just physically but psychologically too, as more people took an interest in global affairs and listened to the wireless.[64] Some 110,000 children were evacuated to Wales and they were received with both a sense of horror at their different manners and hygiene but also love and care.[65] Children were not the only ones arriving, as government departments and even the BBC’s Variety Department were moved to the safety of Wales. National Geographic Magazine thought that children, government officials and civil servants had ‘taken possession of Wales’. Its correspondent was told by one man that Wales had become ‘little old England’s refuge room’.[66] It is unlikely that they followed the example of some evacuees and learnt Welsh, but it was impossible to live in rural Wales without being aware that Welsh was a genuine community language. Indeed, even in the industrialized valleys, American GIs could become aware enough of the differences between Wales and England to write home about it.[67] Some civilians went the other way too, especially conscripted young women who were sent to factories wherever in Britain needed their labour.

Quite how all this interaction played out was no doubt an individualized experience that varied by personality and outlook; but there were certainly some tensions. Mass Observation reported that there was frequent resentment of the Welsh, the Irish and other foreigners in English towns.[68] Another Mass Observation report recorded being told that the Welsh were rather ‘peculiar’, while someone else reported that he saw the Welsh as a different race.[69] Similarly, there was resentment amongst nationalists about the influx of English people into Wales, not so much at an individual level but in terms of their collective impact on what was already a fragile traditional Welsh-speaking culture.[70] W. J. Gruffydd, a professor of Celtic languages and the Liberal MP for the University of Wales, remarked that ‘England can win the war and Wales can lose’.[71] The requisition of land by the military was the strongest cause of nationalist concern, because for many the landscape was an embodiment of the Welsh nation. This was evident in the powerful verses of Pembrokeshire poet Waldo Williams that bemoaned the loss of community land to the cause of the British state’s war.[72]

But nationalists also resented the loss of people to the war and parts of the nationalist party Plaid Cymru complained that the ‘English government’ did not have the right to conscript Welshmen.[73] Not many shared this concern though. There were 2,920 registered conscientious objectors in Wales, a proportion significantly higher than in any other part of Britain but one which owed more to religion than nationalism or politics. A 1940 Mass Observation report thought that Welsh nationalism was too marginal and its members too old to have much impact on conscientious objector numbers. It noted that there were only six cases where conscientious objection was based on Welsh nationalism alone. The English Appellate Tribunal did recognize Welsh nationalism as grounds for conscientious objection.  While tribunals in England followed this ruling, the two tribunals that covered Wales refused to allow nationalism as a sole basis for conscientious objection, arguing that the objection had to be to military service rather than the issue of the governance of Wales. Thus nationalists who did not cite pacifism or religion could be imprisoned for refusing conscription, although Caernarfon magistrates preferred to fine them. But such cases were few and far between. Over the course of the war, perhaps as few as two dozen members of Plaid Cymru ended up in court for making political objections to conscription.[74]

In 1945 one Welsh writer complained of Plaid Cymru:

This was the party that saw more peril to Wales from English evacuee children than from Hitler’s hordes. They were ‘neutral’ in the greatest war for human freedom. They, a handful of fanatics, presumed to speak for Wales from their safe jobs and safe hide-holes when 250,000 Welshmen were risking their lives to resist the greatest military despotism the world has ever seen.[75]

In fact, many Welsh nationalists were deeply hostile to Nazism and members of Plaid Cymru did serve in the armed forces.[76] Although conscription limited their options, not all nationalists resisted enlistment and some believed that the war was ultimately a just cause. In this, they reflected a much broader feeling amongst their compatriots. People may have joined up with a strong sense of resignation rather than British patriotism but there was a widespread acceptance that war was inevitable and that ultimately the British cause was morally sound, even if a clear ideological commitment to it was often rather lacking.[77] One Welsh writer, who gave speeches in favour of the war effort, noted in his 1946 autobiography of his officer son and others like him:

These were free men ready to defend our freedom. They had not been driven or bamboozled into the uniforms they were wearing, or hypnotized into a state in which they did not know what they were doing. They knew they were fighting for something really worthwhile, whilst well aware that Britain had been no garden of paradise between the wars. The main thing was that they still had minds of their own.[78]

That was rather a romantic view of military service that belied how the conscript’s existence was dominated by getting by but it indicated a feeling that could be found if military researchers dug deep enough and in this there is no evidence that Wales was any different to anywhere else in Britain. People may have been conscious at some level or other that Wales was different to England but that did not mean that they did not also feel part of Britain and its war effort.

Two interwoven nations

It was because people served with minds of their own that Welshness and Britishness were interwoven in the minds and experiences of both military personnel and civilians. These twin national identities were clearly evident in the Western Mail’s celebrations of VE day. At one level, the newspaper celebrated how the British had contributed something very real to the future of the world, telling its readers that they had served a ‘humane and righteous cause’. But it also published a page looking proudly at what the Welsh had contributed to the victory at home and abroad.[79] To readers of the article, it was evident that the Welsh had fought, worked and died for a greater cause, and many had sung while doing it. That same month Megan Lloyd George told an Anglesey eisteddfod that the Welshmen who had fought were ‘worthy successors of the [medieval] heroes of Wales, such as Llewelyn and Owain Glyndwr, and others who fought not only for the independence of Wales, but of nations as well.’[80] In the aftermath of the war, even the London press occasionally celebrated Welshness. The Daily Mirror, for example, proudly told the story of POWs in Thailand, who, each week, held a meeting of a Welsh society, singing hymns and the Welsh national anthem. Some of them, it claimed, died singing.[81]

There was nothing surprising in any of this; war or no war, the Welsh were a people that belonged to two nations. Yet which took precedence was something that varied significantly. There was not even any straightforward link between language and the balance that individuals struck. There were Welsh speakers who were content to see their Britishness predominate, and there were English monoglots who clearly saw themselves as Welsh before British. Rose is thus right when she uses Wales to illustrate that while the British did pull together, they did not agree on what Britain meant.[82] But it also has to be remembered that there was no singular definition or understanding of Wales either. The war did not change the fact that what Welshness meant remained as problematic as ever. For a relatively small number of nationalists, it was about defending Welsh-language culture through some kind of self-government. For parts of the labour movement, it was about preventing a return to economic catastrophe through stronger Welsh representation in London government. For probably many more, it was just a simple pride in where they were from, something that was only enflamed when ignored or not recognized.

The government was aware of that and made efforts to ensure Welsh nationality was recognized. This extended beyond how it treated Welsh soldiers to passing legislation giving people the right to speak Welsh in court, to reminding the BBC to not say England when it meant Britain, and to pushing for propaganda that displayed the plurality of Britain, even if the results could actually annoy Welsh listeners who felt a narrow and overly traditional image of Wales was being portrayed.[83] The state even advertised in Welsh-language papers hostile to the war. This did not mean there were not tensions and the odd civil servant or military official who did not understand or recognise Welsh difference.[84] But it is not unreasonable to conclude that there was a greater sensitivity to Welsh identity in London government during the Second World War than there had been at any previous time.

If anything, the government worried too much about Wales. Nationalists were in a minority, not all were against the war, and there was nothing to suggest that their numbers might grow significantly. The Germans had tried to exploit the sense of Welsh national identity but got nowhere. In April 1940, for example, Wales was given special prominence in Nazi propaganda broadcasts which claimed that the Welsh were as different from the English as the Poles or Czechs were from the Germans. ‘Anyone who has heard 80,000 Welshmen singing “Land of My Fathers” knows what a spirit these people have. Will that spirit be broken in grinding poverty, or will it burst forth in revolt?’ one broadcast asked.[85] Yet there was nothing to suggest that the Welsh as a whole were not as behind the war effort as any other part of Britain, even if they had their own understandings of what Britain meant.  Indeed, the Welsh might even have a stronger sense of British identity than the English. A 1941 Mass Observation report claimed ‘Britain is felt to be somehow symbolic and rather impersonal, whereas England (or whichever other country the person lives in) is more personal, intimate. … [A]n astonishing number of people, irrespective of education and politics, talk about Britain as if it were a unit of four countries, the one in which they live and three others, all foreigners.’[86] Their research was concentrated in England and there was actually little to suggest that there was the same remoteness from Britain in Wales, whether amongst civilians or soldiers. The state might be remote but that was not the same as the British nation. Most memoirs by Welsh servicemen do not make any sustained reference to their sense of Welshness, while civilians could also happily speak of themselves as British. This was perhaps because to the Welsh the difference between Britain and Wales were much clearer than the differences between England and Britain were to the English. The Welsh, or at least those that listened to the radio or worked in the cosmopolitan communities of the south, were used to thinking of the complexities of their nationality and their position within a multinational state.[87] Before the war, the English, in contrast, tended to simply conflate the two. Thus while the war certainly reinforced a sense of Welshness amongst the Welsh, this was just a case of building on what was already there. It was perhaps the English that had a bigger task in facing up to the existence of Wales and the plurality of Britain.

Yet the fact that nationality is not a pervasive theme in the memoirs of so many soldiers from all parts of the United Kingdom is because, for the majority, the experience of military service, like all everyday existences, was not, by and large, a reflective one. Military service could be dangerous and frightening, adventurous and exciting, tedious and monotonous, enlightening and educational. Patriotism or ideology rarely had much to do with everyday service, even when it came to what led men to fight, kill and die.[88] Thus while at an abstract level people may have been fighting for Britain and Wales, whatever they might mean by those terms, those abstract concepts actually had little impact on their everyday existence, an existence dominated by making do and survival. The world of the Welsh soldier was thus not Wales or Britain but their immediate unit, their mates, comrades, superiors and subordinates.

[1] Maj. L. F. Ellis, Welsh Guards at War (Aldershot: Gale & Polden, 1946), 36.

[2] Richard Weight, Patriots: National Identity in Britain 1940-2000 (London: Pan, 2003); John Baxendale, ‘“You and I – All of Us Ordinary People”: Renegotiating “Britishness” in Wartime’, in Nick Hayes & Jeff Hill, eds, ‘Millions like Us’? British Culture in the Second World War (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1999), 295-322. On the role of cinema in this, see Jeffrey Richards, ‘National Identity in British Wartime Films’, in Philip M. Taylor, ed., Britain and the Cinema in the Second World War (London: Macmillan, 1988).

[3] John Davies, A History of Wales (London: Penguin, 1993), 602. The Second World War in Wales awaits its definitive history but for an overview see Martin Johnes, Wales since 1939 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2012), ch. 1. For Welsh-language responses to the war see Gerwyn Wiliams, Tir Newydd: Agweddau at Llenyddiaeth Gymraeg a’r Ail Rhyfel Byd (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2005). For commemoration of the war see Angela Gaffney, ‘“The Second Armageddon”: Remembering the Second World War in Wales’, in Matthew Cragoe and Chris Williams eds, Wales and War: Society, Politics and Religion in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2007), 184-203. On munitions workers see Mari A. Williams, A Forgotten Army: The Female Munitions Workers of South Wales, 1939-45 (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2002).

[4] K. O. Morgan, ‘England, Britain and the Audit of war’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, sixth series, VII, (1997), 151.

[5] Morgan, ‘England, Britain and the Audit of war’, 150-1.

[6] Angus Calder, The Myth of the Blitz (London: Pimlico, 1991); Angus Calder, The People’s War, 1939-45 (London: Jonathan Cape, 1969).

[7] Sonya O. Rose, Which People’s War? National Identity and Citizenship in Wartime Britain, 1939-45 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 238. Also on the gendered nature of national identity see Lucy Noakes, War and the British: Gender, Memory and National Identity (London: I. B. Tauris, 1998).

[8] On sport and nationhood before the war see Martin Johnes, Soccer and Society: South Wales, 1900-39 (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2002). On the wider relationship between class and nation see Chris. Williams, ‘The Dilemmas of Nation and Class in Wales, 1914-1945’, in Duncan Tanner, Chris Williams, W. P. Griffith and Andrew Edwards, eds., Debating Nationhood and Government in Britain, 1885-1945: Perspectives from the ‘Four Nations’ (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006), 146-68.

[9] Rose, Which People’s War?, 231, 286.

[10] Michael Billig, Banal Nationalism (London: Sage, 1995).

[11] Lt-Com. P. K. Kemp and John Graves, The Red Dragon: The Story of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, 1919-45 (Aldershot: Gale and Polden, 1960), 46-7, 258.

[12] The Times, 1 August 1945.

[13] Quoted in Kemp and Graves, Red Dragon, 9.

[14] John Retallack, The Welsh Guards (London: Frederick Warne, 1981), xi.

[15] David French, Raising Churchill’s Army: The British Army and the War Against Germany, 1919-1945 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 124.

[16] Kemp and Graves, Red Dragon, 287.

[17] Kemp and Graves, Red Dragon, 279-81.

[18] Glyn Ifans, Coron ar Fotwm (Denbigh: Gee and Sons, 1960). Quoted in translation in Gerwyn Wiliams, ‘Continental excursions’, Planet, 129 (1998), 85.

[19] HC Deb 18 March 1941 vol 370, cc84, 93-5, 108-9. Also see HC Deb 23 January 1940 vol 356 cc360-1.

[20] The answer was one out of the nine recruiting officers in Wales. HC Deb 12 November 1940 vol 365 cc1606-7W.

[21] Wyn Griffith, Word from Wales (London: George Allen Unwin, 1941), 33.

[22] HL Deb 14 August 1940 vol 117 cc237-8.

[23] HC Deb, 19 January 1943 vol 386 c19.

[24] Selyf Roberts, Tocyn Dwyffordd (1984). Quoted in translation in Williams, ‘Continental Excursions’, p.87.

[25] For example, Caradog Prichard, Rwyf Innau’n Filwr Bychan (Dinbych: Llyfrau Pawb, 1943).

[26] Western Mail, 23 December 1940.

[27] David French, Military Identities: The Regimental System, the British Army, and the British People c.1870-2000 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 46.

[28] For a discussion of this and an attempt to quantify the trends see Chris Williams, ‘Taffs in the trenches: Welsh National Identity and Military Service, 1914-1918’, in Chris Williams and Matthew Cragoe, eds, Wales and War: Society, Politics and Religion in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2007), 126-64.

[29] Kemp and Graves, Red Dragon, 305, 334.

[30] Trevor Royle, Anatomy of a Regiment: Ceremony and Soldiering in the Welsh Guards (London: Penguin, 1990), 87.

[31] Patrick Delaforce, Red Crown and Dragon: 53rd Welsh Division in North-West Europe, 1944-45 (Stroud: Amberley, 2009), 10.

[32] As Keegan notes, the esteem of comrades was an important motivation in combat. John Keegan ‘Towards a Theory of Combat Motivation’, in Paul Addison and Angus Calder, eds, Time to Kill: The Soldier’s Experience of War in the West (London: Pimlico, 1997), 3-11. Reading the citations of VC winners, it is hard not to think that these men were reckless in their concern for personal safety and willing to sacrifice themselves for their comrades. W. Alister Williams, The VCs of Wales and the Welsh Regiments (Wrexham: Bridge Books, 1984).

[33] That sense of belonging continued after the war too. A Welsh Guards NCO injured at Normandy in 1944 recalled with pride the importance of wearing the regimental tie after the war: ‘You’re never alone when you wear this. You can be anywhere in the world and soon as they see it someone will talk to you.’ Royle, Anatomy of a Regiment, 90, 92.

[34] Retallack, Welsh Guards, 151.

[35] Morale report, February-May 1942, p. 10. National Archives (hereafter NA): WO 163/51.

[36] John Ellis, World War II: The Sharp End (London: Windrow and Greene, 1990), 157-8. There are, of course, issues of how experience of combat is defined.

[37] J. A. Crang, ‘The British Soldier on the Home Front: Army Morale Reports, 1940-45’, in Paul Addison and Angus Calder (eds), Time to Kill: The Soldier’s Experience of War in the West (London: Pimlico, 1997), 60-74, 60.

[38] A. R. Lewis, Working His Ticket, online at http://www.proprose.co.uk  Accessed: 23 June 2014.

[39] Ellis, World War II, 14.

[40] Ellis, World War II, 327-8.

[41] Dai Smith, Raymond Williams: A Warrior’s Tale (Cardigan: Parthian, 2008), 161.

[42] Wiliams, Tir Newydd, p. 7.

[43] Quoted in Phil Carradice, Wales at War (Llandysul: Gomer, 2003), 98.

[44] Lleisau Ail Rhyfel Byd: 1939, Episode 1, S4C (16 September 2012).

[45] For memories of such encounters amongst POWs see Sydney Pritchard, Life in the Welsh Guards, 1939-46 (Talybont: Y Lolfa, 2007), 50, 63.

[46] Ifan G. Morris, Atgofion Hen Filwr (Caernarfon: Wasg y Bwthyn, 2005), 73, 63.

[47] HC Deb 28 May 1940 vol 361 c397.

[48] Wiliams, Tir Newydd, 27-33.

[49] Western Mail, 9 May 1945.

[50] Kemp and Graves, The Red Dragon, 51-53, 54.

[51] Morris, Atgofion, 126; Ellis, Welsh Guards at War, 144.

[52] Kemp and Graves, Red Dragon, 160.

[53] Confidential annex by Minister without portfolio, 2 November 1939.  NA: CAB/65/4/2.

[54] HC Deb, 18 December 1941 vol 376 c2067.

[55] ‘Welsh representation’. Memorandum by the Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs, 15 March 1942. NA: CAB 66/23/3.

[56] Cabinet minutes, 16 March 1942.  NA: CAB/65/25/34.

[57] Morris, Atgofion Hen Filwr, 95.

[58] Lleisau Ail Rhyfel Byd: 1939, Episode 1, S4C (Broadcast: 16 September 2012).

[59] Wiliams, ‘Continental Excursions’, 85.

[60] Digest of Welsh Historical Statistics, table 1.18. Data refers to people aged 3+.

[61] The Council for Wales and Monmouthshire, Third Memorandum by the Council on its Activities 1956-57 Cmnd. 53 (London: HMSO, 1957), 118-30. The report recommended against sending those with poor commands of English to such units.

[62] Keidrych Rhys, ‘Editorial’, Wales, 3, 1 (July 1943), 4.

[63] N. Hughes, ‘Effaith galwad i’r caci’, in J. E. Jones, ed., Llais y Cymry yn Lluoedd Lloegr: Dyfyniadau o’u Llythyrau (Caernarfon: Plaid Cymru, 1944), 3. The membership of Plaid Cymru did grow from 3,750 to 6,050 over the course of the war. Wiliams, Tir Newydd, 37.

[64] Between 1939 and 1945, the number of radio licenses in Wales increased from 406,000 to 490,000. John Davies, Broadcasting and the BBC in Wales (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2004), 138-9.

[65] Some of these evacuees came from other parts of Wales. For an overview of their reception see Johnes, Wales since 1939, 14-6.

[66] Isobel Wylie Hutchinson, ‘Wales in Wartime’, National Geographic Magazine, 85/6 (1944), 751-68.

[67] See the reproduced letter in Bryan Morse, A Moment in History: The Story of the American Army in the Rhondda in 1944 (Llandysul: Y Lolfa, 2001), 94-5.

[68] ‘Public opinion and the refugee’, Mass Observation file report 332 (August 1940).

[69] ‘What Britain means to me’, Mass Observation file report 904 (October 1941).

[70] For contemporary concerns about evacuation see R. I. Aaron, ‘A Modern Dispersion’, University of Wales Guild of Graduates: The Guild Annual 1940 (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1940), 2-6.

[71] Quoted in translation in J. Graham Jones, ‘The attitude of the political parties towards the Welsh language’, in Geraint H. Jenkins and Mari Williams, eds, ‘Let’s Do Our Best for the Ancient Tongue’: The Welsh Language in the Twentieth Century (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2000), 262.

[72] For a discussion of these poems see Robert Rhys, ‘Poetry 1939-1970’, in Dafydd Johnston, ed., A Guide to Welsh Literature (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1998), 89-116.

[73] See, for example, the 1939 editions of Welsh Nationalist.

[74] K. O. Morgan, ‘Peace Movements in Wales, 1899-1945’, Welsh History Review, 10/4 (1981), 398-43; ‘Conscientious Objectors’, Mass Observation file report 312 (June 1940); A. O. H. Jarman, ‘Plaid Cymru in the Second World War’, Planet, 48 (1979), 21-30. For the recollections of nationalist objectors see John Griffith Williams, Maes Mihangel (Dinbych: Gwasg Gee 1974).

[75] Western Mail, 21 April 1945.

[76] Jarman, ‘Plaid Cymru’, 24.

[77] On the lack of ideological commitment see French, Raising Churchill’s Army, 126 and Ellis, World War II, ch. 8.

[78] Jack Jones, Me and Mine: Further Chapters in the Autobiography of Jack Jones (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1946), 124-5.

[79] Western Mail, 8 May 1945.

[80] Caernarvon and Denbigh Herald and North Wales Observer, 11 and 25 May 1945.

[81] Daily Mirror, 13 September 1945.

[82] Rose, Which People’s War?, 290, 286.

[83] On the 1942 Welsh Courts Act see J. Graham Jones, ‘The National Petition on the Legal Status of the Welsh Language, 1938-1942’, Welsh History Review, 18/1 (1996), 92-124. For a wider view of official responses to Welsh identity in the war see Johnes, Wales since 1939, ch. 1. For resentment of Welsh clichés see Rose, Which People’s War?, 221. On the BBC see Davies, Broadcasting and the BBC, ch. 3.

[84] There were periodic concerns, for example, that Wales was not properly represented on bodies such as the Ministry of Information. See Western Mail, 21 December 1940.

[85] Analysis of German propaganda, April 1-15, 1940. NA: CAB/68/6/8. For memories of a Welsh Guardsman POW who the Germans tried to entice into doing radio propaganda broadcasts by appealing to his Welshness, see Pritchard, Life in the Welsh Guards, 30-1.

[86] ‘What Britain means to me’, Mass Observation file report 904 (October 1941).

[87] For a wider consideration of British in Wales see Martin Johnes, ‘Wales, History and Britishness’, Welsh History Review, 25/4 (2011), 596-61.

[88] French notes that the lack of personal commitment to the war did not mean a lack of morale or combat effectiveness. French, Raising Churchill’s Army, 134.

Welsh rain

Welsh rain… It descends with the enthusiasm of some one breaking bad news. It comes down in a constant cataract. It blots out sea, sky and mountain. Vast shapes from the beginning of the world that tower to the clouds are as if they had never been. The rain is like a separate element. A man can lose himself in it as if lost in fog. It flies, abetted by its companion the wind, to the left and to the right. It even blows upward over the edge of high places. It runs around corners with the wind.  It finds its way up your sleeves and down your neck. It sings a song on the roads as it runs, a miniature stream, to join other rivulets until it forms a little mountain torrent. In the hills it comes rushing through the heather-stems to fall in hundreds of tiny waterfalls – hundreds of Lilliputian Bettws-y-Coeds – over stone walls upon the mountain passes. And a man looks at it in amazement and thinks that Owen Glendower must have been at his tricks again. In such wind and rain was the tent of Henry IV blown down when the English armies were seeking the Welshman. And no wonder the whisper went round that he could control the elements; for rain in Wales can seem directed by some malignant producer, some one bent on drowning the earth and wiping from the mind of man all memory of dry places.

From H. V. Morton, In Search of Wales (1932).

Random Swansea scenes from the 1937 Coronation

The South Wales Evening Post noted most of the celebrations were unofficial and reported that ‘the mass of people has been aflame with enthusiasm, and the results in the small streets and tiny hamlets have been half comic, but touching in their exuberance. “Eat, drink and be merry” is the national watchword tomorrow.’

One Swansea woman noted in her diary, ‘As we passed small public house [that afternoon] I heard about 4 or 5 men inside singing God Save the King very emotionally and raucously – they sounded half-intoxicated.’

At an unemployed men’s club in the town, the coronation concert began at 3pm with God Save the King and ended with Hen Wlad fy Nhadau and For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow. In-between was a comedian, old music hall songs and some Welsh hymns. It was followed by a bus trip to the Gower.

A 62-year-old charwoman noted how her Swansea street was decorated with streamers and Christmas festoons. The children had tea at the street party at 3.30pm (Blanc Mange Jelly, Cream Slices and Pastry). The women had theirs at 4pm (Ham and tongue, pickles, pastries and cake). The men ate next. She listened to the King’s Speech too, saying it was ‘very nice’ and that he did ‘very well’. She noted that he did not stutter but did stop periodically: ‘you’d think he’d finished and then he’d go on again’.

That night there was dancing in neighbouring streets with the music coming from radios in open windows. There was no ‘rowdyism’ and it was all very friendly. The charwoman did, however, break a tooth on a bread roll which led her to later tell her employer ‘So I shall remember the Coronation’.

Taken from the Mass Observation May the Twelfth day survey, 1937

First words in Welsh history (or openings from some random books)

Tonight a new ‘landmark’ series begins on BBC Wales about the history of Wales. I don’t know how far back it will begin but it’s prompted to me to dig out some schoolbooks on the history of Wales and see how they start.

Here are the results of this random exercise:

” History tells us of the deeds of the men of olden time, and their manner of life. These men were our ancestors, and therefore we resemble them, as children resemble their parents: nevertheless, no age is exactly like the one before it; for new things are constantly being discovered, and so the world progresses. Thus, though ancestors of ours have for many centuries lived among the hills of Wales, we should not recognize one of them, if he were to come to life again, but should certainly believe him to be some wild savage.”  J. E. Lloyd, Llyfr Cyntaf Hanes (1893).

“The story of England and Wales is a very long and a very famous one. It is full of deeds of brave and wise men, each of whom loved his own country, and did his utmost for it.” John Finnemore, The Story of England and Wales (1924).

“Julius Caesar invaded Britain twice, fifty-five and fifty-four years before the birth of Christ. He wrote a book about his invasion, but he never came to Wales so his story does not belong to Welsh history.” Mary McCririck, Stories of Wales (1957).

“During the early years of the Second World War, Britain was threatened with invasion from the east across the North Sea, and from the south across the English Channel. Thousands of people left their homes in eastern and southern England, and came to Wales to find refuge from possible occupation by the enemy. It has always been like that. Through the Christian era, and through far longer prehistoric ages, in the face of invasion the people of lowlands have pressed westward into Wales, and the invaders of one age have become the refugees of the next.”  David Frasers, The Invaders (1962).

“Imagine living in a country where the trees drip with human blood.”  Terry Deary, Horrible Histories: Wales (2008)

There are lots of different ways to tell the story of Wales and lots different places it might start. But however and wherever history is started says more about the teller than the subject.

There’s decentralisation for you!

London is more get-at-able than Cardiff for us in North Wales. It is, therefore, with interest that we read of the new Secretary of State for Wales, Mr. James Griffiths, establishing himself a Welsh Office in Whitehall.

Half a dozen civil servants have already gone up from the Old Office at Cardiff (there’s decentralisation for you!) and reinforcements are expected at Paddington hourly.

Will Wales, North or South, benefit as a result? Certainly the experience of Scotland under the Scottish Office would not lead one to think so. In Cabinet, Scottish business always tended to be taken after the affairs of England and Wales were disposed of.

This was even though the Secretary of State for Scotland had statutory powers which Mr. Griffiths does not possess. Mr. Griffiths, in fact, has neither the power nor, now, the backing of a substantial Department, the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. He is a lone voice, and one can only hope for the best.

Editorial in the Caernarvon and Denbigh Herald and North Wales Observer, 23 October 1964

Some angry comment on bilingual motorway signs from 1977.

Some rather angry comment on bilingual motorway signs from The Economist, 25 June 1977. 

As you barrel along the M4 motorway, heading towards Newport with the Severn Bridge at your back, a giant road sign leaps out from the verge and screams … what? At 70 mph, with the children fighting in the back seat, you search the lines of bold lettering for a clue. There is none, until farther along the road an equally large sign – in English – reveals that the first one instructed Welsh-speaking drivers of heavy lorries to keep to the crawler lane.

How many drivers of heavy lorries speak Welsh? The question of numbers is irrelevant and that of road safety nearly so. The government is spending £10m to cover Wales with bilingual traffic signs, having decided that the opportunity to give the Welsh language a place of importance and dignity in national life is worth it, even though the language may be on its way to extinction by the year 2000 and the signs may keep drivers’ eyes off the road for longer than is strictly necessary.

Advice for motorists in rural Wales 1955

The road surface varies from county to county, but on the whole is hardly up to the English standard. In the remoter mountain districts the roads are narrow, tortuous, seldom tarred, and with breakneck gradients, providing the adventurous motorist with the maximum of thrills. Garages and filling stations, which are often closed on Sundays, are few and far between in some districts, and ample supplies of petrol and oil, besides a spare inner tube, should be carried.

H. A. Phiehler, Wales for Everyman (London: 1955)

Sport in the Heritage of Wales

A short piece I wrote for Cadw, the Welsh Government’s historic environment service

Sport is a central part of the history and heritage of Wales. It has played an important role in the lives of individuals, communities and the nation.  Indeed, in a country lacking the more conventional markers and apparatus of nationhood, it could be argued that sport is one of the reasons why a strong sense of Welshness has survived in the modern era.

For many individuals sport was an important part of the routine of their lives.  It offered a physical and emotional escape from the drudgery and harsh realities of work and urban life.  Whether through watching rugby at the local stadium, playing football in a park, racing pigeons from an allotment or even just talking over the latest betting odds, sport offered people excitement, companionship and physical and intellectual stimulation. It also accorded people a sense of self-worth and importance, whether through their reputation as performers or through their ability to pass judgement on the performances of others.  Such rewards and pleasures could make life more tolerable and more meaningful.  They embedded sport in people’s routines and made it more than something people just did.

The importance individuals accorded sport combined to make sport a significant part of community life too.  Sporting grounds and facilities were important parts of local landscapes, places where people came together, turning collections of individuals into communities.  Locals assembled there, often in their thousands or even tens of thousands.  Even pub and park games could attract large crowds, as people came in search of free entertainment and to watch their friends and families represent their neighbourhoods.  Being part of those crowds enabled people to assert their local and civic pride.  Moreover, the larger sports grounds helped define the towns in which they stood.  They hosted clubs named after those towns and were known far beyond the immediate communities.  They were as much a civic space and physical symbol of those communities as any town hall, church or pub.

The strength and diversity of these communities contributed to Wales and Welshness having a plethora of different meanings.  Yet, however, Wales was defined, it would be difficult to deny sport’s place in the inventing, maintaining and projecting of the idea of a Welsh national identity in and outside of Wales’s blurred borders, even if the Wales that sport has projected has varied according to time, place and context.  Although the Welsh language, music and Nonconformity have also played their part, few other cultural forms are as well equipped as sport to express national identity.  Its emotions, national colours, emblems, songs and contests all make it a perfect vehicle through which collective ideas of nationhood can be expressed.  Rugby and football internationals in particular have mobilizedWales’s collective identities and passions.  They gloss over the different meanings that the people of  Wales attach to their nationality, enabling them to assert their Welshness in the face of internal division and the political, social and cultural shadow of England.  This put national sporting grounds at the heart of the nation.

Sport needs places to be played and its sites, ranging from national stadiums to pub bowling alleys, are part of the historic environment.  Many may not be unique or architecturally impressive but they mattered to the people who used and lived around them. Some have helped define the nation itself. All are part of our collective heritage.