Signing up to Serve, Llandrindod Wells
Signing up to Serve, Llandrindod Wells

In the recent debate about Britain’s role in the Great War, in part sparked by Michael Gove’s wading in with a unthinking, if orthodox, attack on the so-called ‘left-wing mythology” of a pitiful war, there has been relatively little attention given to the fact that Britain did not speak with one voice, even in 1914. Coverage of a raft of centenaries from 1910 through to 1914 has been rather slight in the mainstream press. Little has been said about the centenaries of the Tonypandy Riots (1910), the National Railway Strike (1911), the National Coal Strike (1912), or the Dublin Lockout (1913), even in progressive newspapers such as The Guardian or the Independent. Yet thousands of working-class people came out onto the streets to protest the inequalities of the age, to demand (and win) a minimum wage, as the miners did. That’s before entering into any kind of discussion about the women’s suffrage campaigns of the period, or the push for Irish Home Rule or Welsh Disestablishment for that matter. Rather, there is an odd debate about war aims and the apparent ‘evils’ of imperial Germany.

Yet, Britain in 1914 remains a place quite unfamiliar to us despite all the literature and the debates. There’s a reason for this: too often the national picture is allowed to obscure the realities of local idiosyncrasy and we’ve come to think that we know all that there is to know about 1914. But do we? In Huddersfield, for example, a marvellous work by the historian Cyril Pearce has shown just how powerful the anti-war campaign was in the town. As he writes, ‘a unique consensus of Nonconformist Liberals and a vigorous labour and socialist movement earned it [Huddersfield] the reputation of being “a hotbed of pacifism”’. Aled Eirug’s on-going work on conscientious objection in Wales has teased out a similarly rich vein of pacifism, anti-war activism, and the harshness of state oppression. Both themes run deliberately counter to the prevailing perception of pro-war patriotism that has dominated the academic literature for the last hundred years. Wales, as Kenneth O. Morgan wrote many years ago, ‘exceeded all expectations. Welshmen flocked to enlist in great numbers, relatively greater than the figures for England and Scotland’.

That may be true, of course, but it should not obscure the tradition established both in fiction and in fact of principled objection to the Great War. Wales offers a complex version of the anti-war story, similar in some respects, different in others. Lacking in many national accounts of the war, primarily because most historians of Britain cannot read the language, is a sense of its reception in Welsh-speaking districts, particularly in the North and West of Wales. Anglesey, Caernarfonshire, Meirionnydd, and Ceredigion, all display lower than average recruitment levels. A level of confusion about the purpose of the war is present in one of the region’s great novels, Traed mewn Cyffion (Feet in Chains) by Kate Roberts. ‘When war broke out’, she wrote, ‘no-one knew what to make of it’. Welsh-speaking communities did not, on the whole, traditionally volunteer for service in the forces. As Roberts points out in her novel, a largely autobiographical piece that draws on her experiences growing up in rural Gwynedd, those who did  ‘were not the ones to be proud of’. The voice of Hedd Wyn (Ellis Humphrey Evans), a poet from Trawsfynydd who joined the army in 1917 in order to avoid conscription, is perhaps the most powerful of this particular tradition. His poem, Rhyfel (War) written in response to the outbreak of the war in 1914 is especially poignant:


Mae’r hen delynau genid gynt,

Ynghrog ar gangau’r helyg draw,

A gwaedd y bechgyn lond y gwynt,

A’u gwaed yn gymysg efo’r glaw

The harps to which we sang are hung,

On willow boughs, and their refrain

Drowned by the anguish of the young

Whose blood is mingled with the rain.

George M. Ll. Davies: A Conscientious Objector in Prison.
George M. Ll. Davies: A Conscientious Objector in Prison.

The anti-war response was no less powerful in industrial South Wales, particularly in those districts that had a strong ILP presence (you can hear a bit more here: Keir Hardie, MP for Merthyr Boroughs, is the most famous figure, of course, but not alone. Morgan Jones and Ness Edwards, both Members of Parliament for Caerphilly (Jones 1921-1939; Edwards 1939-1968), were imprisoned as conscientious objectors, as was Hardie’s son-in-law, Emrys Hughes of Abercynon, who served as MP for South Ayrshire 1946-1969. Hughes was a school teacher and trained at the City of Leeds Training College (now Leeds Metropolitan University), living at Cavendish Hall. Graduating in the summer of 1915, Hughes was given a job in Trehafod by Rhondda Education Committee and he returned to the South Wales Coalfield where, as he put it in his later (unpublished) autobiography, ‘a young man of military age was still left unmolested and escaped the inconvenience and insult which were now the rule in most parts of the country’. When conscription was introduced in February 1916, Hughes knew that sooner or later he would have to face his conscription papers and a military service tribunal when he refused to accede to their demand. He pre-empted the situation with a letter in the Aberdare Leader laying out his opposition to the Military Service Bill as it passed through the House of Commons in January 1916:

Any form of compulsory service, whether legal or economic, we regard as an attempt to undermine some of the strongest foundations of English national life. The present Bill will tend to set up in Great Britain the military institutions of Prussia and will mean grave danger to the working class movements and to individual liberty.

Emrys Hughes’ call up papers arrived in March 1916. He immediately appealed to the local tribunal for exemption, which was refused. When the refusal was reiterated by the county tribunal sitting at Pontypridd shortly afterwards, Hughes resolved to steadfastly hold to his position. He was arrested in mid-April as an absentee and fined 40s at Mountain Ash Magistrates court before being handed over to the military authorities. Along with four comrades from Abercynon, Ynysybwl, and Tonyrefail – Gwilym Smith, Percy Kendall, Idwal Williams, and Bethuel William Morgan – Hughes then became embroiled in the first court martial of conscientious objectors held in South Wales during the war. At the time of the trial, the Merthyr Pioneer (the town’s ILP newspaper) reported a further twenty conscientious objectors from the local area. Although small in number, their presence became a cause celebre for the anti-war and pacifist left, which had suffered a concentrated crisis since the outbreak of the war.

Of the comrades tried alongside Hughes, readers of the blog may well recognise one particular name: Bethuel William Morgan. Bethuel Morgan, or Beth as he was known to Hughes and others, was a theology student at Bangor Normal College in North Wales but came from Ynysybwl. His elder brother was John E. Morgan, then the Miners’ Federation lodge secretary at the Lady Windsor Colliery. Bethuel Morgan was treated appallingly from the moment of his arrest, despite recognition by the Mountain Ash Tribunal of his religious convictions. Here’s a flavour of that Tribunal hearing, as reported in the newspaper:

Bethuel Morgan claimed exemption on the ground that he believed in the sanctity of human life … he stated that he would go to prison or submit to any penalty rather than not follow his conscientious convictions.

Col. Morgan: “You are trying to save your own skin”.

The Applicant: “I have a soul, if that man hasn’t”.

Like Hughes, Morgan was refused exemption. His punishment at the court martial in May 1916 was two years hard labour (albeit with 18 months remittance). It was read out at Cardiff Barracks in the presence of 300 soldiers, of whom just 30 had yet to see front-line service in the trenches, adding to the intended humiliation of the conscientious objectors. Bethuel Morgan was 24 years old, Emrys Hughes just 21. Both had sought to escape a life of toil underground, which had been the life of other members of their family, through teacher training college. By the courage of their convictions, they faced the very real possibility of being killed by their own government – absenteeism was considered desertion and subject to the harshest of penalties of military law, including execution.

This is, of course, but a snippet of a much bigger story, which I hope is told over the course of the anniversary. For my own part, I shall be looking further into the lives of the Morgan family and their experiences during the war. For now, though, it leaves me just to say that, as the anniversary approaches, we do the history of all men and women who lived through the war years a tremendous disservice if we forget the variety of sacrifices made at that time. To stand up for one’s convictions was just as valid a response to the war as to volunteer and serve.