Welshness, Welsh Soldiers and the Second World War

This paper was presented at “Fighting for Britain? Negotiating identities in Britain during the Second World War”, a conference held at the University of Edinburgh in June 2012.  It is largely based on chapter 1 of Martin Johnes, Wales since 1939 (Manchester University Press, 2012). 

When David Beaty Cos returned to his home village of Trefor after five years as a POW in Germany, children gathered flowers and sang the Welsh national anthem.  He was carried shoulder high through the village to a party at his home behind a banner saying ‘welcome home to the hero’.[1]  Such moments were primarily about individuals but, as the singing of the Welsh anthem illustrated, they were also inter-related with a sense of national identity.  InWales national identity had never been straightforward or singular and this was especially true during the Second World War. Some historians have interpreted the conflict as a time when Wales’ Britishness was at a highpoint and most memoirs by Welsh servicemen do not make any reference to a sense of Welshness. Yet the war was also a time when, for some, an awareness of Wales and Welshness was exacerbated.

At one level, the argument that war enhanced a sense of Welshness is counter-intuitive. After all, this was a British war. Moreover, research by Chris Williams on the First World War has argued that the camaraderie and pressures of active service created bonds between men that overrode national differences between the different parts of the UK. Furthermore, his careful empirical analysis of the composition of battalions has shown that despite their national titles Welsh units were actually far more cosmopolitan, while many Welshmen also served in English regiments.[2] This thus exacerbated the effect of the war on creating a sense of Britishness rather than Welshness.

Yet Welsh identities still existed within the British military.  The Welsh identity of the Welsh regiments was inescapable from their name, traditions and insignia. A notice in The Times in memory of the soldiers of the 6th battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers who were killed in northwest Europe in 1944 finished with the words ‘Cymru am Byth’ (Wales forever).[3] This was a case of what social scientist Michael Bilig called banal nationalism, the subconscious flagging and reminder of the existence of the nation. But it was also more than that because troops felt a sense of loyalty to their regiment. What might seem on the surface to be about Wales was more complex than that. A sergeant recalled that during the war recruits from outside Wales were still made to feel part of the Welsh Guards: ‘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’.[4]

The assimilation of non-Welsh servicemen into this fraternity suggests that it was a personal loyalty to comrades rather than a sense of Welshness that was the primary driving factor.  Another officer who served with the Welsh Guards during the war 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 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’.[5]  Thus the war certainly developed a sense of group consciousness but it was not necessarily just based on the nation, even in national units.

Most Welsh servicemen were not in Welsh units. Unlike in the Great War, the armed forces made no effort to keep local men together.  Instead, recruits were sent to whatever units needed the skills or bodies individuals offered. For at least some this was a cause of resentment.  For Glyn Ifans, a Carmarthenshire RAF man, it was part of a process of politicization that he experienced through the war. With no units existing just for Welsh troops he exclaimed ‘Are we a nation? Certainly the authorities running this war do not believe so’.[6] 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.[7]

Quite how far such sentiments extended is unclear. Griffithwas what might be called a cultural nationalist, someone deeply committed to the identity of Wales. At the end of the war the Western Mail, a Conservative-leaning Welsh newspaper, remarked more temperately ‘if there had to be a dilution of the Welsh regiments there was no dilution of the Welsh fighting spirit.’[8]  Yet 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’.[9]

For those who were fighting within such regionally diverse units, the constant danger created a powerful bond between men that may have transcended any differences arising from different cultural backgrounds but this does not mean that individuals’ Welshness or personal beliefs were completely subsumed beneath a wider Britishness or loyalty to one’s comrades. Class tensions remained in the forces. Those from strict Nonconformist backgrounds could feel uneasy with the drinking and swearing of their comrades. The 1931 census showed that 37 percent of the Welsh population spoke Welsh and 156,000 people did not speak English.  It is thus unsurprising that Welsh was spoken and, by and large, tolerated in the forces.  It was included in BBC broadcasts to the forces and from 1941 the secretary of the National Eisteddfod organised a newsletter Cofion Cymru which was distributed with official support to Welsh-speakers in the forces.  The Western Mail even thought Welsh had been used to ‘deceive the Germans on the Western Front and confound the Japanese in the swamps and jungle of Burma’.[10]  There were moments, however, when chauvinism, misunderstandings or the needs of censorship led to a less welcoming attitude to Welsh and one RAF serviceman found a telegram he sent to his parents returned because it was Welsh.[11]

But whatever the attitudes they encountered, servicemen for whom English was a second language were hardly going to forget they were Welsh. Indeed, being surrounded by people from other parts of the UK, probably for the first time in their lives, could make servicemen and women more aware of their own Welshness and the diversity of Britain.  A Welsh member of the WRNS, 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?’[12]  Indeed, many men and women spent their war being known by everyone as Taff or Taffy, making their nationality central to who they were.

The war also created a situation where some people at least contemplated their place in the world, the meaning and relevance of where they came from and the future. In 1943 one literary solider wrote in a new journal entitled Wales that he was setting up:

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.[13]

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. The isolation that had kept Welsh strong in the west and north was being eroded not just physically but psychologically too, as people took a greater interest in global affairs. More people listened to the wireless. English evacuees were arriving in rural Wales, whilst young women were being sent from Wales to English factories.  There was some concern about the impact of people moving in and out of Waleson traditional Welsh-speaking culture.  W. J. Gruffydd, a professor of Celtic languages and the Liberal MP for the Universityof Wales, remarked that ‘England can win the war and Wales can lose’.[14]

Concern about the cultural damage the war might be inflicting on Wales was strongest in Plaid Cymru, the small Welsh nationalist party formed in 1925. The war proved deeply divisive for Plaid Cymru and the Welsh-speaking intelligentsia that was its constituency.  The party declared itself neutral but many Welsh nationalists were deeply hostile to Nazism and members of Plaid Cymru did serve in the armed forces.[15]  The alleged anti-Semitism and fascist sympathies of Saunders Lewis, Plaid Cymru’s founder, became a targetfor opponents of the party and an embarrassment to some of its supporters.  In 1945 one man said of Plaid Cymru:

This was the party that saw more peril to Walesfrom 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 Walesfrom 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.[16]

Such points made clear not just the multiple understandings of what Welshness constituted but how a sense of Welshness during the war extended, as it always had done, far beyond nationalists.

Plaid Cymru complained that the ‘English government’ did not have the right to conscript Welshmen but the government did recognize Welsh nationalism as grounds forconscientious objection.  However, the two tribunals that covered Walesdid not always put this into practice and decisions could depend on whether people were willing to do other forms of war work.  Of the mere two dozen or so who refused to serve on nationalist grounds, around half ended up in prison.  The acknowledgement of nationalism as grounds for not being conscripted is further evidence that the government was sensitive to the nuances of nationality within the UK.  The Ministry of Information told the BBC not to say England when it meant Britain, it passed an act allowing Welsh to be used in court, the first Welsh day was organized at the House of Commons and there were attempts to give Princess Elizabeth some form of Welsh title or role. Yet ultimately these were piecemeal concessions to Welsh pressure born from a fear of undermining British unity.[17]

If anyone from the government had visited the 1944 National Eisteddfod they would not have worried about Wales’s loyalty. There they would have seen how Wales and Britain were inextricably interwoven.  The festival, the first full one since the start of the war, had a distinct international flavour with performances from other Allied countries.  Welsh and British flags flew alongside each other and there were many attacks on separatism in the presidential speeches.[18]  This popular inter-weaving of Britishness and Wales was also evident on less organized occasions.  After news of the Japanese surrender came through, a crowd of several thousand gathered in Tonypandy’s main street and sang Land of Hope and Glory, while a reporter recorded that he must have sung Hen Wlad fy Nhadau a hundred times over the VE holidays.[19]

The Western Mail’s celebrations of VE day clearly showed Wales’s dual sense of nationality.  At one level, it 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.[20]  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. Megan Lloyd George told an Anglesey eisteddfod that the Welshmen who had fought were ‘worthy successors of the 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’.[21]

In the aftermath of the war even the London press occasionally celebrated Welshness too. The Daily Mirror, for example, proudly told the story of POWs inThailand who each week held a meeting of a Welsh society:

In the heart of Thailand jungle there rose the voices of the choir of the dying men, the old songs of Wales. Slowly they sang them, “Land of my Fathers” and the hymns Welsh miners sing. Men who would never again see the valleys and towns of Wales, men almost too exhausted to speak, took up the refrain. And some died singing.[22]

Such stories represented how the people of Britain had been fighting, not just to defeat Nazism, but for their own homes and their own traditions too.  People had fought their Britain, whether that meant the mountains of Snowdonia or the side streets of Cardiff.  As historian Angus Calder points out, the idea and use of ‘us’ in propaganda was widely accepted but it was interpreted in different ways by different audiences.  As he puts it, for ‘the miners it meant the miners; [and] for the working class it meant the working class’.[23]  The war was a British one but Britain meant many different things and Wales was as much a part of it as anywhere else. Yet Wales itself also meant many things.  For some servicemen the experience of war increased their sense of Welshness, politicized it even, but for others it was simply part of the complex mix of ingredients that made them who they were.


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

[2] Chris Williams, ‘Taffs in the Trenches: Welsh National Identity and Military Service, 1914-1918’, in M. Cragoe &  C. Williams (eds.), Wales and War: Religion, Society and Politics in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (Cardiff, 2007), 126-164. On Welshness and the Great War also see Tony Thacker, A Corner of a Foreign Field which is Forever Wales? Welsh Identities in the Great War. Online at http://www.cardiff.ac.uk/share/resources/Welsh%20identity%20in%20the%20Great%20War.pdf

[3] The Times, 1 August 1945.

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

[5] Royle, Anatomy of a Regiment, p. 92. That sense of belonging continued after the war too. A Welsh Guards NCO injured at Normandy in 1944 recalled with the 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, p. 90

[6] Quoted in Gerwyn Williams, ‘Continental excursions’, Planet, 129 (1998), 85.

[7] Wyn Griffith, Word from Wales (London, 1941), p. 33.

[8] Western Mail, 9 May 1945.

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

[10] Western Mail, 9 May 1945.

[11] Gerwyn Williams, ‘Continental excusions’, Planet, 129 (1998), 85.

[12] Quoted in Phil Carradice, Wales at War (Llandysul, 2003), p. 98.

[13] Wales, vol, III no. 1, July 1943.

[14] Quoted in translation in J. Graham Jones, ‘The attitude of the political parties towards the Welsh language’, in Jenkins and Williams (eds.), ‘Let’s do our best for the ancient tongue, p. 262.

[15] A. O. H. Jarman, ‘Plaid Cymru in the Second World War’, Planet (1979), 21-30.

[16]Western Mail, 21 April 1945.

[17] See Martin Johnes, Wales since 1939 (Manchester, 2012), ch. 1.

[18] Kimberly J. Bernard, Visible Welshness: Performing Welshness at the National Eisteddfod in the Twentieth Century (University of Wales Swansea, PhD thesis, 2003), ch. 6.

[19] Western Mail, 16 August, 11 May 1945. Liverpool Daily Post, 9 May 1945.

[20] Western Mail, 8 May 1945.

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

[22] Daily Mirror, 13 September 1945.

[23] Calder, The People’s War, p. 138.

Author: HanesCymru

I teach history at Swansea University.