The Political Aftermath of the Aberfan Disaster

Martin Johnes and Iain McLean

On Friday, 21 October 1966 a coal tip slid down a mountainside into the mining village of Aberfan in the South Wales valleys.  The slide engulfed a farm, around twenty houses and part of the local junior school before coming to rest.  The disaster claimed the lives of 144 people, 116 of whom were school children.  The horror felt around the world was made all the more poignant as news emerged of previous slides and brushed aside warnings.  Such was the widespread sympathy that was felt that a fund set up to help the village raised £1,750,000.

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A terrifying tale of bungling ineptitude

In the days after the disaster, Lord Robens, chairman of the National Coal Board (NCB), attributed the tragedy to ‘natural unknown springs’ beneath the tip.  This was known by all the local people to be incorrect.  The NCB had been tipping on top of springs that are shown on maps of the neighbourhood and in which village schoolboys had played.  The government immediately appointed a Tribunal of Inquiry.  Its report was unsparing:

Blame for the disaster rests upon the National Coal Board … The legal liability of the National Coal Board to pay compensation for the personal injuries (fatal or otherwise) and damage to property is incontestable and uncontested.

These dry conclusions belie the passion of the preceding text.  The Tribunal was appalled by the behaviour of the NCB and some of its employees, both before and after the disaster:

the Aberfan disaster is a terrifying tale of bungling ineptitude by many men charged with tasks for which they were totally unfitted, of failure to heed clear warnings, and of total lack of direction from above

Colliery engineers at all levels concentrated only on conditions underground.  In one of its most memorable phrases, the Report described them as ‘like moles being asked about the habits of birds’.

The Tribunal endorsed the comment of Desmond Ackner QC, counsel for the Aberfan Parents’ and Residents’ Association, that coal board witnesses had tried to give the impression that ‘the Board had no more blameworthy connection with this disaster than, say, the Gas Board’.  It devoted a section of its report to ‘the attitude’ of the NCB and of Robens and forthrightly condemned both.

Corporate responsibility

In the face of the report, it now seems surprising that nobody was prosecuted, dismissed, or demoted or even said sorry.

It  is also surprising that Robens’ offer to resign as NCB chairman, which even at the time was seen as perfunctory, was rejected.  Public records released under the thirty year rule, show that he had advance sight of the tribunal report and his private office ran a media campaign to keep himself in place.  Through very public attacks on government fuel policy, he was able to portray himself as a defender of the industry and win the support of the unions.  This was not a new line for him to take but Robens was a great PR manipulator and he knew that he was securing his position.  Ministers let him stay, despite disliking him, because they thought he was the only man who could manage the decline of the coal industry and avoid strike action.  In effect, Robens’ behaviour after Aberfan became irrelevant to whether he kept his job or not.  Rather, political expediency was the name of the game.

Nobody suggested that Robens himself was to blame for the disaster but he was the head of the organisation that clearly was.  The extent of mismanagement revealed by the Tribunal was such that the question of prosecution arose in Aberfan and the media.  However the NCB itself avoided prosecution because the concept of corporate manslaughter was very much on the fringes of legal procedures.  Mining was a dangerous industry where accidents were normalised as an almost inevitable part of operations.  This is not to say that they were taken lightly but rather that they were seen as just that, accidents.

Accidents might be the product of individuals’ errors maybe but the idea that those errors could be fostered by a wider corporate culture that amounted to criminal negligence was simply not part of the contemporary agenda.  When the question of manslaughter charges was raised it was with regard to individual employees not the NCB itself.  Concepts of corporate responsibility, in and outside the coal industry, were essentially under developed.  Thus, despite the evidence to the contrary, the Aberfan disaster did nothing to challenge the picture of disasters as tragic accidents rather than criminal negligence.

A catalogue of self-serving episodes

Other events that now seem surprising followed Aberfan.  In August 1968, the government forced the trustees of the disaster fund to contribute £150,000 to the cost of removing the remaining NCB tips from above the village.  These tips were in a place and condition in which, according to the NCB’s own technical literature, they should never have been. Yet the board refused to pay and even undermined the efforts of a rival firm offering to remove the tips for less money that the NCB thought it would cost.

The contribution was bitterly controversial.  Some people wrote to ministers to complain that it was inconsistent with the charitable objectives of the fund; ministers’ replies did not address the point.  The Charity Commission failed to intervene or even query the debatable point on whether such a contribution was legal.  In contrast, it asked the disaster fund to ensure that parents were ‘close’ to their children before making any payment to them for mental suffering.

The villagers of Aberfan were traumatised  beyond the comprehension of outsiders who could see only their ‘unpredictable emotions and reactions’.  The trustees of Bethania chapel, which was used as the mortuary after the disaster, pleaded with George Thomas, the Secretary of State for Wales, to get the NCB to pay for it to be demolished and rebuilt, on the grounds that its members could not longer bear to worship there.  Thomas passed the plea on to Lord Robens, who rejected it.  Eventually it was rebuilt but at the expense of the disaster fund not the NCB.

The NCB paid just £500-a-head compensation to the bereaved parents.  To some parents this was insultingly low. Coal board lawyers, however, regarded it as ‘a generous settlement’ and it was not at odds with other contemporary payments of loss of life by a child.  Even as insurers wrangled, the ruins of the school and empty houses remained for a year.

For those in Aberfan, the legacy of this catalogue of self-serving episodes was a deep feeling of being let down and injustice.  The result is a lingering mistrust of authority.  It has also made the closure process difficult and undoubtedly hindered the healing process in the local community.  Subsequent events served to exacerbate that feeling.  In October 1998 the village suffered severe flooding.  An independent inquiry showed that the flooding was exacerbated by dumped spoil from the removed tips.  One survivor of the disaster and victims of the flooding said ‘I was buried alive in that tip in the disaster.  Now it’s the same tip again dumped outside my door.  It’s no wonder I am angry.’

A community on the periphery

George Thomas, Secretary of State for Wales and originally a teacher from the Rhondda, did initially protest at the decision to encourage the disaster fund to contribute to the payment of the removal of the tips.  But his lone voice in the cabinet was not sufficient and in the end he acquiesced in the plan and placed strong moral pressure on the disaster fund to ensure it too gave in.

There was considerable local anger but the South Wales valleys consisted of safe Labour seats.  All the major Labour figures knew that the rising Plaid Cymru support in the valleys was essentially just a protest that would pass.  The Labour hegemony thus condemned Aberfan to the margins.  In contrast, Robens’ ability to avert a coal strike was very much the concern of government and he kept his job as chairman of the NCB.

Gwynfor Evans, leader of Plaid Cymru, complained in the parliamentary debate on the disaster that if the tips had been at Hampstead or Eton, the Government would have taken more notice.  Aberfan was a small working-class community isolated from the heart of UK politics.  The government’s decision to grant legal aid to the Aberfan Parents and Residents’ Association at the Tribunal of Inquiry did mean they were able to afford the best ‘silk’ of the day.  The fearsome Desmond Ackner triumphed over the NCB at the Tribunal.  But in the aftermath of the disaster, a Labour government, whose support across South Wales was secure, ignored Aberfan’s interests.

The disaster itself, of course, was not marginalised.  The London media, Royalty, and the Prime Minister all travelled to Aberfan to see the horror for themselves.  It was only a few hours drive away or an even shorter flight.  Even Lord Robens got there, 36 hours later.  Politicians were undoubtedly personally touched by the disaster.  Harold Wilson noted that when he visited a Cornish school less than eight days after the disaster, he felt ‘almost a sense of resentment at these happy innocent children, with all they had to look forward to, compared with the children of that Welsh valley, who had no future.’  Intensive media coverage, particularly television, ensured that the disaster was seen as a national one.

Yet this was not enough to overcome the residents of Aberfan’s position on the political periphery, something that had contributed to the causes of the disaster and intensified the injustices after it. The disaster simply would not have happened had the NCB taken local fears about the tips more seriously or enforced its own rules on tip safety. But it was an organization hampered by mismanagement yet protected from market and political pressure by being part of the state and a dominant local employer.

Before the disaster, the NCB’s economic and local political power meant no one, including the small local authority in Merthyr, was able to challenge it to do more about fears on tip safety. After the disaster, the NCB’s economic and national power meant its interests took precedent over those whose children it had killed.

Martin Johnes and Iain McLean are the authors of Aberfan: Government and Disasters (Welsh Academic Press, Cardiff, 2000).  Further details of this book and other aspects of the disaster can be found at www.nuff.ox.ac.uk/politics/aberfan/home.htm A second edition will be published in 2017.

 

 

The creation of the Welsh Office…

It’s 50 years since the Welsh Office was created. Here’s an extract from my book Wales since 1939 that outlines the background behind its creation and the growth of Welsh administrative devolution.

Fears about the economic future in the late 1940s and early 1950s had also created demands within the Labour Party for some official recognition of distinct Welsh needs and a distinct Welsh identity.  In an acknowledgement that Wales did at least exist as an economic, administrative and cultural unit, a Council for Wales and Monmouthshire had been set up in 1949 as a non-elected advisory body to the government.  It came under the chairmanship of Huw T. Edwards, a Caernarfonshire trade unionist whose profile through the 1950s saw him dubbed the ‘unofficial prime minister of Wales’.  Looking back in 1958, a civil servant argued that the council had probably be intended as ‘relatively meaningless sop’ but Edwards’ personality had seen it gain a good deal of importance.  Through the 1950s the Council did keep up the pressure on the government to create a Welsh Office and Secretary of State, framing its demands more in terms of effective government than national recognition.  The Council was taken seriously by government but Edwards resigned in 1958 after it became apparent that it was not going introduce a Secretary of State. The government interpreted the Council’s demands as a desire for parity with Scotland but feared that should that be granted then Scotland might demand further devolution.  Given that Wales was operating under the same legal system, it foresaw that any Secretary of State would have to follow different policies to England in order not to make the position superfluous.  This, it feared, would be difficult to explain and would lead to inequalities that would be especially manifest in the Marches where social and economic ties crossed the border.  It also worried about the costs and administrative complexity of forming yet another department and feared controversy over the position of Monmouthshire, which it regarded as an English county but one that by tradition would have to be included in Welsh administration.

There was some popular support for devolving some powers from London.  In 1956 the Parliament for Wales campaign presented a petition with 240,652 signatures, representing some fourteen percent of the Welsh electorate.  Gwynfor Evans estimated that 80 percent of the people asked had signed it.  This was the culmination of a six-year campaign that had included leading figures from Labour, the Liberals and Plaid Cymru.  But it won no sympathy with the government or most of the press.  The Cardiff Labour MP George Thomas thought the Welsh people needed saving from themselves, while David Llewellyn, a Tory MP in the same city, even drew parallels between the campaign and Mein Kampf.  The lack of specificity in the campaign’s claims probably made it easier to collect signatures but the internal disagreements within the campaign over what Wales’ problems actually were and how a parliament would solve them undermined its political influence.  At the end of 1956, one of the leading figures in the campaign reflected ‘All the petition’s papers are now in cardboard boxes, one on top of each other, rotting through dampness’. The campaign did help raise the profile of Plaid Cymru and was another step towards the gradual construction of a proto-Welsh state but ultimately its failure marked a widespread satisfaction with the status quo.  This was clear when the South Wales area of the NUM voted against the campaign, fearing it would undermine the UK bargaining position of the union.

The Tryweryn revolt, the reports of the Council for Wales and the Parliament for Wales campaign may not have secured their immediate objectives but cumulatively they encouraged government to take specifically Welsh interests seriously.  In 1958, civil servants anticipated that Plaid Cymru could grow if Welsh feelings were ‘handled tactlessly’ and if there was a fusion between the party and elements within Labour that were ‘more Welsh than Socialist’.  The key to avoiding this, they felt, lay in persuading Wales that the government was taking its economic welfare seriously and dispelling the ‘widespread notion that people in England neither know nor care whether the Welsh and Welsh culture fare well or ill’.  Seven months earlier the Prime Minister had told his cabinet, “There is a general feeling among Welsh people that their particular interests are not receiving the attention which they should and we shall need to be specially careful and sympathetic in our handling of Welsh affairs at the present time if we are to prevent the Welsh Nationalist movement from gaining ground.”

In response to pressure from Welsh MPs for a Secretary for State for Wales, the Conservatives had already introduced a Minister of Welsh Affairs in 1951, a post held by an existing Cabinet member with a different portfolio.  Although the minister did not have a government department, the position did ensure someone within the Cabinet with a specific remit to look after and act on Welsh interests.  The first holder was the Home Secretary Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, a Scottish lawyer, who tried to defuse criticism that he was not Welsh by claiming that that one of his ancestors had led an army from Scotland which tried to join Owain Glyndwr.  He proved the worth of the post by shelving unpopular forestry and military plans for Welsh land. Although there were still the occasional controversy – such as the government’s 1960 appointment of a non-Welsh speaker as National Governor of the BBC in Wales – there were significant signs of increased sensitivity to Wales.  In 1958, a Festival of Wales was held under the government’s auspices. It culminated in the holding of the Commonwealth Games in Cardiff and the announcement by the Queen that Charles would be made Prince of Wales.  The introduction of county rather than national referenda on Sunday opening in 1961 was a concession for rural Wales, as was the main Mid Wales railway line’s survival of the Beeching cut. The government began giving financial support for the publishing of Welsh-language school books in 1954, and the 1959 Eisteddfod Act allowed local authorities to support financially the National Eisteddfod.  In 1958, a new steel development went to Llanwern rather than Scotland after anger in Wales that the Forth Bridge had been given priority over the Severn Bridge, despite the Minister for Welsh Affairs arguing the Severn’s case to combat the ‘wide and deep distrust of the Government’s attitude towards Wales’. Cardiff was made the official capital of Wales in 1955 and four years later government pressure on Buckingham Palace led to the Red Dragon being declared the official national flag.  These Conservative concessions were the result of external pressure on the party but they also show how the existence of a minister for Wales and then sensitivity over Tryweryn increased the influence of Welsh interests in government.

In contrast, internal pressure from Labour MPs, not least James Griffiths, led that party to finally commit itself to creating a Secretary of State for Wales, a promise which it honoured when it returned to power in 1964.  Not everyone in government was enamoured.  In his diary, Richard Crossman called the Welsh Office an ‘idiotic creation’ and ‘completely artificial’.  There was also some concern in the north that Wales’s voice in Cabinet would actually diminish because the post meant Welsh affairs would be treated separately after England had been looked at.  The Secretary of State would be ‘a lone voice, and one can only hope for the best’ one paper surmised.  But one immediate benefit was felt.  The new department took the importance of expanding the M4 far more seriously than the Ministry of Transport and plans were quickly put in place for a series of new sections that would open through the 1970s.

The full and referenced version of this text can be found in Martin Johnes, Wales since 1939 (Manchester University Press, 2012), available in paperback, hardback and on Kindle.

What next? Some back of the envelope thinking

It was nowhere near as close as many hoped or feared but 1.6m UK citizens still said they wanted out. The prime minister has reaffirmed his commitment to the vague devo-max promises made late in the day.  Fearing the rise of UKIP, his backbenchers insist that the ‘English question’ needs sorting too. Despite the uncertainties, constitutional change is coming.

Scotland will sort itself out I’m sure. The backlash would be too great if they did not get something acceptable to the Scottish government.  The Tory  backbenchers would no doubt like to see public spending in Scotland brought into line with England but the PM seems to have committed to the Barnett formula that allows higher Scottish spending, while oil revenues offer him a justification to defend that.

The problem with committing to Barnett is that it hurts Wales. Unlike Scotland, Wales gets more from the public purse than it pays in (maybe £12billion a year) but  if its block grant was funded on the same basis as Scotland it would get another £300m a year.  (I’m simplifying but that’s basically the case).

The UK government could of course just change the Barnett formula so Wales and Scotland were treated equitably. However, a greater ‘hand out’ to Wales will not go down well with the backbenchers or the English nationalist party that masquerades as UKIP. It might also mean less cash for Scotland. A future Labour UK government does appear to have promised some sort of Barnett reform  but the details are vague and, anyway, they’re not in power.

Cameron has to face up to solving the Barnett issue because without doing that he can’t deliver “English votes for English issues”. At the moment, the level of public spending in England helps determine the size of the Welsh and Scottish block grants. Thus any vote on, say, English education that involves a change to spending levels is not an England-only issue because it affects the Welsh and Scottish budgets.  Welsh and Scottish MPs will continue to be justified in voting on English issues for as long as Barnett continues.

Thus any constitutional reform of England has to first address how Wales and Scotland are funded.  But it is surely not impossible to come up with a new formula that calculates the Welsh and Scottish block grants based on an equitable assessment of their needs (i.e. the extent of deprivation there and the cost of delivering services).

Once you have a new formula there is nothing to stop a federal parliamentary system for the UK, the ‘home rule for all’ option. Here the Commons becomes the English Parliament and the parliaments of all four nations have fiscal and domestic responsibilities. The Lords, meanwhile, is replaced with a UK-wide new elected chamber that deals with defence and other UK-wide issues. England has a first minister. The UK has a prime minister. They might belong to different parties.

There might need to be some policy alignments between the nations or a retention of some UK-wide domestic issues.  For example, significantly different levels of unemployment benefit and state pensions could lead to some awkward population movements.  But you could leave welfare payments (except housing benefit which is ultimately a local issue) at a UK level.

Most importantly, a federal UK could only work if there was some form of wealth redistribution between the nations. This happens within the EU and would be the cost of retaining some form of political unity and collective safety. In essence what would happen is that Wales and Northern Ireland, using whatever replaced Barnett, would get a subsidy from England, plugging the hole in their finances. If they wanted to spend beyond that they would have to use their tax and borrowing powers.

UKIP would moan but surely would not be in an electoral position to do much about it now the England question is solved.  (The EU issue would still be there but I have enough faith in the English electorate to vote to stay in any European referendum .) Labour would lose some influence in England but not in the UK. They won’t like that but democracy means it is unfair for them to govern England unless they can get a majority there. The Tories would be happy because they  had saved the union, increased their influence in England and hurt UKIP.  National identity in the four nations would be recognized.

The biggest question mark would be whether the English electorate would accept the subsidy of Wales and Northern Ireland.  But that already exists and polls say they want to keep the union and believe in social justice. This is the cost.

I’m sure the devil is in the detail but I’ve put the same level of thought into this as the back of the envelope vows made by the UK parties just before the referendum.

A personal (and Welsh) view of the referendum

If Scotland votes Yes my wife would be entitled to a new passport. Although it’s two decades since she’s lived there, I suspect she’d take one and I would be married to a foreign citizen. A trip to see her family would still be a long way but would now involve crossing an international boundary.

In this small way my life would change but, less obviously and far more substantively, other things would happen too. The political system that governs my country and the resources at its disposal will change. In some indirect but important fashion this will influence my health care, my job, my commute and my kids’ education.

But I don’t know how things will change and whether they will for better or worse.  The UK economy might plummet at the hands of international monetary forces. But it probably won’t. Wales should get to renegotiate the Barnett formula that has underfunded its public services for more than three decades. But that will be the low on the priorities of a London government trying to figure out how to disentangle two nations that have been one state for more than 300 years.

Indeed, amidst the political fallout and bickering, it may be that Wales and its needs doesn’t get heard at all. It would be nice to think that the London government suddenly gave Wales and Northern Ireland more attention and more resources in order to keep us in the family but I suspect that won’t happen because too much of the English electorate doesn’t care about having us.

My gut instinct is that Scottish independence will leave Wales worse off but I don’t know that. Nor does anyone else and the certainty with which some Welsh nationalists are declaring a Yes vote will be good for us is no more than a hopeful guess.  It’s not that I fear the economy being damaged; it’s more I fear Welsh politicians spending the next two decades gazing at their constitutional navals rather than working at fixing the inequalities and poverty on their doorsteps.

That should leave me wanting a No vote but the speed with which the Westminster elite is starting to wake up to the consequences of its introspection and London-centricism is far too welcome to want it to go away. Indeed, it’s actually funny seeing panic setting in amongst politicians who have been too smug for their own and our good. A Yes vote would give them a kicking they would never be the same again after.

I suspect it’s such feelings that are driving the Scottish Yes vote forward. The arguments on the economics of it all are so complex and so uncertain that neither side can actually win that fight. As long as the No camp keep on patronising the Scots and insulting their sense of nationhood (“we’re too wee to stand alone…”) then people will keep switching to the Yes side. They know it’s an economic risk but there’s enough sense in the Yes arguments to make it worth taking, especially when it means sticking two fingers up to a political elite that hasn’t cared much for years what they think.

These are interesting times as the saying goes. They will become even more interesting if Scotland votes Yes. If they do, I hope it works out for them. I hope even more it works out for Wales. But I suspect what’s good for Scotland, won’t be good for us.

The Alarm: 1980s Wales in a Band


Alarm_kalvoya_01071984_10_500The Alarm sold 5 million records but they were never cool.  Even in the early 1980s, when they were singing punkish rebellion songs like 68 Guns, the band never won the critical acclaim of the music press.  Instead, they were derided as pretentious and inferior imitators of U2.  Even their big hair was mocked.

Perhaps it was just easier to be cool if you came from Dublin rather than Rhyl but even in Wales those who take their rock and pop music seriously have not accorded The Alarm much credit.  Books on Welsh music history overlook or deride them (although David Owens’ Cerys, Catatonia and The Rise Of Welsh Pop is a notable exception).  The contrasts with the feting and celebrations of the Manic Street Preachers could not be greater.

The Alarm released five studio albums between 1984 and 1991, although the name was revived by singer Mike Peters in 2000 and he continues to tour and record under it.  Peters’ health problems and his continuing musical and charitable work mean that the band continue to have some profile in Wales at least.  The derision that was sometimes aimed their way has faded but it has not been replaced with popular affection or admiration.

The Alarm, however, do deserve some recognition and even analysis.  Music does not have to be original or innovative to say something and touch people and the Alarm did both.  Their popularity alone means they deserve a mention in the contemporary history of Wales.  But more than that, The Alarm also offer a window into wider trends in that history, not just in what they did but also in how they ran against contemporary currents.

The band’s early albums captured the anger and frustrations felt by so many young people in a period of mass unemployment.  Most young people may not have been rioting or even been particularly politicized but there was a certainly a resentful sense that affluence and opportunity were not being equally shared out.  As The Alarm sang in Father to Son (1985) ‘How many years must I waste? Today I can’t find nothing nowhere. Tomorrow I might find something somewhere. Give me a future now. I need it so badly now.’

Much of the associated blame and anger was aimed was aimed at Mrs Thatcher, who became hated by many people in a way that no previous Prime Minister had.  The Alarm’s Marching On (1984) did not name her but its angry accusations seemed to be aimed at her and it demanded ‘You’d better look at what you have created and think of all the people who hate you’. This may not have been poetic or subtle but it did sum up how many felt.

Yet rock bands like The Alarm were a minority taste.  Far more popular in the 1980s were catchy pop songs that were an antidote to rather than comment on hard times.  One purveyor of such tunes was Shakin’ Stevens, one of Wales’ most successful modern musicians.  Although he came from a deprived Cardiff council estate, his most popular songs were ditties about love, a green door, and Christmas.  In this, he was more in tune with popular sentiment than The Alarm and others whose anger was politicized.  Indeed, overt faith in the political system was fading and being replaced by apathy and cynicism.

While some turned their backs on party politics, others began to weave a sense of nation into their political views.  This was significant because Welshness had largely been a matter of sentiment rather than politics in working-class urban Wales.  The changing attitudes were evident in the Welsh iconography of banners at the 1984-5 miners’ strike.  One social scientist claimed that Welshness was stepping into a void left by a fragmenting sense of class consciousness.

The_Alarm_Change_BackTheses shifting attitudes to Wales were evident in the output of The Alarm. In 1989, they moved away from their class-based lyrics and released Change, an album inspired by the lead singer’s new found sense of national identity.

Peters learnt Welsh and a version of the record was also released in that language, making it probably the first fully bilingual album.  Change brimmed with a sense of anger and frustration at the state of Wales: ‘I saw a land standing at a crossroads, I saw her wrath in a burned out home, saw her tears, in rivers running cold, her tragedy waiting to explode’ and ‘I see the proud black mountain, beneath an angry sun, under drowning valleys, our disappearing tongue, how many battles must we fight, before we start a war? How many wounds will open before the first blood falls?’

This open sense of Welshness did not help the band’s image outside Wales and their use of a male voice choir on the track New South Wales drew some mirth.  Even in Wales, it left the band vulnerable to accusations of clichés.  But to me, a teenager at the time, this was all heady stuff and it gave my sense of nationality a distinctly political twist.  I surely was not alone.

The Alarm still sounded indistinguishable from so much of western rock music, even with the new lyrics about Wales.  Yet that is no reason to dismiss them as part of Welsh culture. Understanding those facets of our culture that are shared with other nations is just as important as appreciating what marks us out as different. Besides, ultimately, there is little in Welsh popular culture that is unique to Wales.  When The Alarm sang about the pull of Merseyside, they spoke for the Welsh majority whose cultural inspirations and aspirations did not stop at the border.

Popular music is a powerful social force.  It can entertain, inspire and anger. But sometimes it’s nothing more than part of the humdrum of everyday life, something in the background, barely heard or noticed. The Alarm were all this.  Yet, whether they were singing about social trends or were just another tune on the radio, the band are a part of the story of modern Wales.

Martin Johnes teaches history at Swansea University and is the author of Wales since 1939.

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.