What a speech by Lloyd George 100 years ago today can tell us about the Welsh attitude towards the ‘War to End All Wars’
Gettin Matthews, Lecturer in History at Swansea University
One hundred years ago today, April 2, 1922, David Lloyd George unveiled a war memorial at the Welsh Baptist Chapel in London, of which he was a member. His speech on that occasion was widely reported as Prime Minister and tells us much about the attitude of the Welsh at the time, some forty months after the guns of the First World War had fallen silent.
Lloyd George was then revered as ‘the man who won the war’ and his words show the value of the Welsh contribution to that ‘victory’ at a time before disenchantment set in.
Castle Street was the chapel just off Oxford Street that Lloyd George attended (perhaps not as regularly) when he was in London. Here in June 1917 his daughter Olwen married. The band had about 500 members, 116 of whom served in the Wehrmacht during the war.
Twelve members of Castle Street were killed, along with two from the smaller sister band at Moorfields, which merged with the larger congregation at the end of the war.
The memorial, a bronze plaque about 1.5m across and 1m high, was paid for by prominent members of the community, John Hinds, Liberal MP for West Carmarthenshire, and his wife Lizzie. Her only son, William Pugh Hinds, was one of the fourteen names recorded. On February 2, 1916, three months before his nineteenth birthday, he was shot dead by a sniper in France.
It is not known how many other parents were present to hear the Prime Minister praising their dead sons at the ceremony, which took place on a Sunday evening. Perhaps Mrs. Cordelia Rees, mother of Robert Griffith Rees, was killed at Mametz Wood on July 10, 1916, aged 25; Mrs AB Thomas, mother of Rufus Thomas, killed 9 May 1918 aged 35 by the German spring offensive; or Mrs. Ruth Llewellyn, mother of Edward Thomas Llewellyn, who died of wounds on May 18, 1918, aged 32.
So it was no easy task for Lloyd George, the man who played key roles in leading the British war effort from start to finish, to stand before a packed chapel with hundreds of listeners hoping for words of comfort.
However, the prime minister was an accomplished politician and an astute orator: he knew his audience and he knew how to hit the right notes. His address was laced with religious imagery and the overarching theme was an emphasis on the nobility of Welsh ‘sacrifice’ for a just cause. He defined:
“It is my honor to be here tonight to unveil these records of the exploits of these fourteen young men. I knew most of them. I had the greatest admiration for her. I know what they gave up. They have been an honor to any community and this plaque will be an inspiration to generations of young people who come here when we have died to worship the God of our fathers.”
“tears wiped away”
Most of Lloyd George’s speech was given in Welsh with some English phrases, but the fact that so many newspaper accounts contain the same quotations suggests that an English language version was being prepared for public use.
This includes some rhetorical flourishes:
“It fills me with sadness; it fills me with pride. I am proud to be a member of a church that had fourteen such young men. Here you have fourteen from a small Welsh church, willing and willing to die for liberty and justice. I am proud of these young men. As a Welshman, I am proud that they have answered the greatest call ever to fight for justice and righteousness around the world.”
Lloyd George went on to cite some dubious statistics to show that more volunteers per capita came from Wales than from any other part of the kingdom or even the empire. This was to become a basic claim: he made the same point, with the same unreliable numbers, when he unveiled the Pwllheli War Memorial in June 1924.
Perhaps part of the reason for repeating this claim was that some of the reflected glory claimed for the Welsh nation would fall back on him, the undisputed leader of Wales.
However, this was not just a performance. As one of the reports notes, Lloyd George bowed his head after the speech and “was so overwhelmed that he leaned against the pulpit railing while wiping the tears from his face.”
The hymn requested by Lloyd George for the occasion was by William Williams, Pantycelyn: ‘Dros y bryniau tywyll niwlog’ (‘Over these dreary hills of darkness’). One account notes that the “fervent singing” of this song relieved tension in the congregation.
The prime minister’s respite from the hustle and bustle of politics did not last long. After the ceremony, Lloyd George went to meet the leader of the Conservative Party. Lloyd George’s coalition was falling apart and he needed a diplomatic victory to secure his position, but instead a series of international crises marked his remaining months at 10 Downing Street.
The Conservatives withdrew their support from Lloyd George’s government in October 1922, and in the general election the following month he was thrown into the political wilderness.
There are numerous other accounts of Lloyd George unveiling a number of other war memorials in the 1920s. With each of them, he sought to offer comfort to the grieving prodigal sons, brothers, and husbands that their “sacrifice” had meant something.
However, when he started writing his memories By the summer of 1932, world conditions had deteriorated, and his account of the war focused mostly on justifying his decisions and blaming other men’s failures. The tone of his writing is far removed from the comforting and justifying words he used in 1922.
Until the final volume of memories When it came out in 1936, most people had concluded that the “Great War” hadn’t paid off. Contrary to what Lloyd George had declared on 2 April 1922, the deaths of all these Welsh youths were regarded as meaningless.
Today the Castle Street chapel is the Central London Welsh Church, the result of a merger with other Welsh chapels in London. Also on its walls are the First World War memorials of the former Welsh chapels King’s Cross (eighteen names) and Radnor Walk (seven names).
It also gives the names of six Castle Street members who were killed in World War II – so the ‘Great War’ was not ‘the war to end wars’.
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