Gethin Matthews, Lecturer in History at Swansea University
One hundred years ago today, on April 2, 1922, David Lloyd George inaugurated a war memorial at the Welsh Baptist Chapel in London, of which he was a member. As Prime Minister, his speech for the occasion was highly publicized and it speaks volumes about the attitude of the Welsh people at that time, some forty months after the guns of the Great War had fallen silent.
Lloyd George was still revered at the time as ‘the man who won the war’, and his words show how valuable the Welsh contribution to that ‘victory’ was seen, in a time before disillusionment set in. ‘installed.
Castle Street was the chapel just off Oxford Street that Lloyd George attended (perhaps not so regularly) when he was in London. It was here that his daughter Olwen was married in June 1917. The chapel had about 500 members, 116 of whom served in the armed forces during the war.
Twelve Castle Street members were killed, along with two from the smaller sister chapel in Moorfields, which merged into the larger congregation at the end of the war.
The memorial, a bronze plaque approximately 1.5m wide by 1m high, was funded by prominent members of the congregation, John Hinds, Liberal MP for West Carmarthenshire, and his wife Lizzie. Their only son, William Pugh Hinds, was one of fourteen names on record. He was three months shy of his nineteenth birthday when he was shot by a sniper in France on February 2, 1916.
It is unclear how many other parents were present to hear the Prime Minister congratulate their deceased sons at the ceremony, which was held on a Sunday evening. Possibly Mrs. Cordelia Rees, mother of Robert Griffith Rees, killed aged 25 at Mametz Wood on July 10, 1916; Mrs. AB Thomas, mother of Rufus Thomas, killed at the age of 35 on May 9, 1918 by the German spring offensive; or Mrs Ruth Llewellyn, mother of Edward Thomas Llewellyn who died of wounds on 18th May 1918, aged 32.
So it was no easy task for Lloyd George, the man who played a key role in managing Britain’s war effort from start to finish, to face a packed chapel, with an audience of hundreds of people hoping to hear words of consolation.
However, the Prime Minister was an accomplished politician and a shrewd speaker: he knew his audience and he knew how to hit the right notes. His speech was laced with religious imagery and the main theme was to emphasize the nobility of Welsh ‘sacrifice’ in a just cause. He stated :
“It is an honor for me to be here this evening to unfold this account of the actions of these fourteen young men. I knew most of them. I had the greatest admiration for them. I know what they gave up. They were an honor to any congregation, and this tablet will be an inspiration to generations of young people who will come here, after our death, to worship the God of our fathers.
Most of Lloyd George’s speech was delivered in Welsh, with a few sentences in English, but the fact that so many newspaper articles carry the same quotes suggests that an English version was prepared for public consumption.
This contains a few rhetorical flourishes:
“It fills me with sadness; it intoxicates me with pride. I am proud to be a member of a church where there were fourteen young men. Here you have fourteen members of a small Welsh church willing and ready to die for freedom and for justice. I am proud of these young men. I feel proud, as a Welshman, that they have responded to the greatest call ever made across the world to fight for law and fairness.
Lloyd George went on to cite dubious statistics to show that more volunteers left Wales per capita than any other part of the Kingdom, or indeed the Empire. It was to become a basic claim: he made the same point, with the same unreliable figures, when unveiling the Pwllheli war memorial in June 1924.
One of the reasons for repeating this statement was perhaps that some of the reflected glory claimed for the Welsh nation would be reflected on him, the undisputed leader of Wales.
Yet, it wasn’t just a performance. As one of the reports notes, after delivering the speech, Lloyd George nodded and “he was so upset that he leaned against the railings of the pulpit wiping the tears from his face.”
The anthem, requested by Lloyd George for the occasion, was by William Williams, Pantycelyn: ‘Dros y bryniau tywyll niwlog’, (‘O’er these gloomy hills of dark’). A report notes that the “fervent singing” of this hymn released the tension of the congregation.
The Prime Minister’s respite from the political grind did not last long. After the ceremony, Lloyd George went to meet the leader of the Conservative Party. Lloyd George’s coalition was crumbling and he needed a diplomatic victory to retain his position, but instead a series of international crises marked his final months at 10 Downing Street.
The Conservatives withdrew their support for Lloyd George’s government in October 1922 and in the general election the following month he was thrown into the political wilderness.
There are many other reports of Lloyd George unveiling a series of other war memorials throughout the 1920s. At each one he attempted to comfort those bereaved sons, brothers and husbands that their “sacrifice had meant something.
However, when he began to write his Memoirs by the summer of 1932, the world situation had deteriorated and his narrative of the war was mostly concerned with justifying his decisions and blaming other men’s failures. The tone of his writing is a far cry from the words of comfort and vindication he had deployed in 1922.
By the time the final volume of the Memoirs released in 1936, most people had come to the conclusion that the “Great War” wasn’t worth it. Contrary to what Lloyd George had said on April 2, 1922, the deaths of all these young Welshmen came to be seen as meaningless.
Today the Castle Street Chapel has become 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 Old Welsh Chapels of King’s Cross (eighteen names) and Radnor Walk (seven names).
There are also the six names of members of Castle Street who were killed in World War II – so the ‘Great War’ was not, after all, ‘the war to end wars’.
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