What a Lloyd George speech 100 years ago today can tell us about Welsh attitudes towards the ‘War to End All Wars’
Gethin Matthews, Senior Lecturer in History at Swansea University
A hundred years ago today, 2 April 1922, David Lloyd George unveiled a war memorial at the Welsh Baptist chapel in London where he was a member. As Prime Minister, his speech at the occasion was very widely reported and it tells us a lot about the attitudes of the Welsh at that time, some forty months after the guns of the Great War had fallen silent.
Lloyd George was still venerated at the time as ‘the man who won the war’, and his words show how the Welsh contribution to that ‘victory’ was understood as valuable, at a time before disillusionment had set in.
Castle Street was the chapel just off Oxford Street that Lloyd George attended (perhaps not that regularly) when he was in London. This was where his daughter Olwen was married in June 1917. The chapel had around 500 members, of whom 116 served in the Armed Forces during the war.
Twelve members of Castle Street were killed, along with two from the smaller sister chapel at Moorfields, which merged with the larger congregation at the end of the war.
The memorial, a bronze tablet about 1.5m across by 1m high, was paid for 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 the fourteen names recorded. He was three months short of his nineteenth birthday when he was shot by a sniper in France on 2 February 1916.
It is not known how many other parents were present to hear the Prime Minister praise their dead sons at the ceremony, held on a Sunday evening. Perhaps Mrs Cordelia Rees, mother of Robert Griffith Rees, killed aged 25 at Mametz Wood on 10 July 1916; Mrs A. B. Thomas, mother of Rufus Thomas, killed aged 35 on 9 May 1918 by the German Spring Offensive; or Mrs Ruth Llewellyn, mother of Edward Thomas Llewellyn who died of wounds on 18 May 1918, aged 32.
Thus it was not an easy task for Lloyd George, the man who had key roles in running the British war effort from start to finish, to face a packed chapel, with an audience of hundreds hoping to hear words of consolation.
However the Prime Minister was a consummate politician and an astute public speaker: he knew his audience, and he knew how to hit the right notes. His address was laced with religious imagery and the over-arching theme was to stress the nobility of the Welsh ‘sacrifice’ in a righteous cause. He declared:
“It is to me an honour to be here to-night to unveil this record of the deeds of these fourteen young men. Most of them I knew. I had the greatest admiration for them. I know what they gave up. They were an honour to any congregation, and that tablet will be an inspiration to generations of young people who come here, when we have passed away, to worship the God of our fathers.”
Most of Lloyd George’s address was given in Welsh, with some English phrases, but the fact that so many newspaper reports carry the same quotations suggests that an English-language version was prepared for public consumption.
This contains some rhetorical flourishes:
“It fills me with sadness; it thrills me with pride. I am proud to be a member of a church where there were fourteen such young men. Here you have fourteen from a small Welsh church willing and ready to die for freedom and for righteousness. I feel a pride in these young men. I feel a pride, as a Welshman, that they answered the greatest call that was ever sounded throughout the world to fight for right and fairness.”
Lloyd George went on to quote some dubious statistics to show that more volunteers went from Wales per head of the population than any other part of the Kingdom, or indeed the Empire. This was to become a staple claim: he made the same point, with the same unreliable figures, when unveiling the Pwllheli war memorial in June 1924.
Perhaps one reason for repeating this assertion was that some of the reflected glory claimed for the Welsh nation would reflect upon him, the undisputed leader of Wales.
Yet, this was not just a performance. As one of the reports notes, after delivering the address, Lloyd George bowed his head and “he was so overcome that he leaned against the railings of the pulpit as he wiped the tears from his face”.
The hymn, requested by Lloyd George for the occasion, was by William Williams, Pantycelyn: ‘Dros y bryniau tywyll niwlog’, (‘O’er those gloomy hills of darkness’). A report notes that the “fervid singing” of this hymn released the tension from the congregation.
The Prime Minister’s respite from the grind of politics did not last long. After the ceremony, Lloyd George went for a meeting with the leader of the Conservative party. Lloyd George’s coalition was falling apart, and he needed a diplomatic victory to keep his position secure, but instead a series of international crises marked his remaining months in 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 cast into the political wilderness.
There are numerous further reports of Lloyd George unveiling a string of other war memorials throughout the 1920s. At each of these he attempted to give solace to those mourning lost sons, brothers and husbands that their ‘sacrifice’ had meant something.
However, by the time he began writing his Memoirs in the summer of 1932, the global situation had deteriorated and his account of the war was most concerned with vindicating his decisions and shifting the blame onto other men’s failings. The tone of his writing is far removed from the words of comfort and justification that he had deployed in 1922.
By the time the final volume of the Memoirs came out in 1936, most people had come to the conclusion that the ‘Great War’ had not been worth it. In contrast to what Lloyd George had declared on 2 April 1922, the deaths of all these Welsh youths came to be thought of as meaningless.
Today, the chapel at Castle Street has become the Central London Welsh Church, the result of a merger with other Welsh chapels in London. On its walls there are also the First World War memorials of the former Welsh chapels of King’s Cross (eighteen names) and Radnor Walk (seven names).
There are also the six names of Castle Street members who were killed in the Second World War – so the ‘Great War’ was not, after all, ‘the war to end wars’.
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