Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Wales and World War One
reviewed by Bryan Alexander

Wales and World War One

by Robin Barlow
Gomer Press, 2014

Many histories of the First World War have focused on military campaigns, grand strategy, or personal experience. Recent historiography has led us to focus on what we might call medium-level WWI history, studying communities, regions, or small nations during that titanic struggle.

Robin Barlow's book is a good example, focusing on the experience of Wales, one former nation incorporated within the United Kingdom. Barlow assumes the reader has at least a baseline familiarity with WWI's events and zeroes in on the ways this very small country participated in and reacted to the events of 1914–1918.

Wales and World War One begins by exploring how Wales dove into the war, including the formation of Welsh units and the vexed question of popular support. Next Barlow shows us examples of the Welsh at war, offering incidents from Gallipoli and the Somme. The second half of the book cuts across the national experience, examining reactions of writers; the changing role of women; pacifists and opposition to the war; religion; conscription; and punishment.

I found the book very illuminating, appropriately filled with local details. We learn of the appeal of the invasion of Belgium to the Welsh, as a similarly small country, along with the difficult politics of appealing to Welsh speakers by using that language (difficult in an era often hostile to local languages). There is, of course, the politics of Wales within Britain. Kitchener at one point snarled that "no purely Welsh regiment is to be trusted; they are...always wild & insubordinate and ought to be stiffened by a strong infusion of English or Scotch" (44). Local tribunals were apparently relatively generous to some anti-war protestors (Ch 8). And Barlow reminds us that Britain's ultimate war leader, Lloyd George, was Welsh, nicknamed "the Welsh Wizard" (191).

Through this book, I learned more about Wales and some of its unusual cultural details. Wales has long hosted a storytelling festival, the National Eisteddfod, and Barlow shows how that event initially celebrated the nation's entry into war. Yet one of the Eisteddfod's great bards, Hedd Wyn, was killed in France in 1917, and the festival turned to memorializing his death. Welsh religion, especially its Nonconformist branch, was initially skeptical of the war, but changed to support it (Ch 12).
Click on Image to Enlarge
Mametz Wood, Somme Sector, with Welsh Dragon Memorial in Foreground
Assaulted by 38th Welsh Division, July 1916
Some of the local details share continuity with the broader British or even Entente experience. Barlow shows that Welsh troops were sometimes mustered in 1914 without appropriate uniforms and materials (52). The deaths of a large number of Welsh soldiers had powerful effects back home, especially when they were part of the Pals battalions. The behavior of Welsh troops in one battle, Mametz Wood in the Somme campaign, was and remains controversial, with dueling accusations of heroism and cowardice (82ff). Britain's eventual reliance on conscription, rather than volunteerism, "calls into question the portrait of a unified nation, eager to enlist" in Wales, as it did in Canada and elsewhere (138). Later in the war London nationalized Welsh coal mines (186), echoing the national industrial policy we saw elsewhere, as in the United States. Religion played an "ambiguous" role in the Welsh war experience, with faith driving many to fight, while also providing a structure for opposing the war (ch. 12).

Poster for Fund Raising Event
Socialist politics tangled with the politics of nationalism and empire, sometimes violently (131). While we don't learn of any Welsh Soviets, we do read of a daring and controversial coal strike in 1915 (182ff). Indeed, the Welsh economy was thrown into rapid successions of booms and busts, depending on spikes or cuts in war's demands on products and workers.

Barlow writes with clarity and attention to detail. His tone is usually calm but sometimes veers into passion. For example, three hours into his first engagement in battle Hedd Wyn was mortally wounded, struck in the chest by a fragment of shrapnel; he was one of 31,000 to die in the battle. In his diary, Field Marshal Douglas Haig described 31 July 1917 as "a fine day's work" (150). Barlow also admirably quotes and cites a great deal of Welsh language throughout the book; equally admirably, he translates those passages.

Visually, Wales and World War One is amply illustrated with photographs, posters, and cartoons. It is to be recommended for readers of Welsh history, of course, and additionally it's a useful book for WWI students looking to understand history at a medium level.

Bryan Alexander


  1. I would like to share a story of my Grandfather's on your site but do not know how to submit it for your review. Please let me know how I might go about doing so. Thanks!

  2. To submit your article, send it to our editor, Mike Hanlon, at

    This was a great review of a country that's often neglected regarding its contributions to WWI. Thank you, Bryan!

  3. For most of us, the Welsh response to WWI is completely overshadowed by a focus on the ambivalent responses in Ireland, especially in the Nationalist/Home Rule south of the island ... The uneasy position of men from the south who joined up to fight ‘England’s war’ – not least upon their return; the successful fending off of conscription; gun running and conversations with Germany; and of course the 1916 Easter Rising itself. So Alexander’s book is to be welcomed not least as a very useful and perhaps overdue corrective to the assumption that sectarian resistance to participation in the war only occurred beyond the Irish Sea.