For men in distant theatres who had been away for four years or more, the end of the war brought hopes of a return to life as it had been before they left. It was not to be, as Rhys David explains in this talk given in Cardiff Bay on Armistice Day, November 11th 2018
This day, exactly one hundred years ago, will have been one of mixed emotions for people in Wales. Those who had sons, fathers, or husbands who had managed to come through the war will have been looking forward to seeing them home safe. For others the sacrifice their loved ones had made will have been more poignant as they saw the celebrations around them.
Around 272,000 men from Wales joined up for the First World War, of whom 31,000 died and many more were left incapacitated for the rest of their lives. What did they miss most while away and what were the memories of home that they took with them? How different was the city – and the life – to which they returned?
One of the lucky ones who did return – though not until April 1919, such was the time demobilisation took – was Dewi David, a 21-year old from the Cardiff suburb of Splott who had been away for four years without a break. Since signing on at the Drill Hall in Park Street, near the station, he had endured much, though not in France: instead he was in the Near East enduring the horrors of Gallipoli – more than 100,000 dead on both sides – a period on the Suez Canal fending off German and Turkish attacks, a long march through Sinai and three bitter battles for the town of Gaza, and then a push into Palestine through the Judaean Hills.
This culminated in the seizure of Jerusalem in December 1917, the famous Christmas present to the British people, as Lloyd George described it. Then there was a sweeping-up operation to Megiddo in modern Syria where the Ottoman Empire was finally forced out of the war in the last great battle in the conflict in that area.
Dewi is of interest today because while he was away he wrote regular letters home – 120,000 words in total. Soldiers had to sign to say letters included only personal and family matters so there is not a lot in his correspondence about the campaigns as such. He wrote about himself and responded to his family’s news about what was happening at home. As such we learn a bit about the campaigns, but a lot more about his attachment to his native city.
We also get a very clear insight into the lives of its lower middle-class residents of that era – what they ate, where they went to have fun, how close their ties were to neighbourhood and family, and just how comprehensively the war affected the lives of everyone. Just to give you one example of how the whole community was involved in this war, when Dewi was confined on one occasion in a field hospital in Palestine he was treated by his family doctor. Dr. Samuel, who had a practice in Newport Road near the Royal Oak, had signed up, too.
First something about DEWI. He was born in 1898, went to Cardiff’s first grammar school, the Municipal Secondary School in Howard Gardens, joined the GPO in James Street – the building around the corner from here that has had For Sale/To Let signs up for the past 40 years or so. From age 15 he was a messenger boy delivering telegrams to seamen in the boarding houses of Bute Street, Loudon Square and surrounding areas, and to vessels jam-packed close to each other in the Queen Alexandra, Roath, Bute East and West docks.
He took further studies in Clark’s College in Newport Road as part of his training to become a telegraphist. He enjoyed a happy home life in what was then a thriving suburb with his parents – Welsh-speakers from Pentyrch and Gwaelod-y-Garth, and his sister.
And the CARDIFF of that era? It had acquired city status in 1905 after passing the qualifying number – 200,000 population. It was also much smaller in area than nowadays. Its extent in those days meant the main rail line ran through the middle of the city not its lower half as nowadays. The northern limit was where the Gabalfa flyover is, to the west it was Ely Bridge and to the east just beyond the Royal Oak pub. Half the population in those days lived south of the tracks in Butetown, Splott, Adamsdown, Newtown, Riverside, and Grangetown, with the rest in Roath, Cathays and Canton. That was it.
Dewi signed up like many young men because his friends from school and at the Post Office had done so. Their names tell us much about the population of Cardiff at the time: Frank Somers, Aubrey Mills, Pippen, Ropke, Sam Milner, Charlie Hardcastle, Hansford, Hardcastle, Billy and Cecil London, boys whose parents had probably moved to the city in the previous 20 years from surrounding English counties to take advantage of the new opportunities Cardiff was offering. They would all have been inspired to sign on by newspaper stories of German atrocities in Belgium, and in Dewi’s case by the oratory of that hero of the Welsh, Lloyd George.
So, what did Dewi and his fellow Cardiffians miss during his four years away from home, unable to pop back whenever they wanted, like today’s university students, and what were they looking forward to on their return.
Well, naturally enough, FAMILY was the first thought for all of them and throughout his letters there is a deep longing to be back home with his mother, his father and his sister, three years younger than he was. In various letters he writes to say he hopes this will be the only or the last Christmas he spends away from them or how much he is looking forward to going on holiday with them again. Like most of the men who joined up this will have been his first real experience of being away from south Wales.
This was a 17-year old at the start of his service and I expect the 17-year olds of that era were far less worldly than nowadays. Indeed, he made over part of his 10/- a week Army pay to his mother when he first went out, expecting his needs would be fully catered for by the Army, but he soon had to rescind this as he found he was always broke and unable to afford supplies to supplement Army fare. Early on he writes to his mother – who had perhaps warned him of the temptations he might face, to say. “Your words, Mum, will not be forgotten. I am sure the thoughts of you three would always make me act as you would wish me to.” As the war went on he became much more of a Jack-the-Lad, almost cynical, British Tommy, adopting Army slang – much of it Cockney – in his writings.
By today’s standards much of what he writes about his parents is very sentimental. His mother is the little woman at home of contemporary popular culture, the homemaker and nurse of every Victorian and Edwardian person’s childhood. The typically domestic nature of her life – shopping and cleaning as well as cooking – is made evident in the frequent references he makes to the priority she places on those activities ahead of writing to him.
His sister, Doris, was different, perhaps reflecting societal changes that were already under way. He was very interested in and supportive of his younger sister’s career and prospects, and there is every sign her family felt there were few limits on what she, a grammar school pupil like Dewi, could achieve. There were, it seems, opportunities for girls outside the home and marriage. At first she thought of becoming a teacher and he wrote encouraging her and observing all the long holidays she would get. Doris was never to go into teaching, choosing instead a commercial career, the skills in which Clark’s also taught. Yet again, Dewi’s reaction was positive.
“They do a lot for you, [at Clark’s College] and you’ll feel mighty pleased with yourself when the result of your examination is announced. Am quite pleased you are going in for commercial work. Perhaps, after all’s said and done, the teaching profession is terribly crowded and inadvisable, therefore, to adopt. I rather think you ought to make a good opening in the line of your choice. Girls with their wits about ’em can make some brass at that game nowadays and I do not doubt for one moment you would make an excellent business-woman. Audacity is a valuable asset in the commercial world. You will find that it is necessary to put your nose to the grindstone in working for these particular posts, and I sincerely hope you will concentrate your mind upon your studies. If you do this, I feel confident you will never have cause to regret it, so Good Luck! little girl, go in and top the bill.”
Whenever he was in a big city he seems to have made a point of looking for a present for her – usually silk or jewellery – in what we might now regard as a rather remarkable degree of affection for a younger teenage sibling. As he explains, he was not always successful, as when he moved from Egypt -with its opportunities to visit big cities such as Cairo, Alexandria or Ismailia, where he would sometimes find silks or scarves to send home.
From Palestine, he writes:
“These people are miles behind the times, as regards shops and all that. Gave it up as a bad job eventually ’cos, really, the miserable paltry specimen of the Birmingham jewellers’ art (overseas department, remember) that I inspected were a gross insult to the average man’s intelligence and would [not] have deceived even the dullest member of a West African missioner’s flock. Never mind, don’t worry, let it slide till I go on leave to Cairo again.”
The main thing on his mind, however, was FOOD AND HIS MOTHER’S HOME COOKING – hardly surprising since the men were starving much of the time. The logistics of such an operation to one side, Gallipoli, Egypt, Sinai and Palestine did not offer opportunities to live off the land, as did France, or buy much to supplement their diet, and the Army found it very difficult to get supplies out to the men. German submarines operating in the Mediterranean – tin fish as the men called them – were also responsible for sinking many of the ships carrying food and other goods to the near East.
He writes from Gallipoli:
“There’s only one tin of beef paste left now, and that’ll go for brekker tomorrow morning. You see we’re getting bread now, so it’ll go down just A1 on that. Bout time, too, we sure have had our fair share of them hateful H&Ps. Jolly glad I’ve got a decent set of ivories to tackle em cos fellers with false ones don’t half cop out – blooming near starve and got to break em up with pliers to nibble at em.”
H & P had the Government contract to make hard tack, the men’s emergency supply. Serving men much preferred sweet short bread biscuits ….
“Good old Crawford – back him against those shameful old rascals H & P any day of the week after jerking some of those toothsome dainties back.”
It was no better in Egypt and possibly worse – no fewer than 800,000 men were in Egypt at one point – British, Australian, New Zealanders and Indians moving to and fro:
“Scuse me harping on grub but when you’ve had one piece of camel (I’ll swear it wasn’t pig) as salt as the Suez for brekker, cup of tea for dinner (could have had marmalade as well but told him to keep it as I was afraid of getting yellow jaundice through the blamed stuff fore long) and skilly for tea (when I had a row with cookie for doing me out of half my regulation issue of potatoes i.e. 2 and 156/164th ozs per man, it sort of haunts one.
“We’ve had peas(?) twice since we’ve been here (like marbles) but they only remind me of green peas I uster get. I’ve kept a few of the former in case I run out of ammunition in a tight corner and will risk breaking The Hague rules about dum-dums
The gap had to be filled by food parcels from relatives and friends, without which the men would have starved:
“We villains are hardened somewhat to such hard times, which are common occurrences in the profession of arms, but I venture to say never have we been so sadly reduced, no, not since the 15s as at present. Consequently, much as it pains me to broach the subject of vittles, allow me to encroach on your generosity by giving a few tips on the next parcels, dear Mum. Please do not imagine me in any way presumptive but somehow or other I am inclined to think you are not utilising as much as I would like the wide scope of your culinary genius. Now I suggest you employ it to make some lap cake, jam roll and Welsh Cakes. Teisen ar y Men, now and again as I know a chap yn yr Aipht who’d go absobloominglutely stark, staring mad with joy to see em turn up. Besides there are lots of other creations in flour, currants and baking powder prone to your art which I can’t remember just now. Don’t forget, Mum, if it’s only compensation for not writing. I know you’d like making cakes better so there’s a trump, will you?”
He was always desperate for his mother to write but it seems she largely left this to her better-educated husband and daughter.
We know from a list that his father kept that he received regular food parcels, posted from Carlisle Street Post Office in Splott or the GPO in Westgate Street, the contents of which were faithfully recorded. Altogether, we have records of about 30 parcels sent out to him. Thus, December 14th:
Enamel teapot full of sugar, tea, café au lait, mug, milk, spearmint, clear gums, candles, cigs,
or March 2nd, 1916:
Vermin powder, toffee, mirror, milk tablets, quinine tablets, tea tablets, milk, saccharine, chocs, cake, Pepsin, handkerchiefs, cocoa, cake, shortbread biscuits, toothpaste, cigs.
His requests were quite specific and usually also included other non-food items such as socks, toothpaste, writing paper, envelopes and plenty of other things the Army couldn’t or didn’t want to supply.
“Any sort of fruit or meat [i.e. in tins] will be OK, but fish is no good in this hot weather. Send plenty of chocolate, big chunks, and toffee from the Market, something to chew. A box of Abdullas [cigarettes] would not go bad either, Virginia … nothing Gippo for me.
“Beef pate like Aunt Janet once sent is the goods (another tip) … Lemon cheese is another excellent commodity, and I thoroughly recommend St. Ivel’s cheese, while tinned sausages are a treat. Don’t be dismayed I rather think I have acquired expensive taste on active service.”
Specific brands he asked for which are still around included:
Sunlight Soap, Rowntree’s Fruit Gums, Bournville Cocoa, Ideal Milk, Oxo, Brasso, Cherry Blossom, Pear’s Soap, Nestle Café au Lait, Cadbury’s chocolate, Johnny Walker.
Other everyday products that he mentions have disappeared.
Keating’s Vermin powder
– very important in the desert where the men were crawling most of the time with lice –
Thos. Tickler jams, Batchers marmalade, Pepsin, Everlasting Strips, Remington typewriters and Allenbury’s Food.
He responded to the parcels when they arrived with the most elaborate compliments and it would seem the men usually shared their supplies from home with each other, often devouring the contents in one sitting. The post to the Near East was highly erratic and sometimes the men would be left waiting for weeks or months for parcels they had been told about in letters that had got through.
The other great memory of home, and you must remember he was away for four years, was family OUTINGS. Dewi had gone out as a teenager and come back of age but was expecting to pick up some of the pursuits that had marked his younger days.
“One of the things I am dying for is to go off top table once again at Roath Park Lake, Gee Whiz. Not ‘arf. “Me’n old Frankie Somers haven’t settled that bet yet about first one out to the buoys. “Nights and nights we tried it but blow me we always touched it at one and the same time.”
Roath Park was a swimming lake in that era. The authorities were not so worried about what you might catch in the water as they are now, and it probably did not get covered in algae every summer. Indeed, you can still see where the old changing rooms stood opposite the boating area. People used to come from all over the country to take part in an annual race up to the islands and back, the Taff Swim, until the 1950s.
Parents would be worried now but another place for larks – which he recalls with affection – were what was known as the mudflats. It is hard to think now of the area between Splott and the Rumney River where Tremorfa, Pengam – and Tesco – now stand as the wasteland they once were but this is where young teenage lads from Splott used to hang out, fun he recalls on several occasions in his letters. Another pastime he mentions was to head out to still rural Rumney to collect – shock, horror – birds’ eggs.
For family outings there were trips to St. Mellons. You could go down to the Royal Oak in summer and book a seat on a charabanc trip out into the countryside to enjoy the innocent pleasure of a picnic in the fields and some games. Or you could pop over for a drink in the pub. Writing from the Suez Canal, Dewi tells his father he is looking forward to visiting the Unicorn in St. Mellons – still there – for bread and cheese and hop bitters. It will make a change, he says, after eating bread and marmalade for dinner and tea full of flies for days on end.
But perhaps chief among the delights he was looking forward to again was – Porthcawl. It might seem a bit tame nowadays when people can fly to the Maldives or the Seychelles but Porthcawl features regularly in his letters as a kind of holiday Mecca
“This place [El Arish] is nothing to go stark staring mad over as a spa and no-one would venture to this lonely spot to take of its waters, unless he was suffering more or less from an attack of “simplicity”.… It is saturated with chemicals, disinfectants, etc. etc. which do not make it any the more palatable.
(The Army employed prodigious quantities of disinfectant to prevent the spread of disease in the desert – it was difficult to get rid of human and animal waste and flies were a constant menace for soldiers in this theatre. Dewi talks in his letters about swarms of flies instantly landing on bread and marmalade.)
But back to Porthcawl.
“It [El Arish] cannot be compared favourably with Porthcawl, for instance. The latter place has sand – so has this. The water at both places tastes the same, I expect. But there the comparison ends abruptly. Where are the rest of Porthcawl’s delights, the proms, the shows, the green, the rocks, the – grub? Alas, no not here. They’re taking a trip to Glamorgan land. Worst luck.”
We can see from his letters that families who lived in Cardiff went on excursions frequently, though not more than 50 or so miles from home. The lime-kilns at Tintern, the Wye Valley, Rhossili, Peterston-super-Ely, St. Fagans, Sully, Rhoose, which was then a seaside resort, and Weston-Super-Mare, a boat trip away across the Bristol Channel, are mentioned, though, surprisingly, not Barry.
He is pleased in one of his letters to hear his father has arranged a trip in a motor-cycle sidecar.
“When you talk of St Fagans, Cowbridge etc. It makes me think of green fields and shady lanes and then I’m brought back to the stern reality of miles and miles of hot sand. Just fancy coming back from the beach to tea as we used to and then off for a stroll on the green and Lock’s Common” [in Porthcawl].”
Of course, in those days there were trains to all those places. Splott had its own station at the town end of Splott Road near the old Splott cinema. With the new Cardiff Metro railway now about to take shape, we may be getting back there in another decade or so!
One other important thing on his mind was – you may have guessed – GIRLS. There were no Mesdemoiselles from Armentieres for soldiers in the Near East, where cultural practices were, of course, very different from home and women were much more restricted. (Cairo was a bit different but British soldiers were largely priced out of its pleasures by the Australians who were better paid and acquired an appalling reputation for roistering.)
For Dewi and his fellow soldiers stuck on the Canal one of life’s treats was seeing girls on ships travelling up the Suez Canal. Perhaps surprisingly passenger-carrying ships made this crossing throughout the war, taking colonial families to and from Australia, New Zealand, India, and other points East.
“We’re sort of cut off from the outer world and civilisation … Sometimes a liner comes past and this is one of our keenest delights. You’ll see us rush up the bank to see the civvy passengers, like a lot of kids looking at a puff-puff.
“And the boys get quite delirious if there are any white girls aboard. … We’re like a lot of savages from the wilds looking at this new device of the white man.
“One boat did chuck a lot of stuff to us castaways once, cigarettes, milk tinned stuff … Pretty exciting too, chaps from both banks racing to the middle for the prizes.”
The native inhabitants of the area and especially the women were different, and he regarded them with a mixture of curiosity and European superiority.
“The inhabitants of the outlying villages pass along the road by our camp going to market in the town and it’s always the donkey or the woman who carries the load. The man, her husband, rides on another donk, doing and carrying nothing. Lazy blighters, what? Anyhow, ’nuff said about the Arabs, we’ll pass on to more pleasant topics, they’re a bright lot of ’erbs, I must say.”
“It wouldn’t do, I am sure, for Miss Warren to preach the belief of the women’s rights creed out here. The men wouldn’t take it as calmly as in England. These people you see are totally devoid of such foolish customs of civilisation. These are the type of fair sex which disclaim any acquaintance with rouge while the latest hats, fashions, and coiffures from Paris do not interest them. They are never accompanied by Poms or Pekingese …Quite content these ladies are to live and die in the village of their birth tending cows and carrying water pitchers.
“Frequently they are to be seen accompanying their husband and master when he is abroad, trotting unwearyingly on foot behind the ass upon which the latter comfortably rides, yet one never hears of an Egyptian branch of the Women’s Social and Political Union.”
He was reflecting here Cardiff’s reputation as a hotbed of suffragettism before the war, hosting the biggest branch of the Women’s Suffrage Union outside London. Indeed, in 1913 Mrs Pankhurst herself had been charged with inciting violence after addressing a rally in the city and imprisoned. There had also been trouble at rallies at the big venue of its day, the Cory Hall opposite Queen Street station. And, of course, in Newport Margaret Haig Thomas, later Viscountess Rhondda, had been prominent in the Votes for Women campaign.
Writing to his sister who had just been to see Kismet, the musical in Cardiff he remarks on the social distinctions he had noticed between upper- and lower-class wome n in Egypt.
“It’s quite true about the veils, yashmaks they call them out here, the ladies of the well-to-do class wear them, but the poorer classes don’t, instead they wear bangles round their ankles and their feet bare, also they have rings through their noses and are invariably tattooed on the lower lip and chin. It’s all very funny at first but you soon get to take no notice of them, instead you stare at any European ladies who happen to pass, which isn’t often. As for my taking a liking to any of those young ladies, as you suggested, not me. Wait till I get back to Cardiff. They’re the best, can’t beat em, Doll.”
Soldiers in World War One were not of course plugged into a 24/7 news agenda as nowadays but they were quite well-informed and wanted to know the NEWS from back home. Dewi asks repeatedly for two magazines, Weekly Telegraph and London Opinions to be sent out to him together with the weekly Cardiff Times. He never mentions the Western Mail, South Wales Daily News, or the Echo or Evening Express, the city’s four dailies.
He quotes Lloyd George’s speeches (approvingly) in his letters and is aware of other campaigns such as the Italian battles in the Alps with the Austrians. He is also familiar with events in France and the impact on local connections of the losses at the Somme and elsewhere. These were close-knit communities where everyone knew the people living not just close by but in neighbouring streets as well. He himself lost cousins in the war and kept coming across friends from home in different regiments when they happened to be posted nearby. He writes home frequently to say how sad events made him.
“Stanley James, another addition to the Roll of Honour”
“Very sorry indeed to hear of little Wally Shipton and your cousin Dad, it is indeed a terrible time for Mrs Shipton”
“Awfully sorry to hear poor old George Butcher has died in action with many gallant lads. There must be awful sorrow in Blighty now”
“I’m was shocked to hear of the deaths of George Daniel and Horatio, and cousin Walter at home an invalid”
“It seems so cruel and the sad news hit me hard. It will be a great consolation to think that they fell like Welsh gentlemen”.
In one letter he expresses surprise at meeting up with his next-door neighbour from Moorland Road, a boy several years younger whom he hardly recognised, and is cross when he learns another soldier, Bert Price, probably serving in France, had not been allowed to get home in time before his mother died. There are frequent references, too, to a cousin, Tom, who was badly gassed in France.
Tom has, we learn from one letter, been under the recently invented X-ray
“Now that he will soon have the lead out of his arm we shan’t be long before hearing from him.”
Later however Tom is soon worse again and has had to be admitted to Splott Hospital – Moorland Road School – for an operation. Various schools and other buildings in Cardiff were requisitioned as hospitals, including Albany Road, Lansdowne Road, and Howard Gardens (the MSS), whose pupils were temporarily moved to Cardiff High School in Newport Road.
Soldiers’ families back home also got news of their serving relatives from men who did manage to get home for leave or recuperation. They would often be asked to pop around and see parents or wives and children to tell them how their loved ones were getting on. The cinema newsreel had been invented by that time, so families could see as well as read about the war, though obviously in highly edited form. Thus, in April 1918 writing to his parents about General Allenby’s famous entry into Jerusalem in December 1917 he says:
“I was much interested to hear of your having been to see the Entry into the Holy City on the bioscope. Gosh! I should have liked to see that with you and I can quite understand the enthusiasm when the orchestra struck up that very appropriate march. And now you want to know why you didn’t see me there.
“Well, that’s simply explained. I wasn’t there, you see. Nunno, what you saw was all the pomp and ceremony of the official entry of the C. in C. – you didn’t see the actual occupation by the old un cant pum deg a naw (159s). I went in there with the boys of the old brigade two days before that and there were no bands playing… Fancy you having seen the Jaffa Gate and the streets I passed along but a few days before and also see the fellers marching in.
“No doubt you went to the Gaiety that night fully expecting to see my ugly dial confronting you on the canvas? Never mind. As long as you see my triumphal entry into the approach via platform No. 3 everything will be OK. Won’t it? That’s the only entry I’m waiting or troubling about – and a single decker from the Monument.”
Dewi was serving with a Welsh Division, the 53rd which meant there were other reminders of home in addition to the companionship of men from Cardiff and the rest of Wales. In their rest period they played football and rugby – there were men among them who had played for first class clubs – and went swimming together in the Suez Canal. One race across the Canal was against the British West Indian Regiment, Blacks v Whites, as it was termed. A very tangible reminder of home came, too, from their concert parties. The men sometimes made up their own troupes, the Kamelerio Sandboys being one:
“A real, tophole stage ([at Wadi Ballut] with quite the latest footlights and lime-light effects – plush curtains – with the arms of the party in gold upon it, two rabbits rampant.
To his sister about soldiers in drag:
“… they do look positively plums, real peaches. Talk about the light fantastic, too … they’re real experts at the ‘trip it lightly’ game and such ankles – sublime, believe me – make many a real demoiselle turn green with envy.
“They have simply forgotten how to walk … a clumsy, slouching forceful tread. … They float along with those ridiculously short steps, like you see in Queen Street any old day of the week.”
A professional group, the Welsh Rarebits, was founded by a Cardiff bandleader, Wally Bishop, aka the Great Waldini, who was serving with the RAMC in the Near East. After the war Bishop performed as a cinema musician but when the talkies came along he formed Waldini and his Gypsy Band which played in Romany costumes on the bandstand in Roath Park. He toured again during World War Two with Ensa, entertaining troops at home and abroad and later became a successful Palm Court orchestra leader in Llandudno and Ilfracombe. He died in St. Winifred’s in 1966. The Welsh Rarebits, Dewi explains, were
“the only demoiselles we’ve got, barring the charming Buddoo damsels who are now millionairesses on the 15 tomatoes for 5 piastres touch and of course it’s only natural that a feller likes to be deceived and felt like straightening his imaginary tie and parting his hair before he goes to a concert. Best thing a fellow can do in the EEF where leave is almost extinct.”
So, what about the Cardiff they returned to?
On Armistice Day itself – a Monday in 1918 – the Western Mail was already anticipating the outcome with stories about the Kaiser’s abdication, and revolution in Germany, which at the time was thought likely to go the way of Russia and become a Communist state.
Debate was starting in the papers over the re-employment of returning soldiers, the secretary of the National Union of Railwaymen in Wales, Arthur Williams, warning that, because of the great increase in the number of women who have entered industry and the great increase in labour saving machinery, the number of unemployed is likely to seriously increase”. As just one example, Cardiff Corporation Transport Department had found it necessary to employ 25 women tram drivers, as 350 of its 750 employees were away at the war. Women were now firmly in the workplace.
Plans were also afoot for a by-election in Cardiff East. Lord Colum Crichton Stuart, son of the Marquess of Bute and brother of Ninian, killed at the Battle of Loos, would stand for the Conservatives, shipowner Sir William Seager for the Liberals and the NUR’s Arthur Williams for Labour. There’s a statue of Ninian, whose death caused a great outpouring of grief, in front of the Museum in Cathays Park.
The bells of St. John’s Church would be rung as soon as the Armistice came into force and would continue throughout the day, and a procession of docks men would march from the Docks to the City Hall. Tens of thousands indeed joined the march, thronging St. Mary Street, Kingsway and the space in front of the City Hall. Miners would be given a day off as, too, would schools. On November 12th Style & Mantle of St Mary Street were quick off the mark with a Victory Offer on coats, costumes, furs, all at half war prices, “For the Women who Waited.” James Howell advertised a clearance sale of furs – rather surprising perhaps in November. The Roath Furnishing Company placed an advertisement to thank our brave soldiers and sailors for their glorious deeds on land sea.
In many other respects, life had been continuing as normal. On November 12th the Western Mail reported on a 0-0 draw in the rugby match that Saturday between Cardiff and Newport, the Park Hall Cinema in Park Place was showing Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and among the news stories was one about three girls who had fallen into the canal at Cathays Park. (It ran past the castle in those days.) They were rescued by a quick-thinking bus passenger who jumped off and dived in.
Amid the celebrations, however, the Western Mail was still carrying a daily two columns entitled Welsh Heroes. In the November 11th issue, Cardiff men who had died or sustained serious injuries included a seaman from Colum Road, soldiers from Eyre Street and East Grove, and four brothers, the Pleasses – one killed, one missing, one home gassed in France and one who had had his foot amputated.
What the men away in the Near East were not aware of was just how close the domestic population had come to starving because of the depredations of German U-boats, forcing the Government to bring in rationing and to require individuals to register with a butcher and a grocer and to drop their consumption by 20 per cent. Food riots had occurred in several places and fights among shoppers, including in Cardiff, were not uncommon. Bad feeling was rife – in Newport the police were accused of seizing butter from the market for their own consumption. Fuel, too, was in short supply, the Royal Navy and industry needing to be prioritised. One of the regular advertisements in newspapers of the era was for Rinso, hailed as the cold-water washer.
Petrol rationing was also brought in and those seen to be misusing the fuel were prosecuted. The actor Fred Terry, brother of the more famous Ellen Terry, and his chauffeur were both fined £5 by Cardiff magistrates, with the alternative of a month in prison, after an eagle-eyed policeman spotted them turning up at their theatrical digs in Tudor Street. They were told they should have caught the train from Cheltenham, the previous stop on their tour. Poor Terry, who said he had a heart condition, asked how he was now supposed to move his car if he wasn’t allowed to travel in it and was told in effect by the magistrates, Tough!
Lower down the social scale a Cardiff fish merchant was fined for using his motor bike to collect fish from the docks. It was pointed out to him that a tram passed his house. The other passengers would, I am sure, have been pleased with his load!
Labour disputes were also increasing as a result of these shortages, and the truce that the labour leaders had ordered at the start of the war, promising not to resort to strike action, was proving difficult to sustain. Prices of essentials had risen, and the working population had been under pressure to work long hours for the sake of the war effort.
Dewi was lucky in being able to resume his job in the GPO – this was one of the employers that had kept posts open to returning soldiers. Many men were not able to do so, and race riots occurred in port cities such as Cardiff, Liverpool, London, Tyneside where coloured seamen had settled and were accused of taking the men’s jobs. Four people were killed in Cardiff in outbreaks of violence that brought guns on to the streets.
Physically, Cardiff had not changed much during his absence – Zeppelins had never penetrated as far as south Wales so there was no bomb damage. Before the war the City Hall had been completed on land sold to the city by the Marquess of Bute but the rest of the Cathays Park development, including the National Museum, had largely had to be postponed and would not be finished until the late 1920s.
South Wales and Cardiff especially were to suffer over the next ten years because of a steep decline in the demand for coal. German coal was being sent to France as part of war reparations and this supplanted Welsh coal for which there had always been a strong French market. Even more importantly, the Royal Navy and the merchant fleet had begun the transition from coal- to oil-fired boilers, stripping south Wales of the main outlet for its steam-raising coals.
It would be the 1930s before the city started to pick up again with new light industries springing up on its fringes and its boundaries now extended to enable a new housebuilding boom to take place, including on land sold to the city by the Insole family of Insole Court for the building of Western Avenue and its surrounding estates. Other well-known landmarks would also appear in these inter-war years, including the Westgate Street flats and the new double decker stand at the Cardiff Arms Park, long since demolished.
All Dewi and the millions of other men now being demobilised wanted, however, on November 11th, 1918 was to get home and re-join their families and take up, if possible, their old jobs.
As Dewi writes near the end:
“Every other experience which is to be mine in the future will pall before that eventful, thrilling day of days when I shall literally hurl myself from the Paddington express towards that trio which I know will be waiting on No. ….. Oh, never mind the platform. If it’s number umpteen, I’ll be there, cos I think I’ve just about paid my fare.
Then I’ll stick my chest out and swing my arm and the first frog-hearted, stiff-necked cross between a Spitzbergen sea-cook and a muzzled oyster, mealy-mouthed son of a doormat who cocks his nose at that’ll be handed a bunch of double fives good and hard.
This was no longer the tentative lad who had left home four years earlier, promising not to let his mother down and making over his Army pay to her!
Rhys David is the author of Tell Mum Not to Worry: A Welsh Soldier’s World War One in the Near East 1915-1919. ISBN 978-0-9-09930982-0-8
Rhys David is the author of Tell Mum Not to Worry: A Welsh Soldier’s World War One in the Near East 1915-1919. ISBN 978-0-9-09930982-0-8