Christmas Greetings from the Front Line

Amongst the documents held at Glamorgan Archives detailing the experiences of Glamorgan soldiers at the front are several letters sending Christmas greetings to family and friends at home.

Many are to be found within the Cardiff University Settlement Records. The University Settlement was established in 1901 by a group of academic staff at the University College Cardiff. They were seeking to improve social conditions in the more deprived areas of Cardiff by engaging in active social work with these communities, and they set up a base in Splott.

The University Settlement was divided into four separate clubs: the Lads’; Girls’; Womens’ and Mens’ clubs. On the declaration of war in 1914, many of the lads enlisted and were sent to fight at the front, in France and Belgium. Several kept in contact with Mr and Mrs Lewis, a couple closely associated with the University Settlement.

Mr and Mrs Lewis corresponded with members of the University Settlement Lads’ Club serving in the armed forces throughout the conflict, sending letters and parcels and receiving letters in return. The Lewis’ sent Christmas parcels to the boys each year, and many wrote to thank them for their generosity.

John Childs writes ‘I received the parsel alright and was very please with it. I hope that all the members enjoyed their Christmas as I am please to say I enjoyed mine… Remember me to all the members wishing them a happy New Year and may the war soon be over’.

On 15th December 1915, Mr Lewis received a letter from James Hawkey, stationed at the Front. Again, he thanks them for their kindness in sending a Christmas parcel, and assures them it has arrived safely, commenting ‘…I am in the pink and quite comfortable considering the circumstances’. He wishes everyone a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, finishing with ‘P.S. If I get a chance I will send at least one Christmas card…’.

Driver A. Morgan made the effort of writing a thank you note for his Christmas parcel on 20 January 1917, despite the fact that ‘…I cannot write a letter to save my life. It is not in my line’.

James Reece also wrote to thank Mr Lewis and the members of the Club for his parcel; ‘…the contents were just what I required and please thank the members of the club on my behalf for what they have done for us chaps out here’; and Gunner C. Upcott writes, ‘I do not know how much to thank you for your kindest’. The Christmas parcels from the Settlement were obviously very much appreciated and valued by the boys, not only for their contents but for the kind thoughts and good wishes they represented.

One of the Christmas communications stands out more than the others: a postcard from D. McDonald, a member of the Lads’ club who was serving in the Army during the war.

The postcard depicts the flags of the allied nations of the First World War – Belgium, France, the UK and Russia – beautifully interwoven with a thistle and the words Merry Christmas. It is hand embroidered on a piece of silk mesh. These embroidered postcards were mostly produced by French and Belgium women refugees working in refugee camps and temporary homes. The finished embroidery was sent to factories to be cut and mounted on card. Embroidered postcards were extremely popular with British servicemen on duty on France as they made such a lovely memento for their recipient. The central portion of the embroidery is cut as a flap and contains a tiny printed greetings card with the message ‘I’m thinking of you’.

The back of the postcard bears the message, ‘From D MacDonald to Mr and Mrs Lewis and wishing you a prosperous New Year’. There is no stamp on the card as it would have been sent via the military mail at no charge to the sender.

At the end of the war it proved impossible to resume the University Settlement activities as so many of the members had dispersed. The University Settlement Company was formally wound up in 1924.

Glamorgan Archives holds no further correspondence from the University Settlement lads after the war years. We do not know if they survived, or if they ever returned to Cardiff.

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Conscientious Objectors & Attested Men

Prior to the outbreak of the First World War the British Army and Navy were professional forces consisting of men who joined the military as their chosen   employment. However, as a result of the catastrophic number of casualties sustained in the initial months of the War, the British Army was too small in numbers to contain the threat of the large German forces.

In 1915 a campaign was launched by Lord Kitchener, Minister for War, to encourage men of military age to volunteer. Amongst these volunteers were men who did not wish to serve immediately, but who instead took an oath promising to serve at a later date when summoned. They were classed as ‘Attested Men’. This scheme left the Army with a pool of committed men to call on, if and when needed.  The individual ‘attested men’ were each given an armband to wear, signifying that they were prepared to serve and do their duty. This relieved much of the pressure which young men at the time must have felt, enabling them to live within their communities without the shame of ‘white feathers’ which were distributed to those alleged to be cowards.

Another category of men who didn’t volunteer in the early years of the War were those in occupations required for the war effort, often those working on the land or in heavy industry.

There was a further small group of men who were eligible to be conscripted but claimed exemption on moral and religious grounds.  These individuals were classed as conscientious objectors.  They became widely ostracised because of their stance of refusing to fight.

By 1916, the British Army had lost 528,000 men either killed, wounded or missing and presumed dead. The pool of volunteers to ‘Kitcheners Army’ had dried up and, as a result, conscription was introduced. At this time, a number of ‘Attested Men’ applied to be released from their earlier commitment to serve at the front. Tribunals to examine these applications for either release from, or deferment of military services were established across the country, including in the county of Glamorgan.  The Tribunal Council for the Districts of Llandaff and Dinas Powys consisted of members representing the military, the legal profession, business and trade unions.  It met several times each month

In March 1916 the Tribunal sat on 8 occasions. Examination of the minutes (ref.: RDC/C/1/34) suggests that many of the applications received from ‘Attested Men’ were unsuccessful. Each application was examined on its own merits, and examples of successful claims can be found in the tribunal minutes:

exempt from Military Service provided he continues his occupation as a ploughman             

…exemption conditional upon remaining chief support of his widowed mother

But many applications were refused:

…exemption on conscientious grounds to take up work with the Friend’s War Relief Committee – Application refused                                                                                                                                      

Cardiff City Council took an uncompromising stance on teachers who claimed exemption on conscientious objection grounds. The City Council went so far as to pass a resolution:

‘…that this Council considers it undesirable that [C.Os] …shall continue in the service or pay of the Council. Head masters were requested to ask each teacher to answer the following question – Are you a Conscientious Objector to Military Service’. (Radnor Road Boys School, log book, 19 Feb 1917 ref.: EC21/3)

Only a small number of conscientious objectors were exempted from service absolutely.  Many were obliged to serve in non-combat roles. Few records of conscientious objectors survive, although some can be found at the National Archives (www.nationalarchives.gov.uk) and some at local archives services such as those held by Glamorgan Archives.  Details of many of the local tribunals will be recorded in newspapers from the time.                        

John Arnold, Glamorgan Archives Volunteer

Caerphilly War Memorials

In the years following the end of hostilities in the First World large sections of the population had the painful experience of dealing with the loss of loved ones killed in action. This grief was particularly acute when we consider that the majority of the causalities were young men in the prime of their lives. Due to the enormous number of soldiers killed, in Great Britain approaching one million, the government and military authorities deemed that the repatriation of bodies was impractical. The casualties of war were therefore remembered across on war memorials across the country.

War memorials took many forms; national, such as those in Whitehall in London and in Cathays Park in Cardiff; and local memorials dedicated to those lost from cities, towns, and villages across the country.  There were also memorials to particular groups, including individual sporting teams, church congregations, former pupils at individual schools and many other groupings.

At Glamorgan Archives we have in the collection records relating to the erection of a number of memorials in the county. This short piece will discuss the memorial at Caerphilly, and also make reference to those less than three miles away at Senghenydd and Llanbradach.

As was the case with the erecting of many memorials, the organising committee reflected the structure of the local society, namely local political parties, church groups, trade unions, ex-servicemen and dependent widows. In the case of Caerphilly, the diversity of the interested parties did leave potential for controversy, which to some extent did occur. Civil organisations tended to favour a memorial which provided a facility for the greater community, with such proposals in various Welsh towns including public memorial halls, libraries, and a swimming pool.  In Senghenydd, the memorial took the form of clock tower located on the main square.

In contrast to the proposals of civil organisations, military bodies argued that the memorials’ should reflect the sacrifices made by solders and be either a comrades club for ex servicemen to meet, or a permanent memorial such as was finally erected in Caerphilly.

An indication of the debate surrounding the form of the memorial in Caerphilly can be found within local authority minutes and collected newscuttings (ref.: D163/U/4).

John Arnold, Glamorgan Archives Volunteer