On the 5 November 1917 Thomas Davies, headmaster of Abernant Boys’ School, noted in the school log book:
‘I am leaving at 3.00 this afternoon and will not be present tomorrow morning – ‘Guard Duty’ at Cardiff Docks’ (Abernant Boys’ School, log book, 5 Nov. 1917, EA11/4, p.135).
For many people mention of the Home Guard or ‘Dad’s Army’ immediately conjures up thoughts of Walmington on Sea and the antics of Captain Mainwaring and Private Pike as they prepared to ‘do their bit’ to repulse a possible German invasion in 1940. However, it is less well known that the Home Front was also defended in the First World War by an earlier Dad’s Army known as the Volunteer Training Corps (VTC). The log books of the Aberdare schools for 1914-18 provide a useful insight into the lives of some of the men from the Aberdare area who joined the local VTC.
In the months following the outbreak of war in August 1914, there was a very real prospect of invasion. As a result civilians in many areas of the country came together to establish local defence groups often organised by former servicemen. Aberdare was no exception and on 31 August 1914, William Roberts, the Headmaster of Aberdare Park Council Boys’ School, reported:
‘A teachers’ corps has been set up due to the war. The head teacher attended a drill session at 6.30 on Thursday and also on the evening of this particular day. All the other male teachers attend except for Mr H. Williams who suffers from eczema on his feet’ (Aberdare Park Council Boys’ School, log book, 31 Aug. 1914, EA23/5, pp.496-7)
The War Office was well aware that there was a need to take urgent action to draw local groups into an organised body under military control. By the end of 1914 the local militia had been absorbed into county regiments under the control of a new body promoted by the War Office, the Central Association of Volunteer Training Corps. Along with other headteachers across the county, in January 1915, William Roberts received two circulars from the Board of Education and the War Office setting out the framework for local Volunteer Training Corps. The first, No 1/15, stated that:
‘The Army Council consider that all men of military age who can be spared should join the Regular Forces either as Officers or Privates and they hope that no one who is able and willing to join the Forces will be deterred from doing so by the arrangements now made for the recognition of Volunteer Training Corps. They realise however, that teachers in public schools are already performing public service and are prepared, if such teachers cannot be spared from their posts, without substantial detriment to that service to regard them as having a genuine reason within the meaning of Rule 1 for not now enlisting in the Regular or Territorial Army. Any teacher, however, who being of military age enrols himself in a Volunteer Training Corps, will be subject to the condition in Rule 1 that he could subsequently enlist if he is specially called upon by the War Office to do so’ (Aberdare Park Council Boys’ School, log book, 11-15 Jan. 1915, EA23/6, pp.25-6).
The second Circular, No. 2/15, outlined the far from glamorous terms that local groups were required to operate under.
‘1) No arms, ammunition or clothing will be supplied from public sources nor will financial assistance be given. 2) There may be uniformity of dress among members of individual organisations provided no badge or rank are worn and provided that the dress is distinguishable from that of Regular and Territorial units. 3) Members of recognised organisations will be allowed to wear as a distinctive badge a red armlet of a breadth of three inches with the letter GR inscribed thereon. The badge will be worn on the left arm above the elbow. 4) The accepted military ranks and title will not be used or recognised and no uniform is to be worn except when necessary for training. 5) No form of attestation involving an oath is permitted. 6) It will be open to Army recruitment officers to visit the Corps at any time and to recruit any members found eligible for service with the Regular Army whose presence in the Corps is not accounted for by some good and sufficient reason’ (Aberdare Park Boys’ School, log book, 11-15 Jan. 1915, EA23/6, pp.27-28).
The log books do not reveal what happened to the original group of volunteers from Aberdare. We do know, however, from regular accounts in the local newspapers that, by June 1915, Aberdare had established its own Volunteer Training Corps. The Aberdare VTC was formed following an appeal for men to come forward made at a meeting held at the Aberdare Town Hall on 24 May. It was suggested that drill be held on Wednesday evening at the Drill Hall, Cwmbach Road between 7 and 9pm. However, ‘if Wednesday night is considered inconvenient for drill purposes some other night may be arranged. All men over the military age limit are eligible to attend’ (Aberdare Leader, 5 June 1915).
On the one hand the VTC was not the most enticing prospect. As set out in the January Circular, volunteers were not provided with uniforms or weapons. The only emblem that denoted membership of the Corps would have been a red arm band with the letters GR. In addition, each volunteer had to pay a subscription fee of 2s 6d a month to meet the costs of equipping and training the Corps. The volunteers were also the butt of many jokes including the jibe that GR stood for ‘Grandpa’s Regiment’.
Despite the lack of central support, within a month the Aberdare VTC, soon to become B Company of the 2nd Battalion (Merthyr Battalion) of the Glamorgan Volunteer Training Corps, had recruited over 70 men. Initially the volunteers attended two training sessions each week held at the Drill Hall and the school playground of Aberdare County Girls’ School. The training schedule was published each week in the Aberdare Leader and within a year the VTC was meeting 5 nights a week.
Thomas Davies, Headmaster of Abernant School, and A T Jenkins, Head of Cwmbach Junior School, were just two of many teachers in the Aberdare area who joined the Volunteer Training Corps. The log books for their respective schools make several references to their membership of the VTC. For example, in December 1916 Thomas Davies was not in school having:
‘… received permission to be absent tomorrow in order to be present at the Inspection by Viscount French at Cardiff. The Aberdare Corps, of which I am a member, will travel …on the 10.30 TVR train’ (Abernant Boys’ School, log book, 13 Dec. 1916, EA11/4, p.119).
The experience of A T Jenkins was perhaps more typical of life in the VTC with the Head having ‘…arrived in school at 10.15 having returned by the morning train’ from ‘guard duty in Cardiff’ (Cwmbach Junior Mixed School, log book, 1-2 Oct. 1918, EA19/6, p.2, 1-2).
In a similar vein Thomas Davies, in June 1917, noted ‘I was absent from school this morning being on duty at Cardiff last night in company with other men of the 2nd Battn, Vol Regt, viz ‘Guard Duty’ at Roath Dock’ (Abernant Boys’ School, log book, 18 Jun. 1917, EA11/4, p.130).
By the end of 1916 the Aberdare VTC would have been a very different proposition to the group formed in June 1915. The Aberdare Leader recorded on 25 December 1915 that ‘…six dozen rifles had been ordered for the use of the Corps, and also that the uniforms were expected shortly’. It is possible that the initial uniforms would have been lovat green given the War Office’s decision to ensure that the VTC was clearly distinguishable from the regular troops. However, we know from the Aberdare Leader that, by the end of 1917, the Company had received a new set of khaki uniforms and had been provided with the standard British infantry rifle, the 303 Lee Enfield. In addition, as Thomas Davies recorded, training was no longer limited to evening drill and rifle practice sessions:
‘I was absent from school duties yesterday – Sept 24th – being in training in the Military Camp at Porthcawl since 22nd inst. I did not receive intimation of same till late Friday evening’ (Abernant Boys’ School, log book, 25 Sep. 1917, EA11/4, p.134).
The changes were probably a result of the decision made by the War Office, in August 1916, to take over the running of the VTC and absorb it within the armed forces as the ‘Volunteer Force’.
At the same time an appeal had been made by the Earl of Plymouth in the Western Mail for £10,000 to equip the Glamorgan Volunteer Regiment. Initially, it was envisaged that the VTC would be primarily for those over the age of enlistment in the armed forces. However, the age profile of the Aberdare Company would have changed significantly by the latter half of 1916 with the introduction of conscription. Younger men, exempt from military service, were often directed by local Military Tribunals to join the VTC for either the period of the war or until they were required for military service. By end of 1918 one in three members had been directed to the VTC by the Tribunals.
There is no doubt that the Aberdare VTC performed valuable work throughout the war, including taking the strain off regular forces and the police by providing guards for key installations. The activities of the VTC did not, however, always meet with universal approval. In October 1915, the practice of holding parades on a Sunday was condemned by the Hirwaun Welsh Free Church Council, with letters sent to nonconformist members of the VTC asking them not to attend such events. (Aberdare Leader, 9 Oct. 1915). Later in the war the suggestion that that the VTC might have a role in the training of a cadet corps providing military drill for boys over the age of 12 years resulted in the Aberdare Trades and Labour Council issuing a letter outlining its ‘…uncompromising opposition to any attempt to militarise education…’ (Aberdare Leader, 20 Apr. 1918).
Towards the end of 1917 the Aberdare Leader published a series of articles by someone using the pseudonym ‘303’. 303 was a member of the Aberdare Company who preferred to remain anonymous. Under the heading ‘Volunteer Notes’ he provided a very good flavour of life in the VTC, including the intense rivalry between local companies:
‘I hear that Hirwaun is bold enough to say that they have a team of 8 willing to compete against any 8 Aberdare or Mountain Ash can turn out against them and they are willing to put up a nice stake. What says the old ‘uns of ‘Berdare and the Mount? Anything doing?’ (Aberdare Leader, 3 Nov. 1917).
‘Look out for the Battalion Parade at Cardiff shortly and attend the next drills of special arms drill so as to maintain B Company’s stand as the Cock Company of Battalion Two’ (Aberdare Leader, 3 Nov. 1917).
‘Who is going to buy the first pair of War Office boots 23s 9d and only to be worn on duty. And on the instalment plan too. My word!’ (Aberdare Leader, 10 Nov. 1917).
‘The sneer is sometimes heard that our volunteers are ‘fair weather soldiers’. That is utterly uninformed as amply authenticated by various reports issued by the CAVR…’ (Aberdare Leader, 10 Nov. 1917).
‘Night duty on guard is not the pleasantest of work, but when a guard is able to get back home in time for bed and secure the marks for drill it becomes a real pleasure’ (Aberdare Leader, 24 Nov. 1917).
‘The new equipment is arriving and some of the men ‘don’t half fancy themselves’, not half… Not a few approached the irreproachable Instructor to be excused class so that they could get home quickly to show their wives the ‘get up’. I wonder if they all said ‘wives’ (Aberdare Leader, 1 Dec. 1917)
‘Congratulations to our new Captain and may he be a good Cox to the Company. They want a bit of steering at present’ (Aberdare Leader, 1 Dec. 1917).
303 was not above a few gentle jibes at the Aberdare VTC officers and NCOs. In one edition of ‘Volunteer Notes’ he set out the following challenge: ‘No Sergeant, you have not solved the identity of 303 yet. Try again’ (Aberdare Leader, 24 Nov. 1917). The following edition was the last time that ‘Volunteer Notes’ appeared in the Leader. It is just possible that 303’s identity was uncovered or, wisely, he decided that it was time to keep a low profile.
We will never know whether 303 was one of the volunteers drawn from teachers at the Aberdare schools. However, we do know that several of the volunteers were keen to use their military skills back at school and with mixed results:
‘Tues am. Hd Teacher took 25 boys, St IV, to the baths and on the way through the park tested them in drill – marching, changing step, turning, wheeling. Hardly satisfactory as some of the boys continually wrong in the turning and some do not exercise any thought, they simply do what others do whether right or wrong – a few cannot change step’ (Aberdare Park Council Boy’s School, log book, 3-7 Jul. 1916, EA23/6, pp.195-96).
The Volunteer Training Corps was just one of the many ways that teachers supported the war. For example, teachers were frequently asked to help with fundraising, registration at army recruitment offices and, later in the war, they played an important role in the rollout of food rationing arrangements. In addition, along with many others, they were asked to volunteer for work during the summer holidays, including farm work to make up for the shortage of labour on the land. However, their time in the VTC was probably the most memorable experience for many. Despite the jibes and teasing there was an intense pride in the achievements of local companies and the role that they were playing in winning the war. It is estimated that approximately 300,000 men served in the Volunteer Training Corps during the First World War. The Corps was suspended after the signing of the Armistice in 1918 and formally disbanded in January 1920.
The above material has been taken from the log books of schools in the Aberdare area. Similar stories can be found in the records of schools across Glamorgan for 1914-18. If you want to find out more about the impact of the war on school life in your area and across Glamorgan you can access summaries of the school log books for each local authority area on the Glamorgan Archives website www.glamarchives.gov.uk. You can also access many of the newspapers produced in Wales in 1914-18, including the material from the Aberdare Leader quoted above, at http://newspapers.library.wales/. The website has been set up by the National Library of Wales to provide a free online resource to access newspapers produced in Wales.
Tony Peters, Glamorgan Archives Volunteer