Many called it the Great War, but it was great only in its extent, the number of those involved and its awful consequences. Nearly 70 million soldiers, sailors and airmen took part; 10 million never came home. Nothing like that had ever been suffered before.
The British Empire played a leading role in the war and lost nearly a million people, including members of the forces and civilians. Over 1.5 million were wounded.
In Wales, 272,924 men and women were recruited and about 35,000 are listed as killed or ‘missing in action’. In Powys, as elsewhere, those who fell are remembered by memorials in towns and villages.
How did it all begin?
The ‘political’ map of Europe in 1914 was very different from the Europe of today.
The great German, Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires still had territorial ambitions but the Turkish Ottoman Empire’s influence in Europe was waning.
Britain and France concentrated on their huge overseas empires but were also increasingly wary of the jockeying for power among former allies and enemies in Europe. Italy and Spain were no less watchful as Germany spent huge sums in an unparalleled arms race to build up its army and – like Britain – its navy.
Europe was a dangerous crucible about to burst into flames. And at the end of June 1914, the first sparks flew.
In Sarajevo, then part of the Austrian Empire, a Bosnian nationalist assassinated the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to this empire. A month later, despite frantic negotiations among Europe’s leading powers, Austria prepared to invade Serbia which, it believed, was implicated in the murder.
This led Russia, in support of Serbia, to mobilise its troops against Austria. Germany, fearful of Russian ambitions, then declared war on Russia and, almost immediately, on France. The various armies began to march.
On 4th August, Britain, in support of France (ironically, the ‘old enemy’) and Russia, then declared war on Germany and the world has never been the same again.
The expression ‘all Hell let loose’ was never more accurate as, over the years of the war, many other countries were drawn into the conflict. The final line up was complex.
Which countries were involved in the war?
Allied Powers (The Entente)
British Empire including United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, Australia, Canada, India, Malta, Rhodesia, Newfoundland, New Hebrides, New Zealand, South Africa
United States including Alaska, Hawaii, Philippines and Puerto Rico
The Central Powers
Austria-Hungarian Empire including Austria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Czech Republic, Hungary, parts of north-east Italy, northern Serbia, parts of Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia and Ukraine
Azerbaijan and parts of Armenia
Bulgaria including parts of Greece and of Macedonia
Dervish State (parts of Somalia)
German Empire including Germany, Burundi, Cameroon, small parts of China, parts of Gabon, Ghana, Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Namibia, north-eastern Nigeria, Palau, northern Papua New Guinea, Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, Samoa, mainland Tanzania and Togo
Jabal Shammar including most of Saudi Arabia and parts of Iraq and Jordan
Ottoman Empire including Israel, Lebanon, parts of Iraq and of Jordan,
Saudi Arabia, Syria and most of Turkey.
The great empires of the United Kingdom, France and Russia formed the armed forces of what were called the Allied Powers and they were joined during the four years of conflict by more than 30 other countries, from Andorra to Japan and – crucially – the USA.
Opposing the Allies were the three empires of Austria-Hungary, Germany and Turkey (the Ottoman Empire). They were supported by a number of other countries. The Allied forces greatly outnumbered those of the enemy. Britain relied heavily on the armies from what is now the Commonwealth.
Countries in all the world’s populated continents were involved.
However, some European countries remained officially neutral – or were technically non-combatants. They included the Netherlands and all of Scandinavia.
Despite that, never before had a war sucked in so many nations or left so many dead.
A very short history of the war
Much has been written about World War 1 since the conflict began and more is added almost daily. There are extensive official records that are now accessible online, innumerable contemporary reports by journalists and experts, thousands of books and articles by eminent writers or former combatants, and a myriad collection of documents and ephemera held nationally and locally in libraries and archives.
In addition, countless radio and television programmes have been, and are being, broadcast, and many plays and films have been produced as documentaries or entertainment.
Perhaps the most poignant accounts of the war itself are the works of poets and writers, including notable Welsh authors, letters of serving men and women which have recently become widely available, and photographs in many collections. They capture the horrors, the numbing deprivations, the occasional triumphs, the camaraderie and the endlessness of a war that many thought ‘would all be over by ‘Christmas’.
The internet is an excellent source of information, comment and analysis that draws upon all kinds of sources.
The whole war was not only fought in the trenches of France and Belgium, although that aspect was one of the most awful. Equally dreadful was the extended conflict on the Eastern Front between Russia and Germany, the Allies’ ill-fated Gallipoli campaign in the Dardanelles and their campaign in the Middle East.
The war was fought not only on land but also at sea and in the air. It affected millions of civilians whose only "error" was to live in the wrong place.
Countless combatants died from illness or starvation as well as from the effect of armaments and the fate of many thousands of soldiers, sailors and airmen remains unknown.
What can be recorded here is that the British Empire’s direct involvement began with the first British troops landing in France on 7th August to help the French army hold back Germany’s advance through Belgium. It ended with the signing of the Armistice of Compiègne (in France) that came into effect at 11am on 11th November 1918.
Germany acknowledged defeat by the Allied Forces, which had been greatly strengthened by the USA’s involvement from 1917. It is that date and time in November which is commemorated every year, at local war memorials as well as nationally.
What took place in the intervening four years and three months is recorded at infinitely varying levels of detail in widely available printed, graphic and digital formats. It is also recorded, informally, in the many thousands of diaries and letters to families that soldiers wrote during lulls in the fighting.
However, for every individual community, the most important history of the war is that which relates to its people. In the context of this project, it means the history that encompasses the accounts of the men of Montgomeryshire, Radnorshire and Brecknockshire who fought for their flag, some of whom never returned to their homeland.
Effects of war on communities and survivors
The long-term impacts of the war were felt in all parts of society. Individuals who fought in the war and survived, lived with their memories, often shocking, for the rest of their lives. Many were in deep trauma (shell shock) that would be recognised today as Post-traumatic Stress Disorder but then was considered as evidence of cowardice. There were many cases of violence and domestic abuse recorded in communities after the war that could be attributed to this trauma.
Many returning soldiers suffered extreme injuries and disfigurements that deeply affected them and their families. Those who suffered gas attacks in the trenches also suffered blindness and lung injuries. Often, they were kept away from public places for fear of upsetting people and they had great difficulties getting jobs and earning wages to support their families.
Motor vehicles of the time were still quite crude and the engines often spluttered and coughed in what was known as "backfiring". When this happened in a busy street after the Great War, it was not uncommon to see men throw themselves to the floor. The survival instincts that they had learned during their wartime service were still locked inside their heads and for a split second their instincts told them they were being fired on again! Many men finding themselves in this situation would just stand up, dust themselves off and carry on as if nothing had happened.
Many men returned home and had difficulty adapting to civilian life and their families. Some had missed out on four years of their children’s development and both child and parent were strangers to each other. Many men were brutal after time spent in such a violent routine.
Women made many important contributions to the war. They were recruited as Land Girls and forestry workers to replace the men that went to the war, and many also worked in industry. This had a lasting impact on the role of women in society. Employment for women had been predominantly in domestic service, in shops and mills, and on the land. The war provided a wider range of occupations for women, which were better paid and offered better conditions of service. Women could earn £3 a week in munitions, compared with 8–10 shillings in domestic service.
The war also forced trade unions to accept women as members and to provide them with the support they needed as crucial wage earners in a family.
Women could also socialise more. It became acceptable for women to go into pubs on their own and also to wear trousers, like the dungarees they wore for work.
Women also provided an essential service of making ‘comfort for the troops’ by sending letters and cigarettes. Their efforts had a huge effect on the morale of the fighting men.
Wales and Powys in World War 1
In 1914, although Wales was clearly defined on the map, its profile as a ‘separate’ country was quite different from its status and reputation today. It was then, to all intents and purposes, part of greater England, as it had been for nearly 500 years. It was officially referred to as ‘Wales and Monmouthshire’ and speaking Welsh was not encouraged. Nevertheless, most of its people had a strong sense of ‘Welshness’ and this was particularly true, for obvious reasons, in Welsh-speaking areas.
The skill and toil of men and women in Wales’ heavy industries had contributed hugely to the economy and power of Britain and its far-flung empire. Their continued productivity was a vital part of the overall war effort, providing steel for armaments and coal for ships. So, too, was the work of those on the land, producing food to sustain the population, and in the mills and the armaments factories.
When war was declared by Britain on Germany and its allies, young Welsh men were part of ‘the flower of British manhood’ that propelled themselves into a battle of unknown, and unimaginable, consequences.
Although miners and steelworkers, and also to an extent farm workers, were in ‘reserved’ jobs, which meant they could serve the war best by continuing to work there, many chose to sign up for military service overseas.
In the four years of the war, 272,924 men and women were recruited from Wales, mainly from the populous counties of Glamorgan and Monmouthshire.
Initially they were volunteers; by 1916, however, they were conscripted like many of their fellows from England, Scotland and Ireland, all of which was then part of the United Kingdom. They were joined by men and women from the empire – Canada, Australia and New Zealand, India and South Africa.
The 1911 census records Wales’ population as just under 2.5 million, about 5% of that of the United Kingdom – as it still is. In total, rather more than one in ten Welsh people went to war. The proportion of the male population was more than one in five. Some 35,000 are listed as dead or missing in the Welsh Book of Remembrance, equivalent to about one in eight of all Welsh combatants, nearly 1.5% of the whole population. While most were men, women had played crucial roles, for example, in nursing and driving ambulances.
The impact of the war on the community was enormous, not least the loss of large numbers of young men, the bereavement of their families and friends and big changes in the structure and functions of society. There were huge moral and social dilemmas.
Men from religious families who had always been taught in Sunday Schools ‘Thou shalt not kill’ were now being told it was ‘God’s work’ to kill ‘the Hun’. However, the Welsh language was banned from use as it was considered a ‘foreign’ language. Soldiers were not allowed to speak in Welsh, to write to their families or to receive letters from their relatives and friends in their native language.
Until August 2014, Wales was the only home nation not to have a war memorial in Flanders despite losing thousands of young men there in the First World War. A campaign to establish a Welsh memorial won the co-operation of the Belgian authorities who donated a site in the small village of Langemark where the Battle of Passchendaele was fought in July 1917. A dramatic Welsh dragon, created by artist Lee Odishow, now stands on a cromlech in memory of the lost men of Wales.
The men of Powys
At the start of the war, the population of Powys was similar to that of today, about 135,000. This was just over 5% of the population of Wales so it’s likely – based on national statistics – that around 15,000 men joined the armed forces from what were then the separate counties of Montgomery, Radnor and Brecknock. If the percentage of those who died mirrors that for Wales as a whole, the number of dead and missing servicemen from the three counties of today’s Powys was fewer than 2,000 – a large number, however, from one of the least populated areas of Wales.
Men from Powys served in the various corps, brigades, divisions, regiments and battalions of the British Army, in the Royal Navy and Royal Marines, and in the Royal Flying Corps (which became the RAF). Some were part of the several Welsh regiments including the South Wales Borderers, the Welsh Regiment and the Royal Welsh* Fusiliers.
* During World War 1 the Welch Regiment and the Royal Welch Fusiliers were known as the Welsh Regiment and the Royal Welsh Fusiliers. In 1920 they changed their names to the Welch Regiment and the Royal Welch Fusiliers.
Battalions from the South Wales Borderers served in all the main areas of the war including the Somme, Gallipoli, Palestine and all the major actions on the Western Front. The Royal Welsh Fusiliers raised more battalions than any other regiment in the Great War.
Others were recruited to battalions that were raised locally such as the 2/7th Merioneth & Montgomeryshire Battalion which was formed at Newtown in September 1914, and the 25th Montgomery & Welsh Horse Yeomanry Battalion which was formed in Egypt in 1917 from the Montgomery Yeomanry and Welsh Horse Cavalry. The rural landscape of Powys, though, provided many experienced horsemen for the Territorial cavalry. What is known is that there were relatively few Welsh officers, which is perhaps a comment of prevailing attitudes in the military at the time.