Swansea Welsh Towns


Swansea

Eddie Butler uncovers tales of life in Welsh towns during WWI. In Swansea he tells the story of the women who risked all making shells for the war effort.


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Transcript


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Rare film from June 1919

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showing the last of the Swansea Battalion

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returning home to a hero's welcome.

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Six months have passed since the men saw combat.

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The memories they bring back will last them a lifetime.

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This programme contains some scenes which some viewers may find upsetting.

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Britain had been at war for 4 years, 14 weeks and 2 days.

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Swansea, like just about every community in Wales,

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had had its share of suffering and loss -

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3,000 men lay dead on the battlefields,

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6,000 more would forever bear the scars of conflict.

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Women in their hundreds had been working in hazardous,

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often life-threatening industries.

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And the children from here would grow up in a world from now on

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where old certainties had been shaken to the core.

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Swansea would never be the same again.

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During the early 1900s, Swansea was a town of contrasts.

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Sitting on the edge of a majestic bay,

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it had held ambitions to become a spa resort.

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But its copper, coal and tinplate production had turned it into

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one of the most heavily polluted areas in Britain.

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By 1914, the town's industrial wealth had provided

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new transport links, affordable housing

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and a new art gallery and library.

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Here's an edition of the South Wales Daily Post

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dated Monday August 3rd 1914,

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the day before war was declared.

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It's a snapshot of Swansea life on the eve of war.

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You could buy a house in Swansea, brand-new, for £350,

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set sail for North Devon on a paddle steamer,

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young women could get jobs as typists,

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and George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, the story of Eliza Doolittle,

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was showing at the Grand Theatre.

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But here's one that I really like.

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At the top of the lost and found - "lost on Thursday,

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"a set of false teeth on the sands.

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"Finder rewarded on returning to 34 Marine Street, Swansea."

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But the very next day, war was declared on Germany.

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The nation was gripped by patriotic zeal.

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Men in particular were expected to do their bit for King and country.

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And how they were needed.

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When Britain entered the war, the Army was massively outnumbered

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with fewer than a million men,

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while Germany had around 4.5 million.

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The race was on to drum up extra manpower,

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led by the formidable Field Marshal Lord Kitchener.

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Kitchener's recruiting campaign would build

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the biggest volunteer army Britain had ever seen.

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His message was direct - your country needs you.

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For the most part,

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Wales was caught up in the tide of support for the war,

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and in Swansea, recruitment stalls and parades sprang up across town.

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By the 11th of September 1914, 8,000 young men from Swansea

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and the surrounding area had rallied to the colours.

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The new recruits could be sent to units in the Army, the Navy,

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Artillery or Medical Corps, many with no connection with Swansea.

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Volunteers could be separated from their friends,

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but thanks to the enthusiasm of the town's mayor,

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they would soon have another option.

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Eager to respond to Kitchener's appeal,

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the mayor spearheaded a campaign to form a town battalion.

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It would be known as the Swansea Pals.

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The chaps who joined the battalion, obviously they were local lads,

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many had been to school together, they had worked together,

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they played sport together, and they drank in the same pubs and clubs.

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I think the feeling was

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that they had an affinity with each other, and the town,

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that would stand them in good stead at the front.

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Was that deliberate? Did they say, "These mates will join up together"?

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I think it was. With the Pals battalion, you knew that there was

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an undertaking that you would in fact serve with your pals.

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It would be an adventure, you know.

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Every hope the war would be short lived, the danger mightn't be

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too great, but the downside was they might well die together.

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It's a military experiment. Did it work?

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I think what wasn't realised was that where a particular battalion

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took heavy losses in one engagement,

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the effect on the local community was huge.

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And I don't think that had been foreseen.

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In the confusion of battle, there was one clear theme -

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the bravery of the Welsh solders,

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much of it unrecorded, unrecognised.

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But here's the action of one man who was recognised,

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the first Welsh winner of the Victoria Cross

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in the First World War.

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William Charles Fuller had lived in Swansea since boyhood.

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He'd served in the Boer War and so, as an experienced soldier,

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he was recalled to the colours in 1914.

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Just six weeks into the war, Fuller risked his life

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in a bid to save his commanding officer, Captain Mark Haggard.

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Under heavy enemy fire, Fuller carried the mortally wounded Haggard

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away from the heat of battle,

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an act of heroism that won him

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the very highest military award for valour.

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100 years later,

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Fuller's daughter remembers the man who was the hero of her family.

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So, Muriel, William Charles Fuller VC, your dad.

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-Yes.

-What was he like?

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Wonderful. He spoiled us rotten.

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THEY CHUCKLE

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So, here they are. What a collection.

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And that one, the Victoria Cross, for valour.

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-Well, they don't hand those out for nothing, do they?

-They do not.

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Well, if you saw the box that it was in,

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it was absolutely tattered,

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and I went to the jeweller's and I said,

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"Can you get me a nice box to put my father's medals on,

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"because they're not doing him justice in this tatty box he's got."

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-He didn't talk about the day it was won?

-No, he didn't talk about it.

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If he didn't talk to you, did he have a special friend

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-he could talk to?

-Yes, this major that used to come.

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And they would go over old times and we used to take him

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a cup of coffee, or whatever, but we'd leave them to talk on their own.

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But he was a lovely man.

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What was your dad like after he'd had these chats?

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Oh, as if he'd had... His life was renewed.

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And this watch...

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The watch was presented to my father

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by the widow of Captain Haggard.

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And there's a tale at the other end of the chain as well, isn't there?

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That bullet was taken from my father when he was wounded,

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-and he had it put on the watch.

-That's a German bullet?

-Yes.

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Of course it is. That's the bullet that came out of his shoulder.

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-Not on VC day, this is later in the First World War?

-No, later.

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I was very proud of my father. Very proud. Well, we all were.

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William Fuller lived to the ripe old age of 90.

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Many weren't so lucky.

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The steady flow of casualties from the front

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soon overwhelmed Welsh hospitals.

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Country houses and stately homes were urgently needed

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to be used by the military to care for sick and wounded soldiers.

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In well-heeled Sketty, wealthy spinster Miss Dulcie Vivian

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not only offered up her smart mansion,

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she even paid for its conversion into a Red Cross hospital.

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Parc Wern has been converted once more.

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Today, it's luxury apartments.

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The bricks and mortar may have changed,

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but here's one thing that remains.

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It's an autograph book, and it's full of messages of gratitude

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and poems by soldiers,

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and it was presented to Nurse Conabeer, who worked here.

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Here's one of the poems.

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When war is proclaimed and danger is nigh

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God and the soldier is everyone's cry

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But when war is over and all things are sighted

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God is forgotten and the soldier is slighted.

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Private W Lewis, 14th Welsh Regiment, 24th October 1916.

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And what did they all want?

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"We want peace."

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But peace was a long way off

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and with a gap left by a generation of men fighting abroad,

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it fell to the women to keep wartime Britain going.

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Many ditched their domestic duties

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and embraced the roles traditionally held by men.

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Large numbers of Swansea women answered the call to work

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at Nobel's Explosives factory.

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That's Alfred Nobel, as in Nobel Peace Prize.

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The factory lay hidden deep in sand dunes

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15 miles west of Swansea in what is now Pembrey Country Park.

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The ammunition factory was built in 1914

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and would soon become one of the largest in Britain.

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Within a year, 70% of its workforce were women.

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The scene today - a tourist attraction.

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100 years ago, under my feet, women in their hundreds,

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these munition-ettes, were doing incredibly dangerous work

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in their bunkers and sheds.

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In fact, some of the structures remain just over here.

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Wartime munitions work was so secret

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that records of life in a place like this are very rare.

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Fortunately, Gabrielle West,

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a police officer who worked in Pembrey, kept a diary.

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She wrote, "The girls who work here are full of life and cheerful,

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"with a good many characters among them."

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She also paints a vivid picture of the conditions

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the munition-ettes faced at work.

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"Making TNT produced an evil, sickly, choky smell

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"that makes you cough and until you feel sick.

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"There could be 16 or 18 casualties every night,

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"women overcome by fumes."

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Munitions work was one of the most dangerous jobs on the Home Front.

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The women handled chemicals that turned their skin yellow,

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earning them the nickname "canary girls".

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The poisonous fumes discoloured their hair

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and stripped their teeth of enamel.

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And yet, despite the risks,

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one factor made sure the women would return day after day...

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In a word, money. Lots of it.

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Here at Pembrey, women were getting paid as much as men.

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In fact, because they were doing piecework, they often earned more.

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Now, that was a first.

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But in truth, it was poor reward for the dangers they faced.

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One fateful day, a huge explosion

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took the lives of six factory workers,

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including two teenage girls from Swansea.

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The town came to a standstill as the funeral procession

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moved through the streets.

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The coffins were draped in the Union flag

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and flanked by uniformed munition-ettes,

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giving the funeral an almost military flavour.

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The women of Swansea couldn't control safety in the factories,

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but they could try to control safety on the streets.

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This time, the threat wasn't stockpiles of explosives.

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No, it was the loose morals of giddy young women.

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# Hello, hello

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# Who's your lady friend? #

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It was believed that women of a certain class needed to be

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saved from themselves, lest their behaviour undermined society

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and threatened the war effort.

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Women patrols were formed to rescue soldiers home on leave

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from women of evil reputation.

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Across town in Oxford Street,

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it was said that soldiers couldn't walk the pavements

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without the unwanted attention of young women.

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At the heart of the scandal were the docks.

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A certain Rev F Sparrow thundered,

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"Evidently we are living in the midst

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"of shameless degradation and gross immorality.

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"The docks have become a cesspool of wickedness,

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"and the orgies of lust are revolting in their lewd vulgarity."

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The moral emergency that gripped Swansea

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was a symptom of extraordinary times.

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Over the water in Belgium, civilians overrun by the Kaiser's army

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were facing a very real emergency,

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and the people of South Wales weren't slow in coming to their aid.

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In October 1914, in the dead of night,

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49 Belgian refugees arrived here at Swansea station,

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exhausted, unannounced.

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It had taken them more than two days to travel here from Ostend.

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The oldest in the party was nearly 80,

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the youngest just five weeks old.

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The group found a warm welcome

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among a small community of skilled Belgian metalworkers

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already living in Swansea.

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By 1916, almost 800 Belgian refugees had been received into the town.

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But such niceties didn't extend to Germans living there.

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Carl Oscar Roth was born in Dresden, Germany,

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but was brought up here in Swansea, had lived here since he was a boy.

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By 1911 he was living here, in Carnglas Road,

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with his wife and four children in a house called Dresden,

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which he quickly changed at the outbreak of war to Preston.

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No-one was fooled about the family's German origins.

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Roth was soon rounded up as a potentially dangerous enemy alien

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and sent to Knockaloe Interment Camp on the Isle of Man,

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along with more than 20,000 other German civilian prisoners of war.

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Roth wasn't released until 1919,

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almost a year after the war had ended.

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-Nice to see you.

-Thank you.

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His granddaughter Ynis Richardson

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knows how much the whole family felt the blow.

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I think it was the speed that surprised everybody,

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how quickly they were taken away.

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They had originally gone to Alexandra Palace,

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and there are photos of camp beds out in Alexandra Palace.

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By the beginning of September,

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all the prisoners who were going were in the Isle of Man.

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And that left your grandmother and four children here?

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My mother was 15, her youngest brother was two.

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What happened to them after Oscar was taken away?

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My mother told me afterwards that they were harassed,

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and they had white feathers through the door, abusive letters.

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What other things might have come through the door

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my mother wouldn't have mentioned.

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My mother's next younger brother was in school,

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and he ran away to sea and joined the merchant navy,

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where he stayed through the war and into the '20s and '30s.

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Why did he leave school?

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They knew his father was German and he just got bullied, literally,

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and teased and whatever, so he ran away.

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What did it feel like when you went to the Isle of Man and saw it all?

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I took some photos of the site, which is now just a farm,

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and there is no evidence anything had ever happened there except,

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right at the end of the lane was a sign that said Knockaloe

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and 20,000 prisoners were here 1914.

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-Can you understand why it happened?

-Well, it was fear.

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It was a different sort of war

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and they didn't know what was going to happen to them and their children.

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Paranoia focused on the real,

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or imagined, threat of the German enemy.

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That threat was kept in check throughout the war

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by the Defence of the Realm Act,

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or DORA. It gave the State unprecedented control

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over the lives of its people, in all manner of ways.

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The Act made it illegal to buy a pair of binoculars,

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hail a taxi by whistling or even buy a round of drinks in a pub.

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Here in Swansea, it was even illegal in some parts of town to sketch.

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Records show one man was detained for drawing in the castle grounds,

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just up the road in Oystermouth,

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another for lighting a fire on a hillside, a prank that saw him

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arrested on suspicion of signalling to the enemy.

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As well as thwarting potential spies, DORA aimed to mobilise

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the whole country behind the war effort, including its food supply.

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At the start of the war, food hoarding

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and panic buying were commonplace.

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It didn't last, and Swansea soon learned to tighten its belt

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and accept that with war came a certain lack of choice.

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But as the fighting wore on,

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attacks by German U-boats on merchants ships

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delivering essential supplies to Britain were increasing.

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The effects were frightening.

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Britain came within six weeks of running out of wheat.

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Queues outside bakers, butchers and grocers were commonplace.

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Rationing was introduced and soon butter, sugar,

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eggs and tea were all restricted.

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Restaurants and cafes even had meatless days

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in order to make limited supplies go further.

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Barren land was turned over to vegetable production,

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sports grounds too.

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Even Swansea Town's pitch was at risk of being dug up,

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a fate suffered by half the country's football grounds.

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But the Swans kicked off the 1914 season as normal

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and within a few months, they were playing

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one of the most glorious games in the club's history.

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Today, the Liberty Stadium is the Swans' field of dreams,

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but a century ago, their home was what once stood here,

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their beloved Vetch Field.

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On 9th January 1915, 16,000 people are here to witness

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one of THE shocks in cup history -

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Swansea beating league champions Blackburn Rovers 1-0.

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But any euphoria was short lived.

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Soon, professional football was struggling, as players

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enlisted in greater numbers and the public mood shifted.

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It was now seen as disrespectful for men to play sport

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while others fought in the trenches.

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Once more, women filled the gap.

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The munition-ettes from Swansea's national shell factory were

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one of Britain's most successful female teams and drew big crowds.

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Fearing this popularity threatened the men's game,

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the FA banned women's football in the early 1920s.

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In contrast to the football club, the town's rugby club,

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the successful All Whites,

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cancelled all games at the outbreak of war.

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The fighting took an extremely heavy toll on rugby.

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By 1915, over 90% of rugby union players in Britain had enlisted.

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In Swansea, 24 of the club's players were killed while on active service.

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In the absence of regular sport, wartime entertainment

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came in the form of musical theatres and music halls.

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Moving film, then very much a novelty, found a home in

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Wales's first purpose-built picture house, Swansea's Carlton Cinema.

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Today, it's a bookshop, but in the early autumn of 1916, this is where

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they came for the most important cinematic release of the war.

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The Battle Of The Somme was a silent documentary

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and propaganda film that captured startling footage

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from the first days of the Somme offensive in July 1916.

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The scenes were at times graphic.

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While some in Swansea called for the film to be banned,

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for most, watching became an almost moral obligation.

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They were desperate to see for themselves

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what conditions were like at the front.

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For one week in September 1916,

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their wish came true and the film played to packed houses.

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For the first time, the people of Swansea saw

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what their love ones were going through on the Western Front.

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The Battle of the Somme dragged on for 20 weeks

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and claimed the lives of more than 100,000 British soldiers.

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For the men of the Swansea Battalion,

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it was their first major combat,

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but in their attempt to capture Mametz Wood,

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an area on the Somme nearly a mile wide

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and over a mile deep, it would also be their last.

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Nearly 400 of the Swansea Pals

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were either killed or wounded on that fateful day

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out of an attacking contingent of 676,

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a loss so devastating

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the battalion didn't return to major action for more than a year.

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The growing toll of casualties throughout the war meant that

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Britain was in desperate need to replace its supply of soldiers,

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but as the conflict dragged on, patriotic fervour dwindled.

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The Government had to act fast.

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The Military Service Act was passed,

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ushering in the era of conscription.

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Men aged between 18 and 41 could be called up,

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with only a few exemptions - the medically unfit, clergymen,

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teachers and those doing work of national importance.

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Appeals against conscription were commonplace

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and the Swansea tribunal was soon busy.

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In one afternoon session alone in February 1916,

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it heard no fewer than 65 requests for exemption from military service.

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2% of the appeals were from many who objected to war on moral grounds,

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and for these conscientious objectors,

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proceedings were notoriously harsh, reflecting widespread public opinion

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that they were cowardly, ungrateful shirkers.

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The grilling the men faced was to the point. One man was asked,

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"Would you allow the Germans to come to Britain to kill you?

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"Kill your mother? Do you actually possess any intelligence?"

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Needless to say, most cases were rejected.

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Most but not all.

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John Oliver Watkins, a 23-year-old Swansea council worker

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was granted exemption on religious grounds.

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Watkins WAS prepared to serve at the front,

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helping the wounded rather than bearing arms.

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He was sent to join an ambulance convoy attached to the French army.

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This collection of maps, letters and medals is housed

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in the West Glamorgan Archive,

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and they tell the story of Watkins' time at war.

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This is the French Croix de Guerre,

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awarded to Watkins for what he did on the night of December 10th 1917.

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He drove his ambulance to pick up

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a large number of seriously wounded men

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but on the way back they got bogged down

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in an abandoned trench.

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Under heavy enemy fire and mustard gas,

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Watkins put all the men safely to one side, mended the ambulance,

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got it going again, put the men back in and then ferried the men back.

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Perhaps the most striking thing here

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is his account of the final day of the war.

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"The day was dry, and outside the hut I sat with three colleagues

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"around a large tin bath peeling spuds for the midday meal.

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"A soldier was seen to fix a white paper on the church door.

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"I crossed the square and on the blank side

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"of a torn German army map

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"was brushed in Indian ink the following notice.

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"'Official. Armistice signed,

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"'hostilities ceased today 11 o'clock.'

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"I broke the news to my friends and we went on with our job.

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"There was no wild excitement

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"but just a feeling of release from war to peace."

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And here is that German map...

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and here are the words that brought the first world war to an end.

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The 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month,

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Remembrance Day remains a powerful annual symbol

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of so much loss and sacrifice.

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A century on, and new discoveries continue to add

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to our understanding of Welsh communities at war.

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In a chapel in the Treboeth area of Swansea,

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a roll of honour has recently been discovered.

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-So, here we are, Gethin, a list of names.

-It is indeed.

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81 men from the local chapel who served

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either in the Army or the Navy during the war years.

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Most of them were actually volunteers.

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At least a third of these men would have been miners,

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most working in Mynyddbach Colliery, about a mile-and-a-half up the road.

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The local comprehensive have been great.

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One of the classes has done an awful lot of work with the official records

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-to find out who these men are.

-Let's go and meet them.

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It's apt that a new generation, young people in Swansea,

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are respecting the memory of their forebears

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who sacrificed so much a century ago.

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-Hi, guys. How are you doing?

-ALL: Hello.

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What have we got here? This is quite a spread.

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What we've done is we collected a load of photos,

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interesting photos, about World War I,

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and are trying to pick out the most interesting ones

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to put on a big poster to go to our National Eisteddfod.

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A big project, then.

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Did you know much, Megan, before this all began,

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about the First World War?

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We knew a little bit as we'd been learning it in class

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with our teacher, but it was really interesting to find out

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more about the 81 soldiers on the roll of honour.

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Is there anything here that has surprised you?

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I didn't realise it had expanded so much.

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Here, in this photo, it's a picture of a pyramid

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so it means they stretched as far as Egypt.

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I didn't realise that so many people from my local area were

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involved in the war, and the contribution they made towards it.

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Have you found out anything about the ages of all these people?

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Yes, most of them were our age going into the war

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and that's really scary, really,

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because I could never imagine going into a war with, like, fighting.

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There's something about this connection between young people

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and the war of 100 years ago.

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At the outbreak of the First World War, Britain was unprepared.

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Even industrial Swansea was unprepared for industrial slaughter.

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Fear and suspicion would have their say in how Swansea adapted

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to this world in upheaval, but so, too, would togetherness,

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courage, the notion of self-sacrifice.

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Perhaps the reason why young people are

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engaged by the events of 100 years ago is

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because what happened here and elsewhere was

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the start of the revolution that made the world they live in today.

0:28:580:29:03

Eddie Butler uncovers extraordinary tales of tragedy, triumph and everyday spirit in Welsh towns that were changed forever by World War One.

In Swansea he meets the daughter of the first Welshman to win the Victoria Cross during the conflict and tells the inspiring story of the munitionettes, the women who risked their health and even their lives making shells for the war effort.

Eddie explores the terrible toll that war took on the town's football and rugby teams and learns about the sufferings of the Swansea Pals, the town battalion that was torn apart at the Battle of the Somme. He reveals the hopes and fears of ordinary people living in extraordinary times, in a community that welcomed Belgian refugees with open arms but shunned and persecuted German families already living in their midst.


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