Eddie Butler uncovers tales of life in Welsh towns during WWI. In Porthmadog, he meets David Lloyd George's grandson and visits the Trawsfynydd home of poet Hedd Wyn.
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This is Porthmadog on the northwest coast of Wales.
It was hundreds of miles from the front line in France
but, like towns everywhere, it was touched by the First World War.
From intrepid sea captains fighting U-boats,
to feisty munitions workers fighting for their rights,
from a wartime Prime Minister to a celebrated poet,
war reached deep into this corner of Wales.
In August 1914,
Porthmadog was as sunny and peaceful as it is today -
the backdrop of the mountains,
the wharves bustling with commercial sailing ships, not yachts.
But, in faraway Downing Street,
the local boy made good, David Lloyd George,
is embroiled in the frantic, last-minute efforts to avert war.
"I am moving through a nightmare world these days,"
he wrote to his wife.
For some of Porthmadog's seafarers, the nightmare was soon upon them.
The town was built on the slate trade
and Germany was one of the industry's biggest clients.
Millions of slates went to roof German cities.
When war was declared,
many of the town's ships were trapped in Hamburg.
But, in more than 40 years of business,
their captains had made friends in the port
and they quietly slipped away and headed for home.
Sadly, not quite all.
One sailor from the town, Arthur Owen, didn't make it out -
he was interned and, two years later,
died of TB in a German prison camp.
One of several hundred men from the area
who lost their lives in the conflict.
The outbreak of war had a dramatic effect
on this Welsh-speaking part of Wales.
The sudden end of slate exports to Germany
hit not only Porthmadog's maritime trade,
but also the nearby town of Blaenau Ffestiniog,
where the slate was quarried.
Virtually all building in Britain came to an end.
The last thing the government wanted
was anybody putting any resources into building anything -
all the resources needed to go into the war effort.
And as, of course, slate is a building material -
it was primarily used for roofing - then, when the war came,
the market for slate, the home market for slate collapsed.
What happens to the labour force?
In the early 20th century, there's about 11,000 or 12,000.
By the beginning of the First World War,
it's down to about 8,000, bit more than that.
By the end of the First World War, it's 3,000.
You know, that is a complete collapse
of the workforce in the industry.
Are they easily persuaded to go to war?
Well, many of them do go to munitions,
some of them go to other industries,
their union was very keen that they go and work in other industries.
But, yes, of course, a huge number of them,
as any war memorial in this district will testify,
a huge number of them went to war.
In non-conformist North Wales, there was a strong pacifist tradition.
But with local MP David Lloyd George,
aided by Methodist Minister John Williams, Brynsiencyn,
rallying the cause, support for the war grew.
This was not a jingoistic, warmongering part of the world
but, overall, Lloyd George's great point -
which was that the war was a war to defend small countries,
particularly Belgium, against German militarism -
that point was very well received in these parts
and people did go willingly to fight for that principle.
Once his mind was made up, that the war had to be fought,
Lloyd George was nothing but fully committed
and he demanded the same of his fellow countrymen.
Just a month into the conflict, he was back on home turf,
here in Criccieth, delivering a blunt message.
"In recruiting, Scotland comes first in numbers,
"England is second,
"Wales is third.
"This is not the position
"for a nation which has turned out more soldiers than any
"in the Continental wars of the past.
"At Crecy and Agincourt, where the British were eminently successful,
"half the soldiers were Welsh."
Welsh troops were soon in action on the Western Front,
not least the quarrymen of Blaenau Ffestiniog -
tunnelling and laying explosives under German lines.
But, by 1915, there was stalemate in the trenches
and a second front was opened against Germany's ally, Turkey.
The attack on Gallipoli on the Turkish coast was a shambles,
with thousands of troops pinned down on the beaches,
blasted by the Turkish guns.
It's remembered for the slaughter
of the Australian and New Zealand soldiers, the ANZACs,
but the Royal Welch Fusiliers were in the thick of the action, as well,
including 62 men from Porthmadog.
One of them, machine gunner Edward Jones,
wrote to the local newspaper from his hospital bed in Malta
and in the Cambrian Evening News
and Welsh Farmers' Gazette of January 28th, 1916, this appeared.
"You know, along with the rest of the world,
"that, by now, the whole of the peninsula has been evacuated.
"We certainly could not advance there.
"Several men here,
"who have been out in France for seven or eight months,
"say they would rather do six months out there
"than one month in Gallipoli.
"That gives you an idea of what Gallipoli was like.
"You could not rest there, anywhere,
"as every spot on the place was swept by shellfire.
"As you know, dysentery and various diseases
"played havoc with all of us there.
"It is like paradise to be back in civilisation again at Malta.
"We are all very much alive,
"even if we don't feel much like kicking."
Of course, tens of thousands died in the campaign
and here in Porthmadog's cemetery is the name of one of them,
Lance Corporal William Jones
of the 6th Battalion Royal Welch Fusiliers.
Died on the 11th August 1915 in Turkey, aged 26.
You can't help but feel -
and maybe William Jones felt it, too -
that from these lush mountainsides
to the dust and dirt of Gallipoli
is a long, long way.
With Gallipoli a disaster and stalemate on the Western Front,
the war was going badly for Britain.
There was also a crisis in munitions,
with shells often not even exploding and accidents at factories.
Enter David Lloyd George.
He'd grown up in the village of Llanystumdwy,
just outside Criccieth,
and the museum there reveals Lloyd's George's pivotal role
in the First World War.
From his beginnings as a Porthmadog solicitor,
by 1914, he'd become one of Britain's leading politicians -
Chancellor of the Exchequer.
Now Lloyd George made it his mission to sort out the shell crisis.
He campaigned in the press, he gave speeches.
And it worked.
And here, at the Lloyd George Museum in Llanystumdwy,
is the fruit of his labour.
It's from King George V,
and it appoints the said David Lloyd George
to be Minister of Munitions.
There aren't many people alive who knew Lloyd George well,
but one is his grandson, Bengy Carey-Evans.
Minister of Munitions,
it doesn't sound one of the great offices of state.
How important was it?
Well, it was desperately important.
I mean, the arsenals were hopeless.
They were sending out 30% dud shells, for a start,
so it was a dramatically appalling situation.
But, um, he gave up the chancellorship...
and took on this minor role,
which showed that he had no personal ambition.
Personal ambition didn't rule his life.
He was there to achieve his objectives.
He was much more concerned to get things done
and getting women into the... into the arsenals,
which they opposed bitterly.
The unions and the arsenal workers themselves,
they thought women were...
shouldn't be allowed anywhere near the explosives.
They proved to be better than the men, quite frankly.
Lloyd George's energy solved the munitions crisis
and led to him becoming Prime Minister at the end of 1916.
For women, it had an equally dramatic effect
and 1.5 million joined the workforce,
many doing the dangerous job of making shells.
a small munitions factory was opened in one of the railway sheds.
There were factories like this all over the country
but, here, there's a surprising story
of women fighting for their rights.
The factory was at Boston Lodge,
on the far side of the estuary from Porthmadog.
Instead of going by train, the women workers had to walk there -
a mile across the causeway, the Cob -
at five every morning, rain or shine.
Two of them were Carys Meurig Parry's great aunts.
Well, this is the photograph we had in our house
and I remember asking my mother who they were.
And this one here is Auntie Rachel,
that's my grandmother's sister.
And this one here is Auntie Kate,
my grandfather's sister.
And they both worked in the factory.
We found something for you here. It's a petition
and it's signed by some of the workers.
And they say, "Our request is this -
"The morning shift starts at 6am.
"Your company have a train leaving Porthmadog station at 5:40am.
"We should therefore be obliged if you could agree for us
"to board this train and allow it to stop at the works to set us down."
So there you are, it's a sort of... It's women's rights.
Yes, yes, certainly.
And do you recognise the first signature on the second page?
Yes, that's R Williams. That's, um, Rachel Williams,
sister to my grandmother.
Lloyd George asked them to help in the war effort.
It's only right that they had transport to work, in my mind.
The women won their fight
and the train made a special stop at Boston Lodge every morning.
Carys and I took the same journey nearly 100 years on.
It's slightly unfair. We've got glorious weather now
-but I think if you're walking the Cob in November...
It's a very windy place. As you can see, it's very open.
And, even in summer, on a wet day, it's no joke, really.
Boston Lodge works are now used to build and repair steam engines
but, inside, very little has changed.
-It's the place, isn't it?
-It's definitely the place, yes.
You can see the wheels up there, where the belts came down
and I believe they were doing 15-pounders and 18-pounders here.
And they wouldn't have done this before?
No, they wouldn't. No.
They would be farm workers, most of them.
Seeing Auntie Rachel's obituary,
where the local Methodist minister describes how she was,
what a gentle person she was,
and a very good Christian, going to chapel every Sunday.
And then I think about this type of work, how did that fit in?
But they were desperate times, weren't they?
They were. They were indeed.
The Ffestiniog & Welsh Highland Railway
has another relic from the First World War.
This little diesel engine, called a Simplex, dates from 1917.
And, on service in France, it would deliver shells made here
right up to the front line.
Diesel rather than steam,
because there would be no smoke to give away its position. Although...
..it was heavily armour-plated, just in case.
The war in the trenches was grim and relentless
but, by 1916, the conflict at sea was no less brutal.
The previous May, a German U-boat had torpedoed and sunk
an American liner, The Lusitania, just off the coast of Ireland,
an event which ultimately brought the USA into the war.
Among the dead was Walter McLean from Porthmadog,
the son of the town's draper,
who was returning home from a business trip to Canada.
Many of Porthmadog's mariners met the same fate in sailing ships,
still plying their trade.
Sailing down to the Mediterranean,
picking up rock salt in Cadiz,
sailing across the Atlantic to Newfoundland,
offloading the salt and loading up with salted fish,
which they would then bring back to several Mediterranean ports,
either in Spain, Italy or even in Greece.
-This is long-haul trade that they're engaged in.
-Long-haul trade, yes.
They would leave Porthmadog around about April,
and return usually ending up back in Porthmadog in November.
Were they are unarmed?
Oh, totally unarmed, yes. Oh, yes.
Yes, they were no threat to the enemy whatsoever.
They're made of wood, they're elegant.
Did that Germans treat them with any respect?
In fact, six of the Porthmadog-built ships were sunk
by enemy action during the First World War.
But, if you look at the dates that they were sunk,
I think there was one lost in 1916,
but the other five were lost in 1917,
just towards the end of the war, when the Germans...
They were obviously becoming more aggressive
in their attack on Allied vessels.
Remarkably, the sinking of one of Porthmadog's ships
was recorded on film.
The U-boat U-35 had a cameraman on board
to record its victims, for propaganda.
One of them was the schooner, Miss Morris.
70 years later, the last survivor, Griffith John Ellis,
told what happened in a BBC interview.
-And so the old captain was now seeing his ship go down.
There are several mariners here on Porthmadog's war memorial.
The names of 96 men and one woman -
Nurse Kathleen Hugheston Roberts,
who died during the First World War.
Behind every name, there is a personal story,
an individual tragedy.
Some are forgotten, lost to history.
Others, though, are treasured by their families.
One is Edmund Davies, who was killed at Passchendaele in 1917.
His niece Leri Roberts has spent years finding out
about her uncle's life and death.
-What have we go, here?
-Thank you very much.
-There we are.
-So, this is Uncle Edmund.
My mother's brother. He was the youngest of the brothers.
-He's a handsome little chap.
He looks so young. Younger than 25.
He looks about 18, or even less there - 16, maybe.
I wrote to the War Commission.
I've started now getting the information
and, um...it was so, so sad.
It tore me apart to read about what happened,
the Battle of Passchendaele, the worst battle ever, I think.
-Letters from him to home?
He says, "Dear...
"Dear Sister, Mum and Brothers,
"Here I am, taking the pressure..."
Oh, it's very hard to...
-Can I do it in Welsh?
-Is that all right?
SHE SPEAKS IN WELSH
Oh, they catch up...
You all right?
Tyne Cot, near the village of Passchendaele in Belgium,
is the largest cemetery for Commonwealth forces in the world.
There are 12,000 graves, including that of Edmund Davies.
I took him a little wreath, a poppy wreath, from Mum.
And I took some earth from the ground at Tyne Cot
and took it home with me to put on my nain and teid's grave.
Oh, yes, before I went over, I took some earth from their grave
and put it on Edmund's remembrance, yes.
It's funny, I just needed to...
I felt that he needed a little part of Wales with him, you know?
-I'm a real softy, I'm a real...
-No, no, no...
But that's me. I'd rather be that than hard and cruel, you know?
Edmund Davies, one of the estimated 244,000 British servicemen
killed or wounded in the mud of Passchendaele.
Edmund Davies, a name remembered by his family,
but just one among so many.
One Welsh soldier came to symbolise all the sacrifice.
Ellis Evans is better known as the poet Hedd Wyn.
He was brought up on a farm just outside Trawsfynydd.
Like many working on the land, he was reluctant to join up,
but by 1917, the army's demand for more men
led to a change in the law.
Now, only one son could stay on the farm
and Hedd Wyn chose to enlist instead of his younger brother.
He joined the Royal Welch Fusiliers and went to France.
He continued to write, reflecting on the world around him.
This is part of his poem Rhyfel - "War".
The harps to which we sang are hung
On willow boughs, and their refrain
Drowned by the anguish of the young
Whose blood is mingled with the rain.
Hedd Wyn's cottage has remained virtually unchanged.
It's cared for by his nephew Gerald Williams.
Back in 1917, the poet composed his entry for that year's Eisteddfod
while serving in the trenches.
He sent it in under the pen name Fleur de Lys.
He had a bit of a job, getting it out of there
to the Eisteddfod,
because it was in Welsh, and you see,
all the letters that were sent from the front line
were heavily censored.
But it was in Welsh,
so they had a bit of a job to find an officer that could translate
from Welsh to English, to say that it was OK to go through.
-But it did get through.
-It get through in time, yes.
The Eisteddfod that year was held in Birkenhead on Merseyside
with Prime Minister Lloyd George in attendance.
Inside, the atmosphere was sombre.
What happened at the Chair ceremony in Birkenhead in 1917?
They gave the adjudications and said who was the winning bard,
Fleur de Lys,
and then they asked him to stand up,
but they asked three times round the audience, but nobody stood up.
So, one of the officials from the Eisteddfod came on
and said that he was Hedd Wyn and he was lost in action.
Hedd Wyn had been killed at Passchendaele
just five weeks earlier.
His cottage has become a shrine to him
and to all the Welsh soldiers killed in the war.
I've seen many people coming here,
all people coming here, and looking around,
and big tears running down their faces
when they see the place, yes,
because time has stood still, here - nothing has changed.
Edmund Davies and Hedd Wyn
were among the tens of thousands of soldiers from Wales
who died in the war,
but even more were wounded.
Hospitals were set up across the land,
often in grand country houses.
Wern Manor on the outskirts of Porthmadog
was built by slate quarry owner Richard Graves
and handed over to the Red Cross in 1915.
Photographs of the hospital show a relaxed atmosphere
with fancy dress parties.
But the story of the photographer, Tom Ackers, is just as remarkable.
His granddaughter Lynda Shaughnessy was born in Porthmadog.
She came along to the Wern to tell me about him.
-The wonderful work of your wonderful grandfather.
Tell me about Tom Ackers.
Well, he was in the Royal Welch Fusiliers,
came out in 1917, he was ill,
and took up photography.
-And here he is.
-That's him, yes.
It's not quite a selfie, is it, but it's a self-portrait of him.
Yes, I think so. I think he liked having his photograph taken.
So, he...is no longer a soldier,
-he sets himself up as a photographer here in Porthmadog.
-What next - well, everything and everybody.
I mean, he took photographs of new babies that soldiers hadn't seen,
wives, girlfriends, weddings...
You often expect everybody to be so serious in these photographs,
-A wry grin, a smile.
-And here we have...
Well, Charlie Chaplin and friends.
Did they suggest they dressed up like that, or did he suggest?
I don't know.
Mementos large and small.
Yes, this little fellow was given to the troops by their families,
um...as a good-luck token.
And he was specially made -
had eyes on the top of their heads and an upturned snout,
so that they could fit in the soldier's top pocket.
Given the nature of the First World War, it seems...
Well, they're quite rare.
Your grandfather would have kept that because he didn't see action.
-He didn't, no.
-His asthma kept him at home.
which suggests he had a lucky break, but...
Well...not really, no, no.
-He died before the end of the war.
-He did, on November 6th 1918, yeah.
-Five days before.
-I know, I know.
All these photographs were taken in, probably, a year.
Tom Ackers was one of more than 50 million people
who died in the worldwide flu pandemic.
At the end of war in 1918,
the world that he photographed was changing for ever.
Slowly, the soldiers returned
and began to piece together their lives -
the munitions works at Boston Lodge were returned to the railways
and the women workers were laid off, although their efforts
and those of many other millions would ultimately win them the vote.
Lloyd George went to sign the Treaty of Versailles a hero,
only to be turfed out of office three years later.
Here, maritime trade resumed, although never at its former levels.
But the sailors of Porthmadog had the last laugh.
At the end of the war, a captured U-boat,
the deadly foe that had sunk six ships from Porthmadog,
was brought into the harbour to be broken up for scrap.
Locals were allowed to visit at sixpence a time.
Parts of the U-boat are still visible,
if you know where to look.
This is the war memorial at nearby Llanfrothen.
It was designed by Clough Williams-Ellis,
the eccentric architect behind Portmeirion just down the coast,
and if you look at the top, you can see strings of nuts
and according to local legend, the enterprising Clough
took them from the U-boat.
It's strange, but somehow fitting,
that these little pieces of a machine of destruction
have ended up here on a memorial
to those that have lost their lives in war,
a memorial that also stands for all our hopes for peace.
Eddie Butler uncovers extraordinary tales of tragedy, triumph and everyday spirit in Welsh towns that were changed forever by World War One. In Porthmadog he learns of the sea captains marooned in German ports with their cargo of slate and discovers how the quarrying industry in nearby Blaenau Ffestiniog was nearly wiped out as Britain turned itself into a war machine. He reveals startling footage of the sinking of a Porthmadog ship by a German U-boat. And he meets the grandson of former premier David Lloyd George, the local boy made good, who became known as The Man Who Won the War. Eddie visits the Trawsfynydd home of Hedd Wyn, the Poet of the Black Chair, who is a symbol today for the suffering and loss of a generation of young men. But he also celebrates the unsung foot soldiers who fought and died at the Western Front or at Gallipoli on the Turkish coast. And he unearths a unique collection of photographs taken in Porthmadog in 1918 that depicts a society on the cusp of a transformation.