The Great War


In 1914 the war clouds gathered without warning for the people of Britain, and only towards the end of July did the local press become aware of the approaching spectre of Armageddon. When war was declared on 4 August, a wave of patriotism swept through Cardiff. At the docks 4 German ships were arrested and all suspected German aliens were interned, including those who protested that they had no sympathy with either the Kaiser or his war aims.

On 7 August, Kitchener's call to arms, "Your King and Country need you', was blazoned across the South Wales Echo. From Cardiff and the valleys, men flocked to join the colours. The Drill Hall and Maindy Barracks were unable to cope with the rush, and emergency recruiting stations were hastily opened in the city and at Gladstoneschool. Appeals for volunteers were made on the trams, the buses and at all places of amusement. The Western Mail compared pictures of new recruits, training at the ArmsPark, with football spectators at NinianPark, pointedly asking which of these groups was fulfilling its patriotic duty. Everywhere, military parades, street hoardings and notices on pillar boxes reminded single men where their loyalty lay. In the first week of September alone, 7,600 men enlisted in Cardiff from all walks of life. Work on building sites, among them the NationalMuseum, came to a halt as craftsmen and labourers downed tools to join the army.

Two battalions of the Welsh Regiment were to be particularly associated with Cardiff.Businessmen, clerks, teachers and shop assistants joined the Cardiff Commercial Battalion of the 11th Welsh Regiment. The Battalion became known as the "Cardiff Pals', in which brother marched with brother, employer with employee, and each platoon contained companions from everyday life. From James Howell's store alone, 40 of the male staff enlisted together. The battalion reached full strength in a few weeks and on 14 September they marched past cheering crowds from Maindy Barracks to the General Station. They completed their training in Sussex and a year later sailed to Francefrom Southampton. As the boat left the quayside, every other sound faded away as they sang Jesu, Lover of my Soul. In November 1915, the Battalion was transferred to the front in Salonika and, for the next three years, the Cardiff Pals faced death not only from enemy bullets, but also from malaria and disease. Few of them ever saw their native city again.

The Council also launched a recruiting drive to raise a City of Cardiff Battalion which incorporated the city's coat-of-arms into its badge. The Battalion trained at ColwynBay, much  to the annoyance of the Cardiff Chamber of Commerce which protested that their departure was costing local traders £20,000 a week. In December 1915 the City Battalion embarked for France, where it was to suffer frightful casualties at Neuve Chappelle, Mametz Wood and Passchendaele. Its leader, Colonel Gaskell, died from wounds received while he was visiting the front in May 1916. The drums of the Battalion hold a place of honour in the Lord Mayor's Parlour at the City Hall.

The euphoria of August 1914 soon gave way to a spirit of dogged resolution, once the casualty lists mounted and it became apparent that the war would not be over by Christmas. The Roll of Honour began to appear in local newspapers and neither the great nor the humble were spared as the war pursued its relentless course. The Honourable Archer Windsor Clive, son of the Earl of Plymouth, was killed in the opening weeks of the conflict. On 2 October 1915, Lord Ninian Stuart, commander of the "dashing 6th Welch', fell in action at Loos to become one of the 6 MPs to die in the Great War.

Naturally, deeds of heroism were given pronounced publicity. In May 1915 Sergeant-major Frank Barter attacked a German position at Festubert with eight volunteers. He captured more than a hundred prisoners together with 500 yards of enemy trench. For his bravery, Barter was awarded the Victoria Cross and in July he returned home on leave to Cardiff. He was given a formal reception at the Exchange and the City Hall, but the hero's welcome awaiting him at his home in

Daniel Street
, Cathays, almost certainly gave him the greatest satisfaction. Soon afterwards, Frank Barter was promoted to lieutenant and in 1918, after further deeds of gallantry, he added the Military Cross to his V.C.


The docksmen of Cardiffprospered since Welsh coal and shipping were both vital to the war effort. The export of coal declined as the needs of the Admiralty, industry, and Britain's allies were given priority. However, despite government control, the coalowners could not fail to capitalise, when the price of coal soared from 22/- a ton to 55/- a ton.

The shipping magnates found that virtually every vessel in their possession was commandeered to replace the ships sunk by German U-boats. In April 1917 alone, a million tons of British shipping was sent to the bottom of the sea. Yet, though John Cory lost 20 ships through enemy action, and Evan Thomas and Radcliffe a similar number, owners were compensated for every vessel they lost. As a result, the shipping companies continued to make money, even after the deduction of excess profits duty. This tax was introduced in 1915 to curb undue profiteering, thus placating public opinion and ensuring trade union co-operation.

Not so fortunate were the sailors who risked their lives in running the gauntlet of the U-boat blockade. One of the weapons used to defeat German submarines was the "Q' ship and some of Cardiff's tramp steamers were converted to fulfil this role. From a distance an isolated  "Q' ship appeared to be an inviting target. But, as the submarine surfaced to destroy its helpless victim with gunfire, the "Q' ship would bring its own carefully hidden guns into action against the enemy.

The fishing fleet of Neale and West, together with 13 of Campbell's paddle steamers, were commissioned as minesweepers. In August 1915 Campbell's steamers swept the way for the warships bombarding Zeebrugge, and in October the Brighton Queen was sunk in an attack on Ostend. The Barry had the distinction of being the last ship to leave Suvla Beach, after playing a prominent part in the rescue of troops from that ill-fated fiasco at Gallipoli.

Local industries worked at full capacity to forge the weapons of war and the materials needed to manufacture them. Steel production at the East Moors Works rose to a record level, while the foundry of Edward Curran in

Hurman Street
supplied cartridge cases for the great guns of the Western Front. Small-scale production was also encouraged and, at a workshop to the rear of the power station in
Newport Road
, a group of patriotic men and women volunteered to make shells in their spare time.

The demands of the armed forces and the requirements of the war industries led to some dislocation of normal services. When the council released 2,000 employees in 1915, following an appeal from Kitchener for more munitions workers, the shortfall could only be met by employing women to an extent considered unthinkable in more peaceful times. Many women left domestic service for better wages in the munitions industry. The shorthand typist replaced the male clerk and, despite some controversy, female bus conductors and railway porters soon became a familiar sight in Cardiff.

Officially, government legislation had prohibited strikes but they still occurred from time to time. Additional misery was inflicted on a war-weary population in May 1918, when some of Cardiff's council employees refused to clean the streets or bury the dead, until they were paid an extra pound for working at weekends. In 1917 the Cardiff bakers withdrew their labour, but nothing was as serious as the coal strike of 1915 which threatened to cripple Britain's war production. It was only settled through the intervention of Lloyd George who conceded most of the miners' demands. Inevitably, letters in the press criticised all these strikers and contrasted their behaviour with the bravery of the men at the front.


The government postponed the introduction of food rationing for as long as possible, arguing that it would be a blow to morale if the nation believed itself to be under blockade. Queues and shortages were probably equally damaging in their impact and by 1917 the country was facing a serious crisis. School attendance in Cardiff was affected as pupils joined the food queues, and in March they were warned that no potatoes would be served to children during school hours. Flour was so scarce that bakers were forbidden to make "fancy bread or fancy pastry', and restaurants were allowed a maximum of only two ounces of flour for each meal. Butchers often had no meat to sell and, on one occasion, a queue waiting to buy rabbits stretched from the castle end of High Street to St. John's Church.

When rationing was introduced, it was at first voluntary. The council appointed a Food and Fuel Committee to supervise the allocation and prices of essential commodities such as bread, milk, potatoes and coal. When supplies arrived by rail, it was the duty of the Chief Constable to organise their distribution to the retailers of Cardiff. Only in July 1918, four months before the Armistice, did the government at last introduce the compulsory rationing of basic food.

To save precious shipping space, people were encouraged to grow their own food, and letters of guidance advised allotment holders how to use their plot of land to full advantage. In 1917 Llandaff Fields, Splott Park, Jubilee Park and Roath Park were all being cultivated as vegetable gardens by allotment holders and horticultural societies. Grass cuttings from the parks were turned into hay and even the castle grounds came under the plough. At one point, loveable "Billy the Seal' came under threat because of the difficulty in feeding her. Councillors debated whether to destroy her or return her to the open sea, but eventually she was put on half rations and the people of Cardiff, whatever their problems, ensured that she did not go hungry.

Plans had been made before the war to provide hospital treatment for the victims of the conflict. The Infirmary was the core of the Third Western General Hospital for wounded soldiers and 100 beds were made available to the army. But, within a few days of the outbreak of hostilities, some of Cardiff's schools were also being transformed into hospitals. Albany, Splott, Lansdowne, Ninian Park and Howard Gardens schools were among those needed to accommodate wounded soldiers from every part of the Empire. Education was provided on a shift basis as pupils, whose school was being used as a military hospital, shared premises nearby. Thus from 1915, the children at Marlborough Road attended their school in the morning, while the pupils of Albany used it in the afternoon.

When the casualty  lists lengthened, temporary buildings were erected in Howard Gardens,  and Whitchurch hospital was also transferred to the military  authorities. On 20 February 1918 the Prince of Wales visited Cardiff to  open the former Mansion House at The Walk as a hospital for limbless  soldiers and sailors. Wounded soldiers in their blue uniforms soon  became a familiar sight in Cardiff and also at Llandaff, where Rookwood House was converted into a convalescent home.

The people of South Wales displayed a generous spirit to civilians confronted with the  horror of war. Before the end of September 1914, the citizens of Cardiff  were contributing to a Belgian relief fund and offering shelter to refugees. Not only employment and accommodation were provided, but on 21 July 1915 Belgium's National Day was celebrated at Roath Park. To commemorate their gratitude for the hospitality they had received, a representative of the Belgian people planted a turkey oak in the Gorsedd Gardens. Nor was the suffering of the French forgotten. At a moving ceremony in January 1918, the French Consul presented the Lord Mayor with relics from the shattered city of Verdun, together with a replica of the medal struck for its heroic defenders. The gift was a recognition of the funds raised in Cardiff to alleviate the distress of the beleaguered French city.

The newspapers of Cardiff showed a commendable concern in ensuring that the Welsh prisoners-of-war, as well as the front line troops, were not forgotten. The prisoner-of-war fund, organised by the South Wales Evening Express, had raised £62,000 by Armistice Day and had dispatched more than 150,000 parcels to Welsh prisoners. The "Smokers' Fund', arranged by the same newspaper, was not only used to send cigarettes and tobacco to the troops, but also footballs, gramophones, playing cards and Christmas hampers. When the Germans began to dispatch wounded prisoners to neutral Holland or Switzerland for internment, the fund sometimes served as a means of paying the expenses of wives and mothers who wished to visit them.

The Evening Express launched a further appeal in 1918 as a final affliction fell on suffering humanity. An outbreak of Spanish influenza, spreading like a mediaeval plague among debilitated, war-weary populations, accounted for 20 million victims throughout the world. In Cardiff, 125 people died in a single week during October. Shops, offices and factories ground to a halt, transport was curtailed, and schools were closed. There were neither enough carpenters nor sufficient timber to make coffins for the dead and, as a resident near Cathays Cemetery observed, "It is just one procession of funerals from early morning until late at night'.


Finally, the nightmare came to an end. At 10.30 a.m., half an hour before the Armistice of 11 November 1918, the siren of the Western Mail blasted forth the signal for peace. Other hooters and sirens joined the pandemonium as joyful crowds gathered in the streets. Flags appeared as if by magic and soon St. Mary Street was impassable. The Evening Express noted that two Americans were mobbed by the "fair sex and wrapped in a Union Jack'. Businesses closed for the day and docksmen rubbed shoulders with coal trimmers in a mass procession to the City Hall, where the Lord Mayor read the Prime Minister's message that hostilities had ceased. That evening, thanksgiving services were held at churches throughout the city.

Ten days later the light cruiser, H.M.S. Cardiff, after leading the British navy to its rendezvous with the defeated Kaiser's Grand Fleet, triumphantly headed the whole flotilla back to the Firth of Forth. The ensign of H.M.S. Cardiff remains in the Lord Mayor's Parlour as a memento of that historic day when, so it was believed, victory had been won in the "War to end all wars'.

The memory of the Great War still endures and its anniversary on 11 November was especially poignant in the 1920's and the 1930's. Work, traffic, indeed life everywhere, came to a halt at 11 a.m., when the nation remembered its fallen. War memorials were erected in every parish, and in the Gorsedd Gardens the statue of Lord Ninian Stuart is perhaps the saddest of all the Bute memorials. When the Western Cemetery was opened in 1936, a corner of it was placed at the disposal of the Imperial War Graves Commission.

The proposal to erect a Welsh National War Memorial was first made by Herbert Thompson in 1917 and two years later the Western Mail opened a fund for this purpose. Over £30,000 was raised and, after some debate about its location, the Archbishop of Wales dedicated the memorial in Queen Alexandra Gardens on 12 June 1928. Representatives from the Welsh Regiment, the British Legion and former prisoners-of-war were present at the ceremony. Afterwards, a Book of Remembrance, containing the names of 35,000 Welshmen who had died in the Great War, was handed to Lord Aberdare for safe custody. It is now kept at the Temple of Peace and Health.

In the centre of the War Memorial, a fountain stands in a sunken court which can be entered through three porches. Facing the entrances are the statues of a soldier, a sailor and an airman, all lifting wreaths towards the Messenger of Victory bearing a sword. On the frieze, in Welsh and English, are Sir Henry Newbolt's words: "Remember here in peace those who in tumult of war by sea, on land, in air, for us and our victory, endureth unto death'. Every year, on the second Sunday in November, a moving service is held at this monument in Cathays Park, and the sacrifice of Wales in two great conflicts is once more remembered.