Saturday 29 November 2014

Lloyd George, Roman Britain, and Wales in WW1

Lloyd George, The New Caractacus 
The Old Caractacus
A workshop on World War I allowed me, with lots of help from Welsh-speaking friends,* to talk about one of Elgar’s most jingoistic extravaganzas, his 1898 oratorio Caractacus. Caractacus, or Caradog, was the male equivalent of Boadicea, a British king who led the Welsh tribe of Silures against the Romans. The historian Tacitus reports that he was betrayed by another Brit, captured, and delivered a rousing oration in the Roman forum. So the Emperor Claudius let him off. Caradog retired to a sunlit villa on the Tiber.

"Independence" "Calling the Bravest Man"
But what is the connection with WW1? Partly because of the popularity of Elgar’s work amongst amateur choral societies, from 1904 on there was a craze for Caradog plays, with druidic choruses, in schools such as Abergele County High in north Wales. I have just discovered an extraordinary set of photographs of this school's Welsh-language production. Such theatricals fostered patriotism and martial valour in the young of Cymru.

When the Germans occupied Belgium in 1914, the Welsh were invited to defend the independence of a ‘gallant little country’, as the propaganda put it, just like their own.  Coal mining, which took place in south Wales, was designated an essential industry, but in Welsh-speaking Wales, where the slate quarries had closed, there were thousands of unemployed youths all too easily persuaded to discover their inner Caradog and die at Gallipoli or Ypres.

Abergele County High School's performance (1904)
Welsh youths' identification with Caradog's defiance was made wholly irresistible by the popularity of David Lloyd George, the eloquent Chancellor of the Exchequer, who had passed the radical 1910 ‘People’s Budget’.  In 1911 he stage-managed the theatrical ‘investiture’ of the then Prince of Wales at Caernarvon Castle, stressing the Welsh origins, through the Tudors, of the crowns of Britain and the Indian Empire. This new Caractacus talked the British Empire into the war and in 1916 became the first Welsh-speaking, non-university-educated Briton to become Prime Minister.  If you contemplate the number of Welshmen who lost their lives 1914-1918, it is difficult not to weep after reading this little Caradog-themed song, used during the recruitment campaign in Lloyd George's homeland:

There were gallant little Welshmen long ago,
Such as Caesar and his stalwart warriors found:
They could then with steady courage meet the foe,
And for home and freedom boldly stand their ground.
Brave Caractacus for Britain fought his best,
And Boadicea, too, the British warrior Queen;
Their spirit lives, though they are long at rest,
Our love of freedom living ever green.
They have proved their ancient valour is not dead,
A foremost where the fiercest fight prevails,
For liberty their dearest blood is shed,
For no Cowards have been found yet made in Wales

'Tis defence and not defiance,
'Tis for freedom not for fame,
'Tis on right we place reliance,
Crying better death than shame.
When our Country calls us forward,
When the enemy assails,
There are loyal hearts to answer,
In gallant little Wales! 

Welsh National War Memorial, Cathays Park, Cardiff

*Lloyd Llewellyn Jones, Chris Pelling, Mai Musie, Suzanne Roberts' husband, Margaret Buckingham Jones: Diolch yn fawr!

No comments:

Post a Comment