The outbreak of war against Germany in August 1914 brought with it a huge amount of war hysteria. Thousands of young men flocked to enlist in the army, all eager to do their bit before the conflict ended.
Everyone thought the fighting would be over by Christmas and even the German Kaiser announced that his troops would be back home "before the leaves fall from the trees." In Britain, patriotism was never stronger, crowds filling every city streets singing Rule Britannia and God Save The King.
There was another side to this hysteria, however. Anyone with a German name or with Germanic connections was vilified and abused and there was an almost morbid fear of spies, enemy agents and fifth columnists operating in the country. Nowhere was this better illustrated than in the three main ports and trading towns of south Wales – Cardiff, Penarth and Barry.
Five German ships, in dock at Cardiff, were seized on the outbreak of war. That was quite understandable, even though the ships and their crews had been using Cardiff for some years. The vessels were searched for concealed weapons, although little was found, and their cargoes impounded. Familiarity was one thing, war was something completely different.
On 7 August 1914, just three days after the declaration of war, came the first intimation of "spy-phobia" in the Cardiff area. The South Wales Echo trumpeted the news:
"During the night a man was challenged at Llanishen Reservoir by one of the armed men on guard. He refused to answer, and took to his heels. He was shot at but got away."
The man was, in all probability, a poacher rather than a saboteur or spy but the incident showed, beyond any doubt, that the authorities were willing to go to extreme lengths to protect vital instillations such as the town reservoir.
Just three days later a young school teacher, Edward Thomas Davies, was arrested and charged after he was caught making sketches of the area close to the fort in Barry Island. It had been declared a prohibited area and Davies was found guilty of making drawings that could be of considerable value to the enemy – although the issue of quite how he was going to get his drawings to the Zeppelin commanders in Germany was never explored.
In Penarth the fort on Penarth Head had been quickly reinforced four days before war broke out. At the same time, a large body of policemen moved into the docks, remaining there on duty day and night. They were each armed with rifles and several rounds of ammunition.
Once war was declared, all ships entering the dock – and Cardiff and Barry Docks as well – were stopped outside the harbour entrances, boarded and searched. Clearly, nobody was taking chances, something that was reassuring to everyone in the three towns. The fear of enemy interference or involvement on shore, however, remained very strong.
On 27 August the Penarth Times newspaper led with a report of an incident that was guaranteed to have all the residents of the sleepy seaside town trembling in their shoes:
"The usual peaceful calm of the residents near St Augustine's Church was disturbed on Wednesday morning by the sudden firing of shots - - - It appears that a sentry on duty near the church was fired on by someone who shielded himself behind the bushes in the enclosure facing St Augustine's Road. The sentry quickly responded with a couple of shots in the direction whence the shot was fired but the culprit managed to make good his escape."
Once the alarm had been given the whole area around the church – overlooking the dock – was searched but nothing was found. An overactive imagination, shadows flitting past guttering street lamps in the darkness, a prank by one of the sentry's colleagues – or a real live enemy agent? We will never know.
At the end of August a strange man was seen walking along Windsor Road in the town, asking passers-by about the deployment of troops in the area. He was followed, then chased, by a man called Beer.
The pursuit took them out of Penarth and into the Riverside area of Cardiff, where Mr Beer lost his quarry in the warren of tiny streets. Again, the identity of the man – if he even existed – remains unknown but, by his report, and possibly his actions, Mr Beer did manage to achieve his 15 minutes of fame.
Such incidents did not stop as 1914 eased slowly in the new year. In December 1914 a man was seen "prowling" near the power station in the docks. Challenged, the man turned and fired a gun, twice, in the direction of the soldier. As might be expected, the prowler made good his escape in the confusion that followed the shots.
While many of the stories about spies and enemy agents were undoubtedly figments of the imagination, the anti-German feeling in the country was very real – and very hurtful, as this letter to the Penarth Times clearly shows:
"Dear Sir – I have been taken for a German many times and I am very sorry to see that the public is under a mis-apprehension as to my nationality. I was born in Mons, Belgium. I came to Cardiff twenty seven years ago. My wife is a native of Wales. After being so many years in Great Britain, with the British public, I call myself a British patriot. Yours truly, Jules Guldentops."
The real tragedy of Mr Guldentops' letter is not that he was being persecuted by people but that he felt he had to write the statement in the first place.
As the war progressed and the casualty figures grew ever longer, spy scares at home diminished somewhat. But in the early days of 1914 and 1915 such worries were incredibly strong, not just in Cardiff, Penarth and Barry but right across the country.