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Welsh%20identity%20in%20wartime

by Dr Martin Johnes, University of Wales Swansea

Some historians have seen the Second World War as the period when Britishness was at its height. This is true but it was not at the expense of people's Welshness. Throughout modern history most Welsh people had a dual sense of nationality that drew on both Wales and Britain. The Second World War was no different.

There were still many, especially in rural Wales, without radios. There were also over 40,000 Welsh people who could not speak English.

Britishness

Many of the experiences of everyday life during the war crossed regional, cultural and class barriers in Britain and created a strong shared sense of purpose and experience. Rationing, bombing, conscription, the loss of a son or husband - all these trials and tribulations fell on rich and poor, Welsh and English alike. Money and social position still mattered in civilian life and the armed forces, but the sense of solidarity across Britain was strong, even if it was not always matched by reality.

Central to the idea of the united British nation was the BBC. Its news service, prime ministerial broadcasts and comedies all attracted huge audiences and were a key part of the shared British wartime experience. However, there were still many, especially in rural Wales, without radios. There were also over 40,000 Welsh people who could not speak English. The BBC did broadcast some twenty minutes a day in Welsh, which was mostly news, talks, children's programmes and religious services. This helped ease some of the annoyance caused by the BBC broadcasters who spoke of England's rather than Britain's war.

Welsh was even spoken on the battlefield and in POW camps.

Welshness

The exclusion from and annoyance at the BBC illustrates that the idea of British solidarity was often stronger than the reality. It also shows how Welsh identity lived on and that people were fighting for both Wales and Britain. Welsh was even spoken on the battlefield and in POW camps. This was partly just because it was many people's first language but Welsh was also used to confuse the enemy.

At the end of the war people celebrated by singing both God Save the Queen and Hen Wlad fy Nhadau. They flew the Welsh dragon alongside the Union Jack. On VE day the Western Mail published a page looking proudly at what Welsh people had contributed to the victory on home and abroad. Megan Lloyd George told the Anglesey Eisteddfod that the Welshmen who had fought in the war were 'worthy successors of the heroes of Wales, such as Llewelyn and Owain Glyndwr, and others who fought not only for the independence of Wales, but of nations as well'.

The war was deeply divisive for Plaid Cymru.

Nationalist opposition

Not all the Welsh people saw British and Welsh identities as compatible. There was a small but vocal group of Welsh nationalists who thought the British war effort was destroying Welsh nationhood. They complained about evacuees introducing English manners and the English language into rural Wales. They bemoaned the conscription of Welsh girls into English factories and were horrified at the forced eviction of a Welsh-speaking community from Mynnydd Epynt in Breconshire after the War Office requisitioned the land.

The government recognised Welsh nationalism as valid grounds for conscientious objection, although this was not always put into practice. Of the two dozen or so people who refused to be conscripted on Welsh nationalist grounds, around half ended up in prison and the rest were fined. Those nationalists, like Gwynfor Evans, who refused to serve on religious grounds were treated more leniently.

The war was deeply divisive for Plaid Cymru. While some in the party wondered whether a German victory would be better for Wales, others supporters were hostile to Nazism and served in the British armed forces. Saunders Lewis' alleged anti-Semitism and fascist sympathies became a target for opponents of the party and an embarrassment to some of its supporters.

The British Secret Services monitored Plaid Cymru. But only six members of the party were on a police and MI5 list of 156 potential traitors in Wales to be arrested immediately in the event of an invasion. The state's lenient view towards Welsh nationalism was evident in 1944 when the Regional Commissioner in Cardiff reviewed complaints that the newspaper Baner ac Amserau Cymru was hostile to the war effort. It was decided not to take action 'on the grounds that the activities of the Welsh Nationalists, though objectionable, were comparatively trivial' and that the publicity that would arise from suppressing the paper was the only means by which Welsh nationalism could actually grow.

The future

Although the war did not damage individual's sense of Welsh identity, it did damage Welsh nationalism. During and after the war, Nazism was widely seen as evidence that all nationalism was dangerous. Plaid Cymru was, however, right that the war did much to undermine the traditional Welsh way of life that centred on the Welsh language and Nonconformity. Whether they stayed in Wales or not, the war extended the Welsh people's horizons beyond Wales and its traditions. It also created a strong desire to build a better world, where everyone had access to a job, healthcare and education. There were few who believed that Wales could achieve that alone, not matter how proud of being Welsh they were.


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