George Davies: The man who wanted people to be 'islands of peace'

George Davies in the 1940s Image copyright Dr Jen Llywelyn

While many men who returned from World War One were never the same again, some who did not even leave these shores were also deeply affected.

George Maitland Lloyd Davies was one of 16,000 conscientious objectors who refused to fight and was put in prison.

Some describe him as Wales' greatest peace campaigner, an MP with no political allegiances who just wanted conflicts around the world to end.

But 100 years after the Military Conscription Act came into force, he is portrayed as not quite the saintly figure some remember him as, but as someone haunted by feelings he had let people down.

Dr Jen Llywelyn's biography Pilgrim of Peace explores the life of a man born into a wealthy family in Liverpool's Welsh community in 1880, before working as a bank manager.

It was conflict, though, that would define him.

He joined the Territorial Army in 1908 with his brother Stanley, but when war broke out, he realised he would not be able to kill anyone.

Despite being given alternative service as a shepherd on the Llyn peninsula, he continued preaching about "the undesirability of war" and was put in prison.

"The system was appalling and you weren't allowed to communicate with anyone and that could mean making eye contact. If you transgressed, you were put in solitary confinement," Dr Llywelyn, from Ceredigion, said.

Image copyright Dr Jen LLywelyn
Image caption George Davies, behind the gun barrel, in the Territorial Army
Image copyright Hulton - Archive
Image caption Many of those who refused to fight were sentenced to hard labour
Image copyright Hulton Archive
Image caption An offensive at Gallipoli on the Turkish Peninsula, where an estimated 25,000 British troops were among a total of 130,000 who died

His brother was sent to fight in Gallipoli and Dr Llywelyn said his letters home were "heartbreaking", moving her to tears.

"He was never the same again, it wrecked him mentally," she said.

"There were comparisons with how some conscientious objectors came out of prison.

"They had the same post-traumatic stress disorder that soldiers came home with. It was devastating."

Researching Mr Davies's life has been a major part of Dr Llywelyn's since 1999, when a university history project threw up his name.

"I remember I saw a photo of him and his face was so memorable. Everyone that knew him said it. He had a very warm face, kind, humorous, sad. All human emotions were in his face," she said.

Drawn to him, she based her PhD work on Mr Davies- finding a number of strands that ran through his life.

The first was a family history of mental illness - he suffered a number of breakdowns - including one in 1923 during his successful election campaign for the University of Wales seat.

Image copyright Dr Jen Llywelyn
Image caption George Davies (top of the steps) with a group who transformed a coal dump into a park at Rhosllannerchrugog in 1932
Image caption Gwynfor Evans told Dr Llywelyn that while Mr Davies never joined a political party, he was "very pro-Wales"

Another was that Mr Davies "loved Wales deeply", according to friend Gwynfor Evans, Plaid Cymru's first MP.

He campaigned and took part in many protests, including one against a bombing school being built at Penyberth in 1936.

Academic Dr Meredydd Evans saw him speak and told Dr Llywelyn he "oozed goodness".

"Not in a sickly, syrupy way, he just couldn't be bad," she said.

Being sympathetic to the views of all men was a big part of this, which is perhaps why he never joined a political party.

This outlook may have been shaped in some way by his time at Knutsford Prison, Cheshire, spending time with men involved in the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland.

The experience led Prime Minister Lloyd George to send him to negotiate with Eamon de Valera during the country's war of independence.

Leader of the Indian independence movement, Mahatma Gandhi, also admired his essays and requested a walk with him in London to garner his thoughts.

"He never condemned anyone who went to fight, just war," Dr Llywelyn said.

"George would say 'the main enemy is enmity' perhaps those views are just as relevant today with a lot of anti-Muslim sentiment."

Image copyright Dr Jen Llywelyn
Image caption Dr Jen Llywelyn cut a 122,000 word PhD thesis on Mr Davies down to 100,000 words and then to 80,000 for her biography
Image caption Dr Meredydd Evans, who died in 2015, described Mr Davies as "a noble man, very funny but with huge integrity"

Despite this, she said Mr Davies was "not the saintly figure" that some books have portrayed him as.

"Depression undermined what he wanted to do and be. He always wanted to do well and serve people well as an MP.

"But he felt he let people down. He always thought he let people down. This followed him through his life, he never felt he was good enough."

This extended to his family life and Dr Llywelyn said his biggest regret was his "difficult" relationship with his wife and daughter.

"He said at the end of his life that he stopped thinking about world peace, he knew it wouldn't happen.

"But if everyone becomes a little island of peace, it could spread a ripple," she added.

He died in 1949 after hanging himself at Denbigh Hospital, aged 69, and Dr Llywelyn said she felt he had simply "had enough".

While his views may have affected many expected to fight in World War Two, he left an everlasting impression on Dr Llywelyn.

"I do love him. I don't know how people cope if they do a PhD on someone they don't like, such as Stalin. I'm glad I got George."

Image copyright Dr Jen Llywelyn
Image caption Dr Jen Llywelyn

Related Topics

More on this story