Noah was a Welshman, built his ark of wood;

Cutting down the Welsh oak, found it very good.

Solomon, a Welshman, got his tin from Wales.

Caractacus licked all the world because he drank Welsh ales.

[Part of a popular poem quoted in The London Kelt (1896) from an 1856 source1]


An important component of the National Eisteddfod of 1894, held in Caernarfon, was an evening concert presided over by the 31-year-old David Lloyd George. Since 1890 he had been Member of Parliament for Carnarvon Boroughs. During the interval, Lloyd George delivered an address in Welsh, ‘pointing out that the eisteddfod was a proof that Wales followed the muse and song when other countries in Europe had sunk into barbarity.2 The climax of the concert was orchestral, ‘the first performance of a new overture, Caractacus, composed by Mr J. H. Roberts’, which was ‘accorded a hearty reception’.3

If we fast-forward 22 years, to June 17th 1916, we discover another patriotic Caractacus-themed performance in Wales to which the discussion will return at the conclusion of this chapter: the notice under the title ‘Brynamman’ printed in Herald of Wales and Monmouthshire Recorder on that day (2):

Private Gwyn Williams. Royal Welsh Fusiliers, of Llandeilo Road, Brynamman, has been killed in action. He was 23 years of age. A brother, Private Griff J. Williams, is serving in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers. Five performances of Caractacus were given by the Lower Brynamman Council School children at the schools last week, under the supervision of Mr. Willie Thomas, C.M., the choir being conducted by Mr. John. Morgan, A.L.C.M., C.M., both of the staff.

About a month later, another local newspaper, after reporting the death in action of a further Brynamman man, Priv. Morgan Morgans of the Gordon Highlanders, and the wounding of a third, Priv. Tom Parry, refers to the same school theatrical. The Brynamman branch of the British Red Cross Society, active as never before in the relief of wounded servicemen, had passed a vote of thanks to the committee and choristers responsible for Caractacus in gratitude for their donation of the proceeds.4

The recruitment drive in Wales had been extraordinarily successful. One historian describes it as ‘incredible to this day that the Welsh responded in such large numbers to the call to arms’.5 The 38th (Welsh) Division, popularly known as ‘Lloyd George’s army’, had proved particularly attractive to the working-class men in both the Welsh-speaking North, where unemployment was an acute problem, and the industrialised South."

Imperial ideology is a messy business. It is at its most complicated when an empire which has taken centuries to develop is still in the process of adding to its roll-call of ethnic, national and class identities both near the centre of metropolitan power and faraway across the planet. Such was the situation in which the British Empire found itself during its late 19th-century and Edwardian heyday. Historians of sport have noted the central role played by rugby ‘in the popular incorporation of Welsh indigenous and British Imperial personas into the new definition of Welshness’, a definition carefully crafted to transcend class identities, which emerged at this time.7 But the classical figure in whom this tension was crystallised is the chieftain of the 1st century ce, known to the ancient Greeks and Romans as Caratacus or Caractacus, and to Welsh-speakers as Caradog.8

< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >