The outbreak of war

By Empire Day 1914, nerves about the possibility of war were becoming more apparent. When the children of Swansea celebrated this event, several thousand marched in costume beneath bright sunshine on the Swansea Sands, singing ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, ‘God Bless the Prince of Wales’ and the National

Anthem as they saluted the Union Jack. At the Christ Church Infants’ School in Rodney Street, children performed speeches and tableaux costumed as Britannia, Florence Nightingale with nurses, soldiers and John Bull’s children, but the boys of Terrace Road School turned to ancient history. Their pageant enacted ‘the taking of Caractacus to Rome’ in full historical costumes.43

Britain declared war on Germany on August 4th 1914. Given his political views and experience as loyal servant of the British Empire, it comes as little surprise to find Elgar’s librettist Acworth, on the Welsh border that month, delivering a ‘stirring lecture’ on the reasons for the necessity for fighting ‘Prussia’ (as he still called it): Prussia had ‘throughout history proved herself to be of all States the most voracious, and of all States the least to be trusted. Greed and falsehood are writ large upon her action for many a hundred years past’.44 And at national level, the politician who had worked hardest to convince Britons to go to war was the Welshman often himself described as a druid, bard, and reincarnation or scion of Caractacus, Lloyd George himself. Although scholars argue about the extent of his commitment to the ‘moral argument’ that Belgium needed to be defended against Germany, by 1911 he had become an interventionist who helped to plan the policies ‘and ministerial changes that committed Britain to immediate participation in war and a continental strategy in 1914’.4’ For Lloyd George, as for most British political leaders, the important point was not Britain’s possible obligations under international law to defend Belgium, but the imperative to avoid a defeat in France leading to a Europe dominated by Germany.

Once war was declared, the Caractacus performances in Wales became transparently connected with recruitment, morale and fund-raising for the war effort. The Trecastle section of a Brecon newspaper proudly reported in January 1915 that a local youth, Private John Evans, of the 3rd Battalion Welsh Regiment, had been seen marching at Cardiff; the journalist reports,

Private Evans looked well in his uniform, and appeared fit to meet any number of Germans. I hear that the Recruiting Committee, appointed lately for Traianmawr parish, are doing excellent work. On Friday evening last a most successful concert was held at the old National School, Trecastle, in aid of the local Band of Hope and the Belgian Relief Fund. The room was crowded to its utmost capacity, and everyone thoroughly enjoyed the entertainment.

The programme’s climax consisted, inevitably, of a play called Caractacus, followed by the singing of all four - Belgian, French, Russian and British - National Anthems.46

In the summer of 1915, Caractacus turns up specifically in the context of fund-raising for the war effort. The Pentrepoeth Girls’ School, Morriston, had spent ten months ‘engaged in knitting comforts—scarves, socks, helmets etc. for the soldiers and sailors’. They staged a special set of performances to raise ‘funds to carry on the work’. They needed ‘wool for making further comforts, which they intended sending to the children’s fathers who were at the front. Mrs H.D. Williams read a letter which she had received from a soldier at the front showing how the men appreciated the comforts sent to them’. The programme consisted of tableaux representing ‘Shakespeare’s Birthday’ and ‘Empire Day’ supplemented by ‘A Ballad of the Ranks’ and a ‘Pageant of Famous Women’. But the main item on the programme was the ‘playlet’ entitled Caractacus in Rome.47

The children’s choir of Gwaun Cae Gurwen performed a work entitled Caractacus early in 1916.48 There were two performances of a ‘cantata’ called Caractacus by the Hermon Juvenile Choir in December 1917.49 But after conscription was imposed in 1916, and the war staggered to its gloomy conclusion, the full extent of the slaughter began to sink into the national consciousness. Predictably, the craze for Caractacus theatricals waned. None is recorded in 1918, and just one 1919 performance of the operetta is recorded in Barry Port, by the Zion Choir in the Parish Hall, in May.s<) An awareness that the Caractacus tale had less relevance to everyday life in postwar Wales seems however to have bypassed the Breconshire poet Clifford King, who in 1917 claimed to be ‘well known throughout Great Britain, India, Australasia and America by his poetical compositions’ and ‘Wales’ greatest poet to-day and England’s also’. Amongst honours conferred on him was the honorary Bardic title of‘Rhyd-y-Godor’, by the late Archdruid of Wales, Clwydfardd.51

In 1920 King published his poems, which included earlier works such as a ‘Coronation Ode’ and an ‘Ode on the Investiture of H.R.H. the Prince of Wales at Carnarvon’. But these were now supplemented by the ‘Historical and Patriotic drama Caractacus'.52 This had been conceived before the war ended, in 1917, and was dedicated to Lloyd George by his special and personal permission when he was still Prime Minister. King was emphatic that Caractacus was a native of Siluria in South Wales, and informs his reader that he has ‘(for alike patriotic, imperial and dramatic reasons—indeed, as a Silurian indigene personally) modified the historically-recorded speech of Caractacus before Claudius’:’3

The torch I’ve lit shall ne’er extinguished be,

But shall be handed on through centuries

As Brythons each fall in life’s fevered race.

The drama concludes with the British National Anthem followed by one verse of Land of My Fathers, Hen IVIad Fy Nhadau.54

For all King’s regressive rhetoric, the story of Edwardian Welsh Caractacus performances has a tragic ending. The ancient Briton’s legend was actively used as propaganda in the recruitment drive in Wales amongst the poorest, Welshspeaking populations of the north and west of Wales. Their identity as men of ‘gallant little Wales’, most famously articulated in the verses quoted below, composed by two Talgarth residents, was explicitly used to foment identification with the suffering people of another ‘gallant little’ nation, Belgium. The entire poem, which continues to list previous battles in which Welsh soldiers have distinguished themselves by dying in the Crimean and Zulu wars, was printed in The Brecon County Times Neath Gazette and General Advertiser on 26th November 1914(2) with the explicitly stated ‘hope that they may be used to stimulate recruiting’:

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.


‘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!

Yet gallant little Welshmen suffered thousands of life-changing injuries and fatalities in the trenches. The miners were held to have suffered most, being recklessly courageous fighters.55

The ideological utility of school performances of plays and operettas featuring Caractacus is most painfully expressed in a third newspaper article reporting that staging we noted earlier, by the Banwen Council School scholars at Brynamman in June 1916, when the death toll of local men was mounting month by month. The Amman Valley Chronicle and East Carmarthen News for 15th June 1916 (5) is full of praise for the emotional impact of the show, enhanced especially by the acting of R.J. Jones as the Arch-Druid and Miss Sally Williams as Cartismundua, who with ‘a withering gaze and hatred convulsing her whole body she thwarted those who had dared to wound her pride’:

Being under the shadows of the greatest war the world has ever seen it was very timely, and gave an opportunity to compare the old methods of warring with the advanced but more destructive methods of to-day. The interpretations were so realistic, and at times so absorbing, that we were unawares borne reminiscently to the Roman times. The audiences were fairly carried back to the actual period on which the work was based, and found themselves captives within that epoch until the end ... . All the weapons and addresses were the handicraft of the children and were excellently done, and proved very suitable.

Small Welsh children across the class spectrum were still recreating ancient weapons as their elder brothers, inspired by the example of Caractacus, were dying in droves in the trenches of France.

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