On August 4, 1914, at 11pm, Britain declared war on Germany.
Commemorations to mark the centenary of the beginning of the First World War, in which an estimated 40,000 Welshmen died, have begun. Richard Gurner reports.
The War to End All Wars
At least 10 million dead, 700,000 for the UK, and a further estimated 20 million injured, the First World War was, as writer HG Wells put it “the war to end war”.
The flashpoint for the beginning of the Great War was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo.
The heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was killed by Gavrilo Princip, a Slav nationalist. Austria-Hungary blamed Serbia for the killing and because of the differing political alliances of Europe, the incident soon grew into a full-blown war.
In retaliation and urged on by Germany, Austria invaded Serbia, which then called on the Russians for help.
Germany, allied with the Austro-Hungarian Empire and keen to expand its territory, declared war on Russia and France and also invaded Belgium and Luxemburg.
Because of Germany’s invasion of Belgium, Britain declared war on Germany on August 4 at 11pm.
So began a bloody four year conflict that many thought would be over by Christmas.
New exhibition explores the cost of war in the county borough
A major new exhibition to mark the centenary of the start of the First World War has been launched at the Winding House museum in New Tredegar.
The exhibition ‘Our Duty to Bear – the First World War and Caerphilly County Borough’, explores how the war affected men, women and children across the county borough.
From the Western Front to the Home Front, the exhibition explores local experiences of the War through carefully curated objects, images, film and sound. Personal and poignant loans from the wider local community form a central role in the exhibition, which will run until the autumn next year.
Visitors to the Winding House will have the opportunity to discover the experiences of the people from Caerphilly County Borough during the First World War and how the war impacted on their lives.
From the young Caerphilly pilot in the Royal Flying Corps, to the escaped prisoner of war from New Tredegar; from the mother from Fleur de Lys with two sons both killed at the age of 19, to the conscientious objector Morgan Jones; and from the Blackwood miner who joined the tunnelling regiment, to the young girl from Tirphil writing to her daddy to ask him to come home from the war.
Discover also what life was like was for those at home – knitting ‘comforts’, sending food parcels and experiencing changing roles for women in work and society.
Cllr Ken James, Cabinet Member for Regeneration, Sustainable Development and Planning, said: “Just over a year ago during the early stages of the planning process, the Winding House team sent out a plea to the wider local community for poignant, treasured items associated with the First World War that could be loaned to this outstanding collection, and the response was truly overwhelming.
“What the team, supported very much by a large group of volunteers and local residents, has achieved in delivering this exhibition is a series of extremely powerful and emotive displays which truly capture the experiences and struggles faced by local people 100 years ago.
“I would encourage as many people as possible to come along to explore and learn about the personal stories of more than 60 families from across Caerphilly County Borough during the First World War in this extremely emotive exhibition.”
The exhibition also includes original film footage from the First World War period, as well as a reconstructed trench section and recollections of the Battle of the Somme from a local soldier – in his own words – from a recording made in the 1970s.
Staff and pupils from nearby Lewis School Pengam have also played a key role in the creation of the exhibition; within the collection are a series of letters written by former pupils to their old teacher, Arthur Wright during the First World War. Current pupils at the school have recorded readings of these letters aloud, which also feature in the exhibition.
‘Our Duty to Bear – the First World War and Caerphilly County Borough’ is part of the Imperial War Museum’s First World War Centenary Partnership.
• The Winding House is open Tuesday to Sunday – 10am until 5pm, and is open.Admission is free and for more information visit www.windinghouse.co.uk or call 01443 822 666.
Morgan Jones – The Conscientious Objector
Morgan Jones was well-respected school teacher and an Independent Labour Party councillor sitting on Gelligaer Urban District Council.
He was also an Absolutist Conscientious Objector – someone who refused to fight and contribute to the war effort.
Jones (pictured below) faced a tribunal in Bargoed, made up of fellow councillors, to explain himself.
He told the hearing that he was a “socialist” and was “resolutely opposed to all warfare”.
The tribunal ruled that Jones could be excluded from military service, but not from alternative service.
Jones did not accept this and appealed unsuccessfully. He was arrested and imprisoned for his beliefs.
He was first sent to an army training camp in North Wales before being transferred to the notorious Wormwood Scrubs prison.
It was there in 1916, suffering from psychological and physical strain in appalling conditions, that he changed his political stance from Absolutist Conscientious Objector to Alternativist Conscientious Objector.
This meant little when war eventually ended and his previous stance meant he could not go back to teaching. Instead he worked as a labourer in a local colliery.
In 1921, Alfred Onions, the pro-war Labour MP for Caerphilly, died. Jones won the support of the local miners and secured the Labour nomination. The following month saw Jones win the by-election, becoming the first conscientious objector to be elected to Parliament.
Robert Phillips – The Escapee
On the outbreak of war, Robert Phillips, a collier from New Tredgar, enlisted in the Welsh Regiment.
He saw action at the first battle of Ypres where he was injured in a gas attack. In 1915 he was captured by German forces and was taken to a camp in Munster and then moved to Homberg.
Forced to work by his captors underground, Private Phillips (pictured above), along with other prisoners, hatched a daring escape plan.
The other prisoners reasoned it was too risky, but Phillips had had enough.
After studying the shift patterns of the guards, he noticed a gap and one night simply walked out of the camp.
Travelling through Germany and finding shelter with a Dutch family in the Netherlands, Phillips eventually made his way home. He arrived in Cardiff on Christmas Day 1916.
On his return to New Tredegar he was given a hero’s welcome with thousands turning out to greet him. The local community presented him with an inscribed gold watch.
However, he soon discovered that his clothes and his bicycle he had left at his lodgings had been sold because nobody expected his return.
Shell-shocked and injured he did not return to battle and was discharged from the army in 1919.
After a long recuperation, he went back to work at Bedwas Colliery.
After surviving the war, he was killed underground in Bedwas when a pit prop collapsed.
Phillips’ story is just one of many featured in the exhibition at the Winding House Museum – on the site where he originally worked as a collier.
His story has come to light after a painstaking 20 year research project by his grand-daughter Lynda Osborne.
She spent months transcribing his war diary for her father, Robert’s son, to read and also tracked down the hero’s medals – originally sold by a poverty-stricken family.
Mrs Osborne, 64, from Hengoed, said the discovery of her grandfather’s story had been emotional.
She said: “It’s been marvellous. I never thought I would get this far.
“I started doing the research because of father – he was only eight.
“He had always wanted to know what had happened. He was proud of him because of he was an escapee but he never knew the full story, only bits and pieces. It has taken 20 years to put it all together.”