Every year, we observe two minutes silence at 11am, on the 11th day of the 11th month to mark the moment The Armistice began in 1918. Today, as we once again take time to remember the sacrifices made by servicemen and women in the armed forces, we’re sharing some of the commemorative titles we’ve published during the last 40 years. Lest we forget.
Men Who Played The Game by Mike Rees
The Great War and the resulting unimaginable loss of life had a profound effect on servicemen and those at home, perhaps never more so than in the case of sportsmen, who fought ‘battles’ on the pitch or in the ring according to rules devised for fair play. Men Who Played the Game by historian Mike Rees explores the development and importance of sport in Britain and the Empire leading up to the outbreak of the First World War, and the part played by sportsmen in the conflict. The book opens with revealing chapters on how various sports – the fans, the governing bodies and the sportsmen themselves – reacted to the outbreak of war. This book is an invaluable guide to the relationship of sport and war, to the state of sporting Britain, and a moving testimony to the fate of so many sportsmen.
Robert Graves: War Poems draws together all of Robert Graves’s poems about the Great War. It consists of his first two major published volumes: Over the Brazier (1916) and Fairies and Fusiliers (1917) as well as the previously unpublished 1918 manuscript, ‘The Patchwork Flag’. Critical and contextual introductions by editor Charles Mundye provide biographical and historical context, locating and ranking Graves amongst the other soldier poets of the First World War: Sassoon, Owen, Thomas, Rosenberg et al.
Alun Lewis (1915-1944) was the most prominent writer of World War Two, in poetry and short fiction. He was born in the industrial valleys of south Wales and grew up during the deep poverty of the Depression. Set against this background and war, Alun, Gweno & Freda is an account of Lewis’s life and his writing, through the particular prism of his relationships with his wife, Gweno, and with Freda Aykroyd, an expatriate in India whose house provided respite for British officers on leave. The book argues that Lewis’s charged relationships with these two women were the key to both his writing and his mental health. It also explores the circumstances surrounding Lewis’ death by a single shot from his own gun and contributes to the ongoing debate about whether this was an accident or suicide.
And You, Helen by Deryn Rees-Jones and Charlotte Hodes
This specially commissioned collaboration between poet Deryn Rees-Jones and artist Charlotte Hodes explores the life of Helen Thomas, wife of the poet Edward Thomas who was killed at the battle of Arras in 1917. Rees-Jones’s sequence takes Thomas’s only poem addressed directly to his wife, ‘And you, Helen’ as its starting point, and imagines Helen after Edward’s death. Complemented by a meditative essay on the complexities of the relationship between the poet and his family, and on war, grief, marriage and bereavement more generally, this is a critical exploration through a personal lens.
This scholarly volume offers insight into the highly influential writer and poet Edward Thomas, through his correspondence with Walter de la Mare: 318 letters from between 1906 and 1917.Poet to Poet offers a moving epistolary account of the developing personal and poetic relationship of both poets, with biographical revelations, and increased understanding of their influence on each other and key points relating to their poetic processes.
Today, November 11th 2018, marks the centenary of the Armistice and the ending of the Great War. In commemoration, author and historian Mike Rees looks at the sacrifices made by rugby players from his home town of Newport, revealing details about their sporting and personal lives, as well as their brave and tragic last stands.
Rees is the author of Men Who Played the Game, which explores the development and importance of sport in Britain and the Empire leading up to the outbreak of the First World War, and the part played by sportsmen in the conflict.
The Great War was conducted on a scale hitherto unknown and its consequences remain with us to this day. Such were the losses, over 750,000 in Britain alone, that the idea of a ‘lost generation’ is firmly established in the collective memory. The existence of war graves, carefully maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, throughout Western Europe and beyond serve as a reminder of the sacrifices made in this cataclysmic war. Memorials to the missing, their bodies never found, both move and shock us when we visit Thiepval on the Somme, with 73,367 names and the Menin Gate in Ypres with 54,896. Given the scale of these losses it is clear that communities throughout Britain were affected. As we now reach the centenary of the Armistice that brought to an end this dreadful conflict, it is an appropriate time to see just how those badly those communities were affected. Here I will look at the wartime stories from one community in particular – rugby players from my home city, Newport.
Newport Athletic Club has always remembered its war dead. The memorial gates at Rodney Parade contain the names of 86 members of the club who lost their lives in the Great War, among them 6 rugby internationals who represented Wales in what was to become their national sport. Playing in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century these men, to a greater or lesser extent, played a significant role in the evolution of the game in Wales. More importantly, they made the greatest sacrifice of all after the First World War erupted.
The first of these men, Richard Garnons Williams, holds a special place in Welsh rugby history as a member of the first ever Wales XV to play international rugby. This historic event took place on 19th February 1881 at Blackheath and Wales were soundly beaten. Garnons Williams, a Newport forward, never played for Wales again.
Born in Llowes, Radnorshire in 1856, one of ten children, Garnons was educated at Magdalen College School, Oxford before studying at Trinity College, Cambridge. From here he progressed to the Royal Military College, Sandhurst and, on completion forged a successful military career with the Royal Fusiliers (City of London Regiment). This was followed by service with the South Wales Borderers (1st Brecknockshire Volunteer Battalion) where he reached the rank of lieutenant colonel. Garnons retired from regular service in 1892, although he did continue to serve in a voluntary capacity until 1906. This determination to follow a military career undoubtedly curtailed his rugby career, details of which are somewhat sketchy. We do know, however, that he played for Cambridge University, Brecon and Newport, from where he won his solitary cap.
On the outbreak of war in 1914 Garnons, by now aged 58, re-joined the British Army and returned to the Royal Fusiliers, the 12th Battalion. He was killed on 27th September 1915 leading his battalion at Loos when he was shot in the head following an attack on German trenches. The battalion had become exposed on each flank and Garnons had just given the order to retreat. He is remembered on the Loos Memorial.
Garnons, at 59, was the eldest of the 13 Welsh internationals to make the ultimate sacrifice in The Great War. He left a wife, Alice Jessie and a daughter, Barbara, who also served in France and lost her husband on the Western Front in 1917. A brother, Mark Penry, died when the HMS Hampshire was sunk by a mine in 1916.
Our second Newport international was one of the cities’ greatest all round sportsmen, the Wales half back, Louis Phillips. Lou was born in Stow Hill in 1878 and was later a resident of Gold Tops, a prosperous residential area in the town. He made his mark as a swimmer, cricketer and international standard water polo player but it is as a rugby player that he is best remembered. A product of Monmouth Boys Grammar School, he won 4 caps and played half back, partnering club mate Llewellyn Lloyd in the Triple Crown winning team of 1900, the year that heralded the beginning of Wales first ‘golden era’. Lou looked set for a long and distinguished run in this emerging Welsh team but a serious knee injury sustained playing against Scotland in 1901 brought his brief rugby career to a premature close. A qualified architect by profession, Lou continued to display his sporting ability by becoming an international golfer and twice Welsh Amateur Golf Champion.
On the outbreak of war Lou joined the 20th (Service) Battalion Royal Fusiliers where, after first refusing a commission, he served as a sergeant. On the night of 14th March 1916, while out with a wiring party near Cambrin, France, Lou was fatally shot in the chest. The loss of this immensely talented 38 year old was keenly felt in the sporting circles of South Wales.
Probably the best known rugby international to lose his life in the war was Charles Meyrick Pritchard. Charlie was born in September 1882 in Newport and attended Newport Intermediate School and Long Ashton School, Bristol before taking his place in the family wine and spirit business. A well-built, thirteen and a half stone backrow forward, Charlie made his Newport debut in January 1902. By the following year Charlie was a travelling reserve with the Wales team and in 1904 he won the first of his 14 caps in the game against Ireland. In December 1905 Charlie had his finest rugby moment when he was the stand out player in the Welsh victory over the All Blacks. Known for his all-round skills, it was his deadly tackling that drew praise in this momentous victory. Fellow Newport hero, George Travers said that Charlie “knocked ‘em down like ninepins”. Following this historic achievement, Charlie went on to represent Wales until 1910, although he did miss a number of matches through injury, and was part of the Grand Slam winning side of 1908. He also captained his club between 1906 and 1909.
When war broke out, Charlie was quick to enlist and joined the South Wales Borderers as a temporary Second Lieutenant. By October 1915 Charlie was a captain in the 12th Battalion and arrived on the Western Front in time for the Somme offensive of July 1916. He was quickly into the action and wrote home detailing some of his experiences. Tragically, on the night of 12th/13th August Charlie was instructed to lead a raiding party on German trenches. Despite fighting bravely in a successful raid, Charlie suffered serious injuries and was taken to No 1 Casualty Clearing Station. After being reassured that his men “had got the Hun”, Charlie replied with his last known words, “Well I have done my bit”. Charlie, a resident of Llwynderi Road, Newport, was buried in Choeques Military Cemetery and left a grieving widow and two young children. This legendry Newport rugby player and war hero was 34 years old.
Johnnie Williams was the most capped Welsh rugby international to die in the Great War and, until 1976, jointly held the record for the most tries scored by a Welsh player. Born in Whitchurch, Cardiff in 1882 and a product of Cowbridge Grammar School, Johnnie spent the majority of his career playing for his home club. However he began his career at Newport where he played between 1899 and 1903, scoring 19 tries and a dropped goal in 50 appearances for the club. In 1906 he broke into a strong Wales team to play the touring Springboks. Although this match was lost Johnnie only experienced defeat once more in 17 matches in a Welsh shirt. Noted for his swerve and sidestep, this pacey winger played in 3 Grand Slam winning teams and captained his country against France in 1911. Johnnie also toured with the British Isles team to Australia and New Zealand where he played in 2 of the 3 tests and was the second top scorer with 12 tries on the tour.
When the war began, Johnnie left his job as a partner in a coal exporters based in the Cardiff Coal Exchange to join the 16th Battalion of the Royal Welch Regiment. By now a captain, Johnnie led his men in the attack on Mametz Wood, part of the Somme offensive. After ‘going over the top’ on 7th July, Johnnie was severely injured which resulted in the amputation of his left leg. Despite being able to write to his wife Mabel following his injury, thirty-four-year-old Johnnie died of his wounds on 12th July. He was buried at Corbie Communal Cemetery.
Phil Waller was born in Bath in 1889 and educated at Carmarthen Intermediate School but it is as a Newport Rugby Union international that he is best remembered. On leaving school, Phil was apprenticed as an engineer to the Alexander Dock Railway Company and, by 1907, he was a regular member of the Newport pack, specializing in the line out and the loose. A year later 19 year old Phil was in the Wales team that defeated the touring Australians 9-6 and kept his place for the 1909 Five Nations tournament. All four matches were won ensuring that Phil became one of the few players to have defeated a southern hemisphere country and win a Grand Slam in the same season. The following season Phil played in the victory over France but lost his place for the first visit to Twickenham.
Although he never played for Wales again, Phil was selected for the British Lions tour to South Africa where he played in all 3 tests. Taken with the country, Phil stayed in South Africa playing rugby and working in Johannesburg as an engineer. In August 1915 Phil enlisted as a gunner with the 71st Siege Battery SA Heavy Artillery and saw action at Ypres, the Somme, Arras and Cambrai. About to go on leave, driving to the nearest rail link, he and a colleague were killed by stray shellfire. Phil’s colleague was the son of South African statesman, Sir Percy Fitzpatrick, the man who initially proposed the observation of the two minutes silence on Armistice Day. Phil Waller, buried in Red Cross Corner Cemetery, Beugny, near Arras, was 28 years old.
Billy Geen was, like fellow war casualty and Newport rugby international Lou Phillips, a resident of Gold Tops in Newport. Born in 1891, this nephew of Frank Purdon who had won four caps in the 1880’s, was educated at Haileybury College in Hertfordshire and then Oxford University. A fine cricketer who represented Monmouthshire in the Minor Counties Championship, Billy made his name as an extremely talented rugby three-quarter and won three ‘Blues’ playing on the wing outside the great England captain, Ronnie Poulton-Palmer. In his first Varsity match Billy scored three tries in a famous Oxford victory.
Billy played his club rugby for Newport and was a member of the team that defeated the 1912 South Africans 9-3 in front of a crowd of over 18,000 at Rodney Parade. Selection for Wales against the same opposition followed and, despite a controversial defeat, Billy kept his place against England. He also played against Ireland that year, this time in the centre, but lost his place through injury.
With the outbreak of war Billy joined the 60th King’s Royal Rifle Corps and quickly became a Second Lieutenant in the 9th Battalion. He saw action in the Second Battle of Ypres and was tragically killed at Hooge on 31st July 1915. Billy was last seen leading his men in hand to hand fighting, one of 17 officers and 333 other ranks of this battalion killed in the exchange. This ‘dazzling left wing’ with ‘dancing footwork’ was one of 740 boys from Haileybury College to be killed in the war. Billy’s body was never found and he is remembered as one of the 54,896 names on the Menin Gate. He was 24 years old.
Perhaps, of all the Newport internationals killed in the Great War, it is the death of Billy Geen, a young man in the prime of his rugby career that best represents the loss to Welsh rugby. However, at this time it is only right to remember all thirteen Wales rugby internationals lost in this dradful conflict as well as countless other rugby players throughout the land. Heroes every one.
I have seen first-hand the positive work done by Assembly employees, particularly the LGBT staff network group Prism and Seren Books and I would like to congratulate the Welsh Assembly on their award. It didn’t surprise me though – given how influential people from Wales have been in British LGBT history, and by extension in societal history here and abroad.
In 2017 we celebrated the sixtieth anniversary of the Wolfenden Report (1957) and the fiftieth of the Sexual Offences Act (1967). I was delighted to be invited to speak at a House of Commons event on the roles played by people from Wales. I took as my theme that great period of flux in the mid-twentieth century when so much happened with regard to LGBT people: prosecutions against gay men reached its highest point; in 1931 there were 622 prosecutions, a figure which rose to 6,644 in 1955 – because of a law that prohibited gay men from simply being. We know that Alan Turing was convicted for nothing more than confessing he was a homosexual, and whilst gay women and transgender people were not prohibited under law, simply being so was socially unacceptable and discrimination was high. When society began to question the purpose of this law, particularly following the sensational Montagu trial (1954), an increasing number of people began speaking up.
Opponents included Roy Jenkins MP, and Rev. Llywelyn Williams MP from Abertillery among others, but it was Pembrokeshire’s Desmond Donnolly MP who first brought the subject of decriminalising homosexuality up in the House of Commons, a risky move at the time. Robert Boothby MP pressurised the Home Secretary, David Maxwell-Fyfe into considering the situation and reluctantly Maxwell-Fyfe agreed, tagging homosexuality onto a commissioned report on prostitution, which became known as the Wolfenden Report.
Initially the Wolfenden committee refused to speak to homosexual men, as they could not consider talking to criminals. Welshman Goronwy Rees, described as the most ‘lateral thinking and perceptive member of the committee’, thought differently and complained that few members had ever encountered a homosexual ‘in a social way’. He persuaded John Wolfenden, the chair, to meet some homosexual men and to accept the testimony of Peter Wildeblood, who had been imprisoned following the Montague trial. Wildeblood had subsequently written a book and Wolfenden therefore considered him an ‘attention seeker’. Rees also facilitated the inclusion of Patrick Trevor-Roper, a Harley Street consultant; Carl Winter, the director of the Fitzwillian Museum; and author Angus Wilson. Only these four self-identified homosexual men appeared before the committee but they played an important role in influencing the outcome of the Wolfenden Report.
The recommendation of the report for more leniency towards homosexual men was on the whole positively received, but whilst the recommendations on prostitution were enacted, those on homosexuality were not. Maxwell-Fyfe, having reluctantly commissioned Wolfenden, was now stalling it and Harold Wilson, then Prime Minister and personally supportive of change, felt that it would cost the labour party too many votes.
When it became apparent that nothing was going to happen, Tony Dyson, an English lecturer at Bangor University, wrote to every notable person he could think of, asking them to sign an open letter to The Times requesting Wolfenden be enacted. Writing on Bangor University headed note paper, Dyson was placing himself at great risk of being either arrested, sacked or both. As it happened, the university took no action against him – a progressive reaction at the time. The Times obituary for Dyson in 2002 drew attention to his contribution: ‘it is difficult to comprehend,’ they said, ‘the danger of living as a homosexual before the law was reformed in 1967, with the ever-present threat of criminal proceeding or blackmail.’
On the back of The Times letter, Dyson and others set up the Homosexual Law Reform Society, the first openly gay campaigning group in Britain – others followed. What was needed was someone to spearhead a campaign to get Wolfenden enacted and that person was Leo Abse, Cardiff solicitor and MP for Pontypool. As a backbencher he was able to concentrate on unpopular causes and did much for women’s rights, among other achievements. But even he struggled to get this bill through and it was Roy Jenkins, then Home Secretary, who gave the final push needed for the legislation to pass and so changed British society for good.
Of course others have been at the forefront: Katherine Philips; Mary Lloyd; Cliff Tucker; Cranogwen; John Randell; Cliff Gordon; Jan Morris; Gwen John; Ernest Jones; Cedric Morris; Griff Vaughan Williams; Lady Rhondda – I could go on and on about the number of Welsh people who have influenced LGBT and British life.
Wales is a small country but in LGBT history it has always had a huge presence – and that is why the Welsh Assembly award shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone.
About Welsh Verse: Welsh Verse has made a triumphant return to print. Tony Conran’s unrivalled volume of Welsh poetry through the ages contains lively yet meticulous translations stretching from the sixth century to the late twentieth century. Virtually every significant poet (or poem: there are several Anonymous entries over the centuries) is present, and every poetic form: the epics of Taliesin and Aneurin, the poets of the medieval princes, Tudor poets, Non-conformist poets, hymn-writers, Romantics, Social Realists and political Nationalists. Welsh Verse also includes an influential Introduction full of insight into the history of poetry in the Welsh language, and into the challenges of translating it, particularly over so many centuries and styles.
We will pick a winner at random from all our email subscribers on 1st October. Make sure you have signed up to Seren News before then to be in with a chance of winning!
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Congratulations to last month’s winner, Norma Curtis, who is now enjoying her copy of Black Shiver Moss by Graham Mort.
Tony Conran’s unrivalled anthology of Welsh poetry through the ages, Welsh Verse, has just returned to print. This week our Friday Poem is Conran’s translation of ‘The Battle of Gwen Strad’, by sixth century poet, Taliesin.
Welsh Verse is a milestone of translation, containing poetry from the sixth century to the late twentieth century. Virtually every significant poet (or poem: there are several Anonymous entries over the centuries) is present, and every poetic form: the epics of Taliesin and Aneurin, the poets of the medieval princes, Tudor poets, Non-conformist poets, hymn-writers, Romantics, Social Realists and political Nationalists. Welsh Versealso includes an Introduction full of insight into the history of poetry in the Welsh language, and into the challenges of translating it, particularly over so many centuries and styles.
Taliesin is often referred to, in legend and in medieval Welsh poetry, as ‘Taliesin Ben Beirdd’ (‘Taliesin, Chief of Bards’). ‘The Battle of Gwen Strad’, along with several of his other poems, sings the praises of King Urien.
*Presumably before the Anglo-Saxons took Catraeth (Catterick) – see under Aneirin. Urien was Taliesin’s patron, king of Rheged in Cumbria and S.W. Scotland. The Eden is a river in Cumbria.
Today marks 50 years since the Aberfan disaster, 21 October 1966, when a mountain of coal waste slid into Pantglas school and 19 houses, killing 144 people, 116 of them children.
Today is a day of solemn remembrance, and in this spirit, our Friday Poem is ‘Elegy for David Beynon’ by Leslie Norris, written after a teacher who died trying to shield five children from the slurry.
Leslie Norris was born in Merthyr Tydfil in 1921, and many of his works transform local incidents into poems of great depth and significance. ‘Elegy for David Beynon’ is among his most anthologised poems, and with its poignancy and sincere emotion, it is not hard to see why.
Our Marketing Assistant, Jess, discusses the relationship between history, identity and literature.
Remember, remember! The fifth of November, The Gunpowder treason and plot; I know of no reason Why the Gunpowder treason Should ever be forgot!
It’s been 410 years since Guy Fawkes tried to blow up parliament and we’re still talking about it. Granted trying to blow up the Houses of Parliament (with the king inside) is a pretty big deal, and it’s fascinating to think what Britain might have become if Fawkes had succeeded. Would it even be much different to the way it is now?
We have this idea that we must remember the important moments in history because if we do they won’t happen again. If we remember that Hitler was a bad man we’ll be able to prevent anyone like him from rising to power again, and if we remember that trying to prevent interracial marriage is just plain silly we’ll be a better society. Of course that’s not quite how the world works. Sadly there are still plenty of horrible people in politics, and it’s only in recent years – this year in the case of the United States – that gay marriage has been legalised.
Basically, we never learn, and this is true of our own histories too.
No matter who we are, where we go or what we do, we always find ourselves drawn back to our pasts; our decisions and experiences creep up on us like waves, slowly advancing until we’re caught in the tide and pulled back to something we’d forgotten, whether by accident or by choice. It could be anything from a faint whiff of perfume that reminds you of your grandmother’s old house, or a song you hear that takes you right back to your school days because it was playing everywhere and dammit now it’s stuck in your head again. You’ll be humming it for weeks.
This is particularly true of writers, or at least that’s what I’ve discovered in my experience. Authors can write a huge amount of different stories in their lifetime, but no matter how different the story is, no matter how different the characters or the setting are, there will always be those themes that authors just can’t help going back to.
It’s true of our authors, too. In Anne Lauppe-Dunbar’s debut novel, Dark Mermaids, published earlier this year, our protagonist Sophia finds herself haunted by her past no matter how hard she tries to run from it. Set in Germany, the book itself is something of a link back to Anne Lauppe-Dunbar’s own family history; I interviewed Anne here about her startling debut, and wasn’t at all surprised to discover that she’s working on another novel set in Germany. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Anne in person, and it’s clear from the way she talks about her writing how passionate she is about these Germany-based stories.
Francesca Rhydderch’s prize-winning debut, The Rice Paper Diaries, also draws on personal family history, and the characters in Mary-Ann Constantine’s debut, Star-Shot, just can’t help being drawn to the National Museum Cardiff, a building that is literally full of our history.
Then we have our New Stories from the Mabinogion. Our authors took the tales from The Mabinogion and placed them wherever, and whenever, they saw fit, leaving us with stories set during the Second World War and stories set in outer space. Fairy tales, folktales and legends are the first stories we’re ever introduced to, and we continue to come across them even when we might not realise it. What is Pretty Woman if not a slightly updated Cinderella story? What is The Phantom of the Opera if not yet another spin on Beauty and the Beast?
Try as we might we can’t stop returning to these old stories, whether they’re stories everyone knows or stories from our own personal histories. They just keep coming back, and all we can do is keep telling them.
Today marks 150 years since 153 Welsh settlers arrived in the Chubut Valley, Southern Argentina aboard the Mimosa, a converted tea-clipper, and founded Y Wladfa: The Welsh Colony.
Throughout 2015 there have been, and continue to be, events in Wales and in Argentina to strengthen the relationship between the two communities and mark the sesquicentenary. You can find out more about all of these celebrations on the Patagonia 150 website.
If you’re interested in learning more about the relationship between Wales and Patagonia, here at Seren we have both fiction and nonfiction for you to choose from.
Beyond the Pampas is an entrancing and highly unusual account of a journey to the ends of the earth in search of a dream. Imogen Herrad sets off in search of the descendents of the nineteenth century colony of Welsh settlers in Patagonia, in the deep south of Argentina, and discovers that Welsh-speaking communities, proud of their heritage, still exist there today. She also discovers a country and a way of life hugely different from her European experience.
Her explorations lead Herrad beyond the Welsh to discover the even more remarkable story of the Mapuche, Tehuelche and other indigenous tribes, who have suffered the all too familiar fate of colonised peoples. This unexpected direction gives Herrad a new perspective on her own life and those of others, as she ends her travels standing on a Patagonian hillside, part of an ancient Mapuche ceremony of the land.
Beyond the Pampas is an emotional, compelling, at times funny, at times painful, but always beautifully told story of a still untamed land and its people. A Place of Meadows and Tall Trees by Clare Dudman
Impoverished and oppressed, they’d been promised paradise on earth: a land flowing with milk and honey. But what the settlers found after a devastating sea journey was a cold South American desert where nothing could survive except tribes of nomadic Tehuelche Indians, possibly intent on massacring them.
Silas James fears he has been tricked into sacrificing everything he loves for another man’s impossible dream. But despite his hatred of the politically adept Edwyn Owen, and under the watchful eye of Indian shaman Yelue, a new culture takes root as an old one passes away.
A Place of Meadows and Tall Trees is a lyrical and insightful evocation of the trials of the first Welsh Patagonian colonists as they battle to survive hunger, loss, and each other.
2015 is a year of important anniversaries at Seren. Not only does this year bring with it the celebrations for the centenary of WW2 writer Alun Lewis, but it also marks 70 years since the biggest mass-breakout of WW2, which happened right here in Bridgend.
Island Farm Camp was originally built to house the workers at the munitions factory in Bridgend when it was thought they’d much rather live close to their workplace than travel to and fro each day. Not surprisingly the women preferred to travel than to stay in the gloomy rooms provided, but when Europe found itself in need of places to keep POWs Island Farm, with its concrete huts and open fields, proved to be ideal.
70 years ago today, at around 10pm on the 10th March 1945, 70 POWs escaped from Camp 198 – better known as Island Farm – after digging a 70ft tunnel beneath the wire. Evidently, 70 was their lucky number.
Each of the escapees were divided into groups and were given maps, food and even a homemade compass, as well as identity papers which had been produced inside the camp. Some of them made it to Birmingham while others got as far as Southampton, and though all but one were eventually recaptured, it was an astounding feat. Yet it is still unknown as to who actually organised the escape.
70 years on Peter Phillips has taken it upon himself to explore the story of Island Farm in The German Great Escape. Phillips’ expert narrative sets the events at Island Farm against the broad sweep of history, from appeasement and re-armament, to the Blitz, the battles of the GIs who passed through, and the campaigns of the German top brass who were later camp inmates. Taking in tensions between the Wehrmacht and SS, a suspicious death and the British de-Nazification programme, Phillips also explores the regime under which the POWs were kept and their reception by the public in south Wales.
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