July Talk: Swansea in the Great War

This week’s lecture in memory of our former committee member, Sid Kidwell, was given by the local author, Bernard Lewis.

The talk described how following the outbreak of the First World War, Swansea Mayor, Thomas Crocker, organised the Swansea Battalion. This became part of the 38th Welsh Division which was sent to France in 1915. The Swansea Battalion fought at Mametz Wood and in the Advance to Victory. Swansea men also served in the Royal Navy and other units including Conscientious Objectors like John Oliver Watkins, who attached to the Quaker ‘Friends Ambulance Service’ was awarded the Croix de Guerre. Two VCs were awarded to Swansea men, and some 2,300 dead are commemorated on the War Memorial, though some names are probably missing.

Enemy aliens of German and Austrian descent were interned in miserable conditions on the Isle of Man. This led to a riot in which 7 were shot. Some 5-600 Belgian refugees arrived in trawlers and settled for the duration of the War. As British Trawlers had been commandeered as minesweepers, the Belgian fishermen ensured a useful supply of fish. Hospitals were established in the YMCA and 5 local halls and houses. Penrice Castle became a convalescent home for Australian and Canadian Officers. The Owner, Miss Talbot of Margam Castle, bore the costs. Social clubs for soldiers and sailors were established, and courses for disabled soldiers run at Swansea Training College.

Swansea Docks played a vital part in the War effort, together with munition works in Landore which employed women. Several Swansea women were killed in an explosion at the Pembrey Munitions factory. However, static wages and rising prices led to strikes in different industries. Food rationing was introduced as a result of U-boat activity, and minor riots took place as some shopkeepers were accused of hoarding food. Allotments were encouraged and cookery lessons held at the Ragged School. Pigs could be kept in back gardens, and rabbits were supplied from Gower. Sugar rationing was introduced and days without consuming meat was encouraged. The foundation stone of the War Memorial was laid in 1922 by Field Marshall Earl Haig. The memorial was designed by Borough Architect, Ernest Morgan, who had served with the Glamorganshire Yeomanry in Mesopotamia.

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