Evan Samuel Rees picture of Bethlehem. Photograph taken by Thomas Apsimon of ‘Arabs in the desert’, published in Cymru, July 1917

Letters from the Holy Land: the influence of the Middle Eastern campaign in WW1 on Welsh culture and society

In this latest Guest Blog by Gethin Matthews, he talks about the imagery of the Holy Land and how middle eastern culture came ultimately to affect Welsh culture and society.

The First World War was a world-wide war which transported millions of young men away from their homes to foreign lands. Often these men sought an anchor which could help them make sense of their unfamiliar surroundings as they tried to convey their experiences to their loved ones. In the case of Welshmen who found themselves in Egypt and Palestine, they had a ready vocabulary to describe these countries which came straight from the Bible. The idea of the campaign in the ‘Holy Land’ struck a chord with newspapers and opinion-formers back in Wales, and shaped ideas which persisted with the Welsh public.

There were well over four thousand Nonconformist churches active in Wales at the time of the First World War. In many ways the chapels shaped contemporary Welsh culture, and their Sunday Schools were a powerful influence in developing the minds of youngsters across Wales.

After the outbreak of war in August 1914 the majority of the ministers and congregations put aside their moral objections to fighting, accepting the argument of a ‘just war’. Thus it was natural for them to support those men from their congregations who joined the Armed Services, by praying for them and through correspondence.

It so happened that many of these men ended up in the Middle Eastern theatre of the war – in particular, those who served with the 53rd (Welsh) Division who were evacuated to Egypt after the failure of the Gallipoli campaign in late 1915. Thus for the next three years communities in Wales received news from places that were familiar to them from their Bibles.

Image 1 - Dai Rees Thomas (left) and Richard Eustis (centre), two colliers from Treboeth, Swansea, photographed along with a comrade in Giza, Egypt, in January 1916. With thanks to Pamela John
Image 1 – Dai Rees Thomas (left) and Richard Eustis (centre), two colliers from Treboeth, Swansea, photographed along with a comrade in Giza, Egypt, in January 1916. With thanks to Pamela John

In Egypt the soldiers invariably had the opportunity to go sight-seeing, often sending home photographs of themselves setting astride a camel with the Sphinx and the Great Pyramid in the background. However they also took the opportunity to see places they had read about in the Bible. Thomas Lewis from Pentraeth (Anglesey) sent home a letter describing the ‘Virgin’s chapel’ in Mataria (said to mark the spot where Joseph, Mary and Jesus rested on their flight to Egypt).

Photograph of the Temple of Karnak, Egypt, taken by Evan Samuel Rees, a colliery worker from Treboeth. With thanks to Christian Evans
Image 2 – Photograph of the Temple of Karnak, Egypt, taken by Evan Samuel Rees, a colliery worker from Treboeth. With thanks to Christian Evans

Then, as the British Empire forces moved across the Sinai desert, the soldiers were aware that they were crossing an area previously traversed by Moses and the Israelites. Thomas Apsimon, an officer with the RAMC who wrote at length on his travels in Egypt and Palestine for the influential magazine Cymru, noted that his fellow officers were eagerly reading Genesis and Exodus to acquaint themselves with the geography of the land. His articles were accompanied by photographs from his travels.

However, the connections really began to be the focus of attention as the soldiers approached ‘Gwlad yr Addewid’, ‘The Promised Land’. Those who had been imbued with Sunday School teachings made references to being close to the ‘Land of Milk and Honey’, and used Biblical terms such as Canaan and Philistia to refer to their location. At least one used his Biblical knowledge to circumvent censorship. Knowing that he was not allowed to name his location, Sam Johnson of Cynwyl Elfed, Carmarthenshire, told his family to turn to the 16th chapter of the Book of Judges to discover the place where Samson demolished the temple (verse 1: ‘Then went Samson to Gaza’).

Following the third bloody battle of Gaza in late October / early November 1917, the British Empire forces surged forward towards the lands of the New Testament. Thus Welsh soldiers wrote home before Christmas joyfully telling their loved ones that they had seen Bethlehem and Jerusalem.  Many sent home photographs, such as Evan Samuel Rees, whose family back home in Treboeth received a pictorial record of his travels in the East.

Photograph of Bethlehem, taken by Evan Samuel Rees in February 1918, with an ‘X’ marking the spot where Jesus was born. With thanks to Christian Evans
Image 3 – Photograph of Bethlehem, taken by Evan Samuel Rees in February 1918, with an ‘X’ marking the spot where Jesus was born. With thanks to Christian Evans

Some of the letters are infused with emotion. As he visited the holy places of Jerusalem, Sam Davies from Betws-y-Coed, Gwynedd, remembered how his late mother had described these places to him as a youngster. He declared that her descriptions of these places matched the details of the reality, and the words came back to him of the powerful Welsh hymn, Pen Calfaria [the summit of Calvary]:

Dry fy nagrau’n ffrwd o hedd. [It turns my tears into a stream of peace]

Although some soldiers were disenchanted with what they found, commenting in their letters home that Jerusalem was just as dirty and fly-blown as any other towns in the East, overall the prevailing narrative that was passed on by the Welsh soldiers was dominated by the idealised vision of the ‘Promised Land’ of Biblical times.

One typical example of a letter describing a visit to Jerusalem over Christmas (1917) was published in the Swansea Valley newspaper Llais Llafur. It describes ‘a most profitable day’ sight-seeing around the city, seeing Calvary, the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, the Mount of Olives, the Garden of Gethsemane and ‘the sites where Christ was tried by Pilate, the prison He was in, and the five stations where He halted with the Cross’.

The idea that the soldiers were involved in a campaign to ‘free’ hallowed ground was manipulated in propaganda. An advertisement promoting a fund-raising tour of tanks around Wales refers to how Welsh soldiers were showing their valour on ‘the sacred soil of Bethlehem’.

These idealized notions of the Welsh soldiers’ mission took hold in Welsh culture. Poets penned verses celebrating the fact that Welshmen had taken a prominent part in the conquest of Biblical lands. Evan Jenkins won a prize at a local eisteddfod for his verse ‘Cwymp Jerusalem’ [‘The Fall of Jerusalem’]. This presents the city explicitly as God’s city, ‘Jerusalem enwog, preswylfa Duw Iôr’ (‘Famous Jerusalem, the dwelling of the Lord God’). The verse goes on to bemoan the fact that the city had been in the hands of the Turks for centuries, until the brave sons of Wales crossed Cedron, the brook that lies between the walls of the city and the Mount of Olives. The poet imagines that as they won the day, the Welsh soldiers had in their minds a well-known hymn containing the lines ‘Jerusalem fy nghartref / Jerusalem fy Nuw’ [‘Jerusalem my home, the Jerusalem of my God’].

One very popular subject for Welsh poets in 1919 and 1920 was the fate of the soldiers, with a stream of verses produced to praise the bravery of the Welsh veterans and to mourn the fallen. A consistent theme in these when the various theatres of war are mentioned is to idealise the battleground in the east. John F. James refers to ‘Salem lân’ [‘pure or holy Jerusalem’], while J. Luther Thomas refers to ‘[d]aear gysygredig Canaan’, [‘the sacred ground of Canaan’].

Several months after the end of the war, reminiscences of visits to sites in the Holy Land were prominent in the public sphere in Wales. Hywel E. Lloyd shared an extensive account of his time in Jerusalem and Jericho and the Rev Arthur W. Davies, who had served as a chaplain to the Welsh forces in Egypt and Palestine, toured around Wales lecturing on his experiences in the campaign to capture Jerusalem.

Many of the memorials established by the chapels and churches of Wales to commemorate their war dead name the places where they were killed. Thus there are references to places on the fighting fronts including some names that became horribly familiar in 1914-18. For example, Calfaria [Calvary] chapel, Blaenau Ffestiniog, notes that the two from the congregation who died fell in Palestine. Hyfrydle chapel, in the port of Holyhead, names the resting places of six soldiers, including three in Gaza. The church at Tregarth lists the names of twelve men who died and where they rest, including one who is forever in Gaza.

Image 4 - The First World War Memorial in St Mary’s Church, Tregarth, Gwynedd. With thanks to Meg Ryder
Image 4 – The First World War Memorial in St Mary’s Church, Tregarth, Gwynedd. With thanks to Meg Ryder

In the aftermath of the war, it was the positive images, of a noble sacrifice in a righteous cause on consecrated ground, which prevailed in the years immediately following the Armistice. The memorial in Tregarth quotes a line from the Welsh national anthem: ‘Tros ryddid collasant eu gwaed’ [‘They spilled their blood for freedom’]. It took some time for disillusionment to grow, by which time the memorials had already been unveiled and the celebratory verses written.

Gethin Matthews is a historian of Wales based at Swansea University in a post supported by the Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol, and is part of the AHRC-funded Living Legacies 1914-18 First World War Engagement Centre  http://www.livinglegacies1914-18.ac.uk/

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *