From the Trenches to the Chair: the Making of Professor Henry Lewis

by Gethin Matthews (ENG / CYM)


One of the first academics appointed by the new institution of the University of Wales College, Swansea, was Henry Lewis. He was awarded his Chair in 1921, and he served as Head of the Department of Welsh until his retirement in 1954[1]. He established himself as an academic authority and a master in his field of the grammar of the Celtic languages. His book outlining the development of the Welsh language, Datblygiad yr Iaith Gymraeg, originally published in 1931 and revised in 1946, was reprinted by the University of Wales Press in 1983. Arguably his other great contribution was a collaboration with Holger Pederson in publishing a translated and revised volume of Pederson’s A Concise Comparative Celtic Grammar (1937, revised 1961). For these contributions he is highly regarded to this day, and for many years his portrait hung in the University’s Keir Hardie building, gazing over those who enter. He was also a diligent member of numerous University committees, and contributed to the activities of various societies and editorial boards, leading to his recognition with the award of the CBE in the year of his retirement. Thus in many ways, this latter part of Lewis’ life echoes the trajectory of many a distinguished academic, combining academic work, toil on committees and contributions to the world beyond the confines of the University as a respected public figure. 

However, just like millions of his contemporaries, the First World War interrupted Lewis’ life and career. He may well have achieved a key academic post in time without the intervention of the war and its consequences, but it is arguable that it was the effects of the war which set him upon the path to the Chair at Swansea. The details of the private persona of the young Henry Lewis are illuminated by a remarkable archive, deposited in the University’s Richard Burton Archives in 2017[2]. Diaries from 1916 to 1918 allow us to trace some of the developments in his thoughts and beliefs during the war years, and it is illuminating to compare these with his published articles. We see a young man who finds that he has something to say about Wales, about the world and about humanity. It was in the trenches that he found his voice as a public figure in the Welsh cultural milieu. This period marks his first forays into public life as a commentator, making pronouncements on issues regarding Welsh culture, the Welsh language and the Welsh education system.

An Auspicious Start

Henry Lewis was born in Ynystawe in August 1889, the youngest son of William Lewis and his wife Sarah. From Ystalyfera county school he went on to study Welsh at the University College, Cardiff: a report from a few years later noted that ‘he graduated with first class honours in Welsh, a position that has only been gained by about half-a-dozen students since the creation of the University of Wales’ [3]. Whilst at Cardiff, he made his first published contribution, with a letter to the College’s journal in 1910, in which he declared ‘If we neglect our native tongue … we lose our hold on the Welsh masses to whom their language is almost everything’ [4]. He proceeded to Jesus College, Oxford, where he studied under Sir John Rhŷs, before returning as a teacher first to his old school and then, in early 1915, to the Llanelly County School. In December 1915, at the age of 26, he joined the Welsh Guards. Although he was a volunteer, by this time conscription was looming on the horizon and there was pressure on young men from a variety of organisations to join up voluntarily rather having to be forced to enlist. 

After several months of training he arrived in France on 1 September 1916, and this marks the beginning of the diary entries. Many of the entries are brief, but they do cover a wide variety of subjects, dealing with Lewis’ present situation in France, his communications with friends and family back home, and his comments on cultural, religious and political matters.

He writes in both English and Welsh, flipping between languages within some entries.  

He did not find the atmosphere in the Welsh Guards, the self-styled elite of the British Army, to his taste. During his time in France his diary shows that he was very unimpressed with the ‘spit-and-polish’ mentality of his regiment. The entry for 1 November 1916 reads:

‘Gds Dvn [Guards Division] in review by H R H Duke of Connaught – grand military sight, but such affairs are useless + from point of view of the pvte [private] soldier are a positive humbug. A fine day for it fortunately.’

He had numerous clashes with an over-officious superior, as evidenced in the entry for 22 November: 

Braced up to S M [Sergeant Major] for missing pde [parade] yesterday, + tho my case was quite clear was told that I was telling pack of lies. Put under open arrest: this removed after Sgt Griffiths’ explanation that my case was correct. I have never felt enamoured of Bland – but he is an utter pig. It is simply scandalous that free-born British citizens who of their own free will have sacrificed all for their country’s sake should receive a dog’s treatment from such hollow, empty-headed wasters as this acting S M of ours. I feel physically unwell.  

Yet in the same week as Henry Lewis was having this run-in with petty rule-makers in the Welsh Guards, he was working on a piece for a literary magazine on ‘Gwladgarwch ac Ymerodraeth’ (‘Patriotism and Empire’)[5]. This article, which notes that he was serving with the Welsh Guards in France, is infused with optimism for Wales’ future. He envisages that Wales will come of age through its sacrifice in the present war, and as it grows in self-confidence will offer benefits to the rest of Britain and the Empire.  

Lewis begins on a positive note, with certainty that Wales is on the march:

Llawenydd i galon Cymro ar faes y gad yw gweled arwyddion amlwg bod “rhyw gynnwrf yn y gwersyll” yng Nghymru’r dyddiau hyn, a bod Cymry gwlatgar yn ymdrechu’n ddycnach nag erioed at ddiogelu enaid y genedl rhag unrhyw niwed yn y tywyllwch a orchuddia'r byd yr awr hon[6].

(It is a joy to the heart of a Welshman on the battlefield to see clear signs that ‘there is some excitement in the camp’ in Wales these days, and that the patriotic Welshmen are striving with more tenacity than ever to protect the nation’s soul from any damage in the darkness which currently envelops the world).

The core argument of the article is that the British Empire is a force for good in the world, allowing the constituent nations under its benevolent protection to blossom and develop in safety at their own speed. This was not a novel line of thought, for many prominent Welsh politicians and opinion-formers in this period saw the Empire in a favourable light and urged the Welsh people to make themselves useful to imperial ventures[7]. The consequence of this idea is that it is right and proper for patriotic Welshmen to fight in defence of the Empire, and victory against the oppressive aggressor will be sure to lead to a bright future for a proud and self-confident Wales, which would receive a reward for its contribution from the grateful powers-that-be in London.

He declared:

Y mae Cymru’n rhan o’r Ymerodraeth fwyaf a welodd y byd erioed, a magodd feibion sydd ymhlith arweinwyr disgleiriaf yr Ymerodraeth honno. ... Gan fod Cymru’n aelod o’r Ymerodraeth hon dylai ymegnïo i’w gwneuthur ei hun yn hanfodol i’r Ymerodraeth. ... Gall Cymru ddysgu iddo werth yr ysbrydol, oblegid profodd mai hwnnw yw prif obaith y bobl[8].

(Wales is part of the greatest Empire the world has ever seen, and has raised sons who are among the most brilliant leaders of that Empire. … As Wales is part of this Empire, it should endeavour to make itself essential to the Empire. … Wales can teach it the value of the spiritual, because it has proved that that is the principal hope of the people).

 Lewis understood the University of Wales to have a special role in maintaining and promoting Welsh traditions. It should be producing ‘citizens who are truly citizens’ (‘dinasyddion a fo dinasyddion yn wir’)[9]. In contrast to the notion of ‘Deutschland über Alles’ which infests German thought, Welsh citizens would be raised in the ways of virtue and goodness (‘ffyrdd rhinwedd a daioni’). The true citizen would be ‘y neb a gadwo’i olwg ar enaid y genedl, ac a ymdrecho i’w gadw’n bur a difefl’ (‘those who kept their eyes upon the soul of the nation, and who endeavoured to keep it pure and flawless’)[10].

However, very soon after completing this article, Lewis’ health began to suffer and on 25 November 1916 he was hospitalised and diagnosed with nephritis (inflammation of the kidneys). He was highly relieved to receive the news that he was to be sent to Britain (or ‘Blighty’, to use the term he used) to recuperate, and many of the diary entries are positive in tone. He was on a ship being evacuated back to England overnight on 6-7 December 1916, and his mind turned to political matters:

… What about the Govt? I think that a change is needed. It appears to me Asquith rather represents “petticoat govt.” & it is time we were rid of it. Get off boat about 10am. See in paper that Lloyd George is Prime Minister. Excellent. …

The mood was confident and optimistic in a piece, ‘Calennig i Blant Cymru’, published in the Aberdare-based newspaper, Y Darian[11]. This is a pep-talk aimed at Welsh children, or more precisely, Welsh boys, aimed at encouraging them to aim high and strive hard to reach their goals and help Wales to succeed.  

Siaredir llawer am draddodiadau Cymru, ac y maent yn aml a dyrchafol iawn. Ar yr un pryd, y mae hefyd ddiffyg traddodiad yn bod mewn llawer cylch, ac ni allaf lai na chredu mai un o ddiffygion mawr ein haddysg, yn enwedig ein haddysg uchradd, ydyw bod ein hysgolion – a’n Prifysgol o ran hynny – heb fagu iddynt eu hunain draddodiadau digon cryf i danio dychymyg yr ysgolheigion[12].

(There is much talk of the traditions of Wales, which are numerous and uplifting. At the same time, there is also a dearth of tradition in many localities and I can only say that one of the great failings in our education system, and in particular our secondary education, is that our schools - and for that matter our University - have not developed for themselves traditions that are sufficiently strong to spark the scholars' imaginations).

The sentiments in this piece are closely echoed in another article written during this period, published in the Congregationalists’ monthly journal, Y Dysgedydd, which takes as its title a line from the National Anthem, ‘O bydded i’r Heniaith barhau’ (‘May the old language continue’). The journal notes that ‘Corporal Henry Lewis’ wrote this while recovering in a Cheltenham hospital. Just as in the piece for Y Darian, Lewis is motivated by the possibility of the irretrievable loss of Welsh culture and urges the readers to act to ensure that, among all the other tragedies of the war, they do not lose sight of the value of their language.

Y mae’r genedl Gymraeg hithau wedi cyd-dyfu â’r iaith Gymraeg, ac ni bydd byw’r naill heb y llall mwyach. Pan ballo’r iaith, peidia’r genedl â bod, ac yna ni bydd y Cymry ond megis erthylod egwan dirmygedig. Eithr os byddwn ffyddlon i’r iaith, a myfyrio’i llenyddiaeth, trosglwyddwn i’r oesoedd a ddêl draddodiadau am fywyd syml a phur, am feddyliau glân a chalonnog. Cadwn yn fyw ddelfrydau aruchel a dyrchafol, a phartown y ffordd i genedl gref ac uniawn fyned rhagddi i gyflawni ei gorchwyl a mynegi ei neges i’r byd[13].;

(The Welsh nation has grown up alongside the Welsh language, and henceforth one will not live without the other. Should the language fail, the nation will cease to be, and the Welsh shall be nothing more than weak, despised abortions. On the other hand, if we are faithful to the language, and study its literature, we shall transfer to the generations to come the traditions of a simple and pure life, and of lively and clean minds. We shall keep alive high and uplifting ideals, and shall prepare the way for a strong and true nation to proceed to complete its task and declare its message to the world).

"The Dreadfulness of War"

However, in contrast to these stirring thoughts, the diary reveals that as he had time in the hospital to reflect upon the soldier’s lot, he had cause to grumble and ponder the meaning of the war. When a batch of severe new cases were brought into Lewis’ hospital (3 January 1917):

This brings home the dreadfulness of war. To hear these poor chaps groaning in the anguish of their pain - + to think of so-called “conscientious objectors”. It is strange what enormities are committed in these times in the name of the most sacred things. Thus like the low beastlike treatment meted out to Tommy in France. How far we are from being human …

These comments show that Lewis was aware of the insoluble paradoxes that arose at a time of total war. Liberal thinkers like Lewis who believed that the war was just found conscription morally objectionable yet suspected those who refused to join up of shirking their duty. He appreciated the necessity of standing up to German aggression and militarism, but hated the slide towards a similar dehumanised militarism on the Allied side. 

Portions of the diary are missing: it looks as though the pages for over a month from 13 January 1917 onwards have been deliberately taken out. When it resumes, half-way through the entry for 16 February, it is clear that Lewis is beset by disillusionment:

… fed up with this life. It is as aimless, as purposeless, & in it so little of what really makes life. It intensifies in us all the perfect futility, the utter wrongness of war.

His disillusionment with the Welsh Guards was by now profound. When he saw in the paper that Sergeant Major Bland had been awarded the Military Cross his comment was ‘What an infernal shame’ (5 January 1917). He resolved to get a commission in another regiment, but when he found (17 February 1917) that to do this he had to ‘to undertake the loatheful horrid journey’ to the Welsh Guards’ base, he commented that the thought made him feel unwell.

There is a further rant against the attitude of the Army towards its men on 14 May 1917, when Lewis complains of ‘the disgusting treatment meted out to free citizens who have undertaken military service in order to save their country’. It seems quite clear that ‘their country’ to Henry Lewis was Wales, not ‘Britain’ or the ‘United Kingdom’[14]. One particular bone of contention, to a Congregationalist such as Lewis, was the preferential treatment given to the Anglican church.

The only Church Pde is for C of E. This is what is supposed to be a Welsh regiment ... Every Sunday the fatigues must be done by men who do not attend C of E 

He relates a story of the idea of a sermon delivered in Welsh causing alarm to a Commanding Officer, and comments ‘Oh most sublime ignorance! A service in the Welsh tongue associated with rebellion. Yet we are not in the time of the early Edwards!!’ (20 May 1917).

During this period, Lewis continued to pen letters and articles for Y Darian. Writing about Wales and Russia in the aftermath of the February Revolution, Lewis delighted that the ‘gwerin’ of Russia had thrown off the despotism of the Czars, and hoped that the qualities of faith, unity and honesty expressed by the Russians would also be seen in Wales in the future[15]. Once more he stressed that education was the key to success and urged his compatriots to defend the University of Wales, which he declared to be the product of ‘Breuddwyd Glyn Dwr’ (Owain Glyndŵr’s dream)[16].

The gaps in the diaries mean that there is no personal record of Lewis’ transfer to the Royal Welsh Fusiliers. After undergoing officer training he received his commission as Second Lieutenant on 30 October 1917. Two days later he had an editorial piece in Y Darian, ‘Galw ar Weithwyr Cymru’ (‘Calling the workers of Wales’), a highly nationalistic call to the Welsh to defend their traditions and culture against the pressures of Anglicisation. In political terms, this means that the Labour Party in Wales has to be a Welsh party. Lewis identifies the ‘gwerin’ of Wales with the working classes: a departure from the conception of O. M. Edwards who equated the ‘gwerin’ with the rural Welsh[17].

Y mae gan y gweithiwr Cymreig ei farn ei hun ar bynciau a phethau. Y mae ei ddelfrydau o’u hiawn fesur mor wahanol, er enghraifft, i’r Sais ag yw ei iaith i’w iaith yntau. Y mae tuedd ei feddwl yn wahanol, ac osgo’i fryd yn annhebig. Yn sicr, gall ymladd am yr un peth a’r Sais, a gall pob un o’r ddau gynorthwyo’i gilydd i ennill y gamp a gais. Eithr yn y pen draw, nid yr un defnydd a wna’r ddau o’r ennill, am eu bod mor wahanol i’w gilydd. Nid cyffelyb fu eu maeth, ac arall fu’r traddodiadau a etifeddodd y naill a’r llall ohonynt. Rhaid i’r Cymro frwydro fel Cymro, ac nid dynwared dull y Sais[18].

(The Welsh worker has his own opinions on matters and ideas. His ideals on the right way to do things are as different, for example, to the Englishman’s as the two languages are to each other. His mind has a different tendency, and his way of thinking is dissimilar. It is true that he can fight for the same goal as the Englishman, and each one can help the other to achieve the victory. However in the long run, they will not make the same use of the victory, for they are so different to one another. Their nurturing is not the same, and the traditions that they have inherited are different. The Welshman must fight as a Welshman, and not imitate the methods of the Englishman).

The diary resumes with a new volume in 1918: at the start of the year Lewis was travelling through northern France en route for the Western Front.

Although the army routine in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers did not grate as much as it did in the Welsh Guards there could still be resentment at the actions of superior officers. One certainly gains the impression from Lewis’ diaries that he did not suffer fools gladly, and yet he had to put up with being under the command of men whose intellect was inferior to his own. After a ‘Bayonet fighting course which was under a foot of mud in the torrent’ on 26 January 1918 Lewis noted that ‘The terrible infant who is O.C. Coy [Officer Commanding, Company] absolutely fairs on my nerves with his foppish infantile ways.’ On 13 February the men were made to march for four miles, stood in the rain for at least fifteen minutes and then marched past the Brigadier General wearing their ‘small box respirators’ (gas masks) for a further fifteen minutes. ‘Scandalous’ was Lewis’ comment.

He read with approval on 23 January 1918 an article by William George on ‘Cymru Fydd’ in Y Beirniad. In this, George (brother of the Prime Minister) highlights the importance of language, literature, education, landscape and (especially) religion in preserving the Welsh nation[19]. Indeed, Lewis was keen to keep up Welsh traditions even in the alien and hostile atmosphere of the trenches. On most Sundays there are reports of the service he attended, often with comments on the sermon. He was also keeping up his work on ancient Welsh writings, and there are a series of contributions to Y Darian, in which he shares his work on a medieval Welsh translation of Biblical texts[20]. Perhaps one can interpret these pieces as a strategy for Lewis to keep hold of his identity as he witnessed the full horrors of trench warfare: a way to create a space where he could be Henry the Celtic scholar rather than Second Lieutenant Lewis the Army officer.

The diary contains some searing passages describing his experiences. On Saturday 23 February: 

Take working party up to Armentières through the city. Dinas distryw – mor aethus a phetai dyn mewn bedd. Pawb wedi ffoi, a’r tai oll yn ddrylliau. [A city destroyed – as dreadful as being in a grave. Everyone has fled, and all the houses shattered.] The fine church a pitiful sight. Some of the smaller houses heartbreaking, with the sore signs of hasty evacuation. All this shambles gives a direct no to all lovers of war - & yet peace-mongers ought to see it. The Boche shells battery not far from us, & we detect some lachrymator gas.

On 1 March:

Gŵyl Dewi Sant. Bore godidog, ynghanol y fath haerllugrwydd hwn. [St David’s Day. A glorious morning, in the midst of all this effrontery.] Boche shells around here & in evening one of ours dropped short near Co[mpan]y HQ. A very wild night – heavy strafe on both our flanks.’  

On 10 March:

4.30am, frightfully heavy barrage round SPY[21] making it impossible to leave dug-out. Rum jars[22] , 4.2’ to 5.9’ lasting til 6am. An hour & a half of real hell. Boche raids posts. After the barrage, the loathsome ungodly loss of life & blood, making war ten thousand times worse of an utter abomination. My platoon – 1-3[23]. A glorious day, granted by God, reveals all this damnable unmeaning destruction by man. 

On 12 March:

Resting a little, & weighing on my mind the damnable abomination of war. It’s all very well for London politicians to talk of the “last drop of blood”. The Daily Mail + a few more of them should have been in SPY. What if the people at home really knew. The Daily Mail would no more talk in its hypocritical way as the soldier’s friend. Its attitude + policy is the soldier’s worst enemy - & Tommy knows it.

The Western Front

By this point, the Allied Armies had been facing the Germans on the Western Front for well over three years, with very little movement of the front lines despite the enormous casualties. As the entries above note, there was a constant loss of men through attrition, but in most sectors the front line was very close to where it had been when the trenches were first dug in the autumn of 1914. However, in the wider picture of the war there had been a significant change as the Russians had capitulated, thus releasing hundreds of thousands of German soldiers for service on the Western Front. With the entry of the USA into the war in 1917, the German High Command knew that their only hope of victory was to attack hard on the Western Front before American reinforcements arrived en masse

The main German spring offensive began on 21 March, with Operation Michael. Although Lewis’ position was heavily bombarded with gas, they were not directly attacked by the German advance. On Good Friday, 29 March, Lewis lamented that he was not in his home chapel of Hebron, Clydach; on Easter Sunday, he had a day of rest and pondered the message of the Resurrection at such a troubled time. His unit was moved several times over the subsequent days – it is not clear whether it was an orderly retreat or a panic reaction. The entry for Sunday 14 April reads ‘‘Rhyw hiraeth am fod gartref a chlywed tôn a phregeth Gymraeg’ (‘A longing to be home and to hear a Welsh tune and sermon’). The following Sunday Lewis’ unit was moved to the front line in preparation for a counter-attack. The diary entry for 22 April reads:

Letter from Billie Davies, recalling fresh memories. Barrage 7.30pm, seeing the troops go over a glorious sight. Hit 7.45pm, & devotedly attended to by my orderly Littler. Bosche come over in droves. Am carried by 4 of them, pass thro 131 Fd Amb [Field Ambulance] to 129 Fd Amb, where I am dressed by F T Rees (Major)[24]. After a warm-up, car to No3 Canadian Staty Hosp [Stationary Hospital] (C.C.S.) [Casualty Clearing Station] at Doullens.  

Lewis’ wound was caused by a piece of shrapnel that tore through his left buttock. He was moved by train to No 2 Red Cross Hospital, Rouen, on 24 April. He spent some weeks recuperating there, receiving some news from a fellow Royal Welsh Fusilier on 5 May that only one officer was left in D Company, 13th Battalion (his own unit). He commented in his diary ‘Diffyg synnwyr a phwyll yn unig a eill gyfiawnhau rhyfel – gwneuthur difrod ac anfri ar gyrff pobl er mwyn setlo rhyw faterion’ (‘It is only a lack of common sense and reason that can justify war – dealing destruction and disrespect to people’s bodies in order to settle some matters’). The following day, ‘Marw Capt Wells MC, RAF, ar ol brwydr galed am ei fywyd. “I ba beth y bu y golled hon?”’ (‘The death of Captain Wells, MC, RAF, after a hard battle for his life. “What purpose was served by this loss?”)[25].

On 9 May Lewis underwent an operation which caused him pain for several days afterwards. Towards the end of the month he heard that he was to be sent back to ‘Blighty’, which obviously came as a relief, as he understood that his war had come to an end. His comments about the conduct of the war reveal his frustration, as in this entry of 30 May: ‘More push by Boche – some tantalising futility about our Higher Command. We were taken completely by surprise.’

Return to Wales

Lewis sailed from Le Havre on the evening of 1 June, and was delighted to find himself back in Wales by the evening of 2 June, in the King Edward VII Hospital, Cardiff. Immediately, Lewis was back in the academic network, following with interest some of the internal wranglings at the University College, Cardiff. He had a host of visitors from home and from academia. Prof. Thomas Powel, who had just retired as Professor of Celtic at Cardiff, visited, and although it is not certain, the ‘William John’ who called by for a few conversations could well have been W. J. Gruffydd, Powel’s successor[26]. The diary also contains a reference to a visit by Miss Gwladys Thomas on 15 June: she would become his wife in 1921.
Lewis soon picked up his pen to resume his foray into public discussions. He entered into an argument with a correspondent to Y Darian over some rather mundane matters of Welsh grammar[27]. He wrote reviews of academic texts for the Western Mail and Y Dysgedydd[28]. He discussed educational and political matters with his visitors, and in one revealing entry for 30 August he wrote: 

Siarad hefyd am yr ymgais i gael rhyw fath o “military training” yn yr ysgolion – a minnau’n gryf yn ei erbyn. Gwneud dynion sy’n bwysig – nid rhyw beiriannau dall-ufudd. 

(We also spoke about the attempt to introduce some kind of “military training” into the schools – and I was strongly against it. Making men is the important thing – not some kind of blind, obedient machines).

In late September he had recovered sufficiently to visit his home, and he was then moved to a convalescent home in Llandaff. In Cardiff he began to visit contacts in the University College to discuss the vacant post of lecturer in Welsh, meeting the Registrar on 18 October. He was offered the post on 21 October, on the condition that he would be available to start in a week. However, the bureaucracy of the Army disrupted the plans, as he was informed that there was no chance of a medical board to consider his discharge for six months. Then the collapse of the Central Powers and the Armistice hastened the turn of events, and on 2 December the medical board recommended his discharge: ‘Feel very elated & relieved.’

In political terms, Lewis was by now a firm Labour supporter. He was disheartened by the tone of the campaigning by the incumbent Lloyd George and his Coalition, declaring on 25 November, ‘I feel fed up with affairs in this country in general – centring around the General Election. … Am much heartened by reading “The New Statesman” which sets forth the claims of the Labour Party in really noble terms. I don’t think I have ever read any political literature with such a grounding about it – really profound.’ On 14 December, his entry reads:

The General Election. I hope Labour will poll heavily. It is our only hope. See “The Yellow Ticket” – a scathing comment on the secret police of old Russia[29]. And yet our politicians hold up their hands with awe and cry out “Bolsheviks”! Ll G [Lloyd George] & Co are like so many fattened geese on a farm yard a few weeks before the Xmas kill.

He was thoroughly disappointed with the result of the election (when Lloyd George’s coalition – mainly consisting of Conservatives – won a resounding victory). The diary entry for 28 December includes the comment ‘Y wlad yn hollol feddw. Pa beth a ddaw o hyn oll?’ (‘The country is entirely drunk. What will come of all this?’).

As the year drew to a close, it seems as though many of the elements of Henry Lewis’ life had come into alignment, setting him on the course that he would follow for the rest of his career. The diary contains references to political issues and university minutiae, cultural activities enjoyed and sermons listened to, and comments on the status of the Welsh language. All of these would continue to be significant elements of his life and mission for the next half-century. On 31 December he reported a pleasant meeting with the Rev Tywi Jones, Baptist minister and editor of Y Darian, who brought less pleasant news of the ongoing arguments at Aberdare’s Girls’ School, where the headmistress was vigorously campaigning against the Welsh language[30]. Yet the year’s final comment is positive in tone: ‘Diwedd blwyddyn yn gynhyrfus – gobeithio iddi fod yn droad dalen wen iawn!’ (‘An exciting end to the year – I hope it shall turn out to be the turning over of a bright new leaf’).

Henry Lewis served as a lecturer in the Welsh Department at Cardiff for two more years, before accepting the Chair at Swansea in June 1921[31]. There are further diaries in the archive from 1919 and 1922, and numerous diaries from the 1930s onwards, but these are in general working diaries, containing details of meetings and appointments, rather than being repositories for his thoughts. However the entries from early 1919 are personal enough for us to see how instead of railing against the strictures of the Army, Lewis was now battling against the apathy of the students and the intransigence of university managers[32].

It is, of course, entirely possible that one with Lewis’ talent and intellect would have risen to the heights of a Professorship while still in his early thirties without the intervention of the war. Yet, looking at the broad sweep of his life, the years 1916 to 1918, when he was in uniform, do seem to be pivotal to his progress. In this time he began to make a name for himself as a public figure, and gained the confidence to share his thoughts with the public at large. Whatever patriotic or nationalistic sentiments he had prior to 1916, by 1918 he was certain of his views on Welsh nationality, and strident in his support for the Welsh language and traditions. Ben Bowen Thomas notes that a more mature Henry Lewis would have blushed at the rather naïve pro-Imperial sentiments proffered in his 1916 piece, ‘Gwladgarwch ac Ymerodraeth’, but there is no suggestion that he withdrew from the core declaration in this article that it was right and proper for the Welsh to defend and nurture their traditions[33]. All his pronouncements regarding Welsh in his writings from this period are consistent in their promotion of the language. He may already have formed the vision, prior to 1916, of Wales as a nation steeped in culture and with the potential to enrich Europe and the world, but it seems that it was the circumstances of the war that made it his mission to protect and promote this Wales.

We see a shift in 1916-1918 in political terms, as Lewis (like so many others from the south Wales valleys) moved from being a Lloyd George loyalist to being a supporter of the Labour Party. We also see a transformation in his relationship with the Army establishment. Having volunteered for the Welsh Guards in December 1915, he was clearly heartily sick of the regiment barely a year later, and although he found his feet as a junior officer in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, his resentment against the upper echelons of the Army is clear. Although it would be anachronistic to cite the notion of ‘Lions led by Donkeys’ which is a construction of the 1960s, it is obvious that Lewis’ thoughts were heading in that direction as he bemoaned the ‘perfect futility’ of the war, and the ‘tantalising futility’ of the High Command[34]. Yet he also clearly continued to believe that he and his comrades were fighting against an evil power, and he disapproved of the stand made by conscientious objectors.

Henry Lewis was a man with the firmest of roots: his dedication to his home patch of the lower Swansea Valley was heart-felt. He adapted the ideas of the ‘gwerin’ popularised by O. M. Edwards’ writings, and adapted them so that the focus of his passion was the Welsh-speaking communities of workers and small-businessmen of his part of industrial south Wales. He was, assuredly, guilty of idealising the inhabitants of this society, as he focussed on their virtues and constructive, creative traditions. Perhaps this idealisation was in part the result of being removed from the warmth and comfort of this society, and being thrust into an alien milieu where another language dominated, where violence was a constant threat and where pain and suffering could be witnessed almost daily. Perhaps also, as Ben Bowen Thomas hints, it was his relief at being out of the dangers of war coupled with a desire to make that war worth something that spurred him from the latter months of 1918 onwards to dedicate his life to the protection and sustenance of his nation[35].



[1] For biographical studies of Lewis, see Ben Bowen Thomas, ‘Henry Lewis: Gwerinwr, Cymro’, National Library of Wales Journal, 17.2 (Winter 1971), 121-35; T. J. Morgan, ‘In Memoriam: Dr Henry Lewis’, Journal of the Welsh Bibliographical Society, 10.2 (1968), 1-3, and his entry in the Welsh Dictionary of National Biography, [accessed 10 October 2018]. A list of his publications can be found in D. Ellis Evans, ‘Rhestr o gyhoeddiadau Dr. Henry Lewis’, Journal of the Welsh Bibliographical Society, 10.3 (July 1970), 144-52.

[2] I should like to acknowledge the generosity of Mrs Eleri Bines in entrusting these family treasures to the Richard Burton Archives . They are to be found under the references 2017/14/1-6. The diaries are in box 6: the diary from 1918 has the reference 139; from 1916-17, 140; and from 1919, 143.

[3] ‘Cymrodorion’, Llanelly Star, 6 February 1915, p.4.

[4] Cap and Gown, May 1910, quoted in Ben Bowen Thomas, ‘Henry Lewis’, p.127.

[5] The diary entry for 17 November notes that he was working on this article.

[6] Henry Lewis, ‘Gwladgarwch ac Ymerodraeth’, Y Beirniad, 6.4 (Gaeaf 1916), 217-223, t.217. Advertisements for this issue of Y Beirniad can be found in the newspapers of Wales from early April 1917 onwards.

[7] On this point, one could cite many of the speeches of T. E. Ellis, the leading Welsh Liberal until his untimely death in 1899 (see, for example, his speech to the Welsh community in Kimberley, quoted in T.I. Ellis, Thomas Edward Ellis: Cofiant Cyfrol 2, 1886-1899 (Liverpool, 1948), p.131), or of Lloyd George, both in his ‘radical’ days and after he became a key member of the Cabinet (see, for example, Cyril Parry, David Lloyd George (Denbigh: Gwasg Gee, 1984), p.47). One other pivotal opinion-former was Owen M. Edwards, who, among a host of other contributions to national life in Wales, was the founding editor of the monthly journal Cymru. For his favourable view towards the British Empire see the article ‘Yr Ymylwe Geltaidd’, Cymru, 18.105 (April 1900), 197-202 and the discussion in Aled Jones and Bill Jones, ‘Empire and the Welsh Press’, in Simon J. Potter (ed), Newspapers and Empire in Ireland and Britain (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2004), pp.75-91, pp.83-7.

[8] Henry Lewis, ‘Gwladgarwch ac Ymerodraeth’, pp.219-21.

[9] Henry Lewis, ‘Gwladgarwch ac Ymerodraeth’, p.218.

[10] Henry Lewis, ‘Gwladgarwch ac Ymerodraeth’, p.219.

[11] ‘Calennig’ is the traditional small gift (of sweets or coal) given to friends or neighbours in the New Year. Thus the title could be translated as ‘A New Year gift to the children of Wales’.

[12] Y Darian, 4 January 1917, p.3.

[13] Henry Lewis, ‘O bydded i’r Heniaith barhau’, Y Dysgedydd, March 1917, pp.122-4.

[14] Neither ‘Britain’ nor the ‘United Kingdom’ is alluded to in the diaries. The diaries do mention ‘Blighty’ – the First World War soldiers’ term for (a romanticized version of) the homeland which became a euphemism for a wound that was serious enough to ensure evacuation back across the Channel. There is no suggestion here that Lewis did not see himself as British, for clearly he was proud of Wales’ place in Britain and the Empire, but the point is that Lewis’ primary identity was as a Welshman. See Ben Bowen Thomas, ‘Henry Lewis’, p.128.

[15]‘Rwsia a Chymru’, 19 April 1917, p.7. Similar expressions of hope for a bright future for Russia can be seen in O. M. Edwards’ writings in Cymru: see Gethin Matthews, ‘‘Un o Flynyddoedd Rhyfeddaf Hanes’: cyflwyno’r Rhyfel Mawr yn nhudalennau Cymru yn 1917’, in Creithiau: Dylanwad y Rhyfel Mawr ar Gymdeithas a Diwylliant yng Nghymru, ed. Gethin Matthews (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2016), pp. 163-82, p.169.

[16] ‘Rwsia a Chymru’, 26 April 1917, p.7. Another letter was published the following week on Welsh linguistic matters: ‘Llythyrau at y Golygydd’, 3 May 1917, p.5.

[17] The idea of the ‘gwerin’, which roughly translates as ‘folk’ but which bears a heavy connotation of ‘the real people of Wales’, the guardians of Welsh traditions, was developed in the writings of Owen M. Edwards and became a powerful, widely accepted concept.

[18] Henry Lewis, ‘Galw ar Weithwyr Cymru’, Y Darian, 1 November 1917, p.5. A follow-up article, ‘Plaid Llafur Gymreig’, was published on 6 December 1917, p.2.

[19] William George, ‘Cymru Fydd’, Y Beirniad, December 1917, pp.161-76.

[20] ‘Cymraeg Hen’, Y Darian, 13 December 1917, p.3; ‘Cymraeg Hen’, Y Darian, 24 January 1918, p.6; ‘Hen Gymraeg’, Y Darian, 21 February 1918, p.3. In the first letter he identifies the text as coming from the Hafod 22 manuscript at Cardiff Library. He later expanded upon this research in ‘Darnau o’r Efengylau’, Y Cymmrodor, 31 (1921), 193-216.

[21] S.P.Y. was ‘Strong Point Y’, one of the fortified positions in the Armentières sector. See ‘The Official History of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade’, p.90, <> [accessed 28 November 2018].

[22]Soldiers’ slang for an improvised German trench-mortar: see ‘The Rum Jar, the Flying Pig, and the Ypres Express: WWI Slang for Germany’s Terrifying Munitions’, [accessed 28 November 2018].

[23] This presumably means one killed, three wounded.

[24] It is probable that this is the same F. T. Rees who was reported as winning the Military Cross (as a captain in the RAMC) in 1917: see ‘Cymru a’r Rhyfel’, Y Cymro, 26 September 1917, p.7.

[25]William Lewis Wells: see [accessed 18 December 2018].

[26] ; [accessed 21 November 2018].

[27] ‘Gair o’r Ysbyty’, Y Darian, 11 July 1918, p.6; ‘Henry Lewis yn ateb’, Y Darian, 8 August 1918, p.6.

[28] ‘Reprints of Welsh MSS’, Western Mail, 19 July 1918, p.3; ‘Adolygiad’, Y Dysgedydd, August 1918, p.306.

[29] This must refer to an American film of that name: see the entry on the Internet Movie Database, [accessed 28 November 2018].

[30] For Tywi Jones see Noel Gibbard, Tarian Tywi: Cofiant y Parch. J. Tywi Jones (Caernarfon: Gwasg y Bwthyn, 2011).

[31]The first three Chairs to be advertised by the new institution were those in French, English and Welsh. Lewis applied for the post on 18 May 1921 and was offered it on 16 June. It is possible therefore that he was the first Professor to be appointed by the College.

[32]For examples, see the entries for 4 February (‘Present students rather disappointing on the whole. They lack vigour somehow, & require far more assertiveness’) and 19 February 1919 (‘callous indifference of most of the Coll. Authorities … utter ignorance of their point of view is positively disgusting’).

[33] Ben Bowen Thomas, ‘Henry Lewis’, p.128.

[34] Diary entries for 16 February 1917 and 30 May 1918, cited above. It was Alan Clark who popularised, and perhaps invented, the ‘Lions led by Donkeys’ phrase in his The Donkeys (London: Hutchinson, 1961).

[35] I refer to the comments in the second paragraph of Ben Bowen Thomas’ ‘Henry Lewis’.



Dr Gethin Matthews is a senior lecturer in the History Department at Swansea University, where he has been since 2011. His PhD explored the history of the Welsh in the Gold Rushes, but for the past decade he has been researching the impact of the First World War upon Welsh society and culture. His latest book, published in 2018, is Having a Go at the Kaiser: A Welsh Family at War.