Of Commemoration and Cake
To Pembroke Dock for the weekend, to attend and give a paper at a conference commemorating Wales and the Sea during the First World War. Jointly organised by Morol, the Institute of Welsh Maritime Historical Studies, and the U-Boat Project of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales, this proved to be a really excellent event, bringing into the spotlight a whole host of stories that have been partly or wholly neglected (especially, if one dare say it, in comparison with many of the stories relating to the war on the Western Front). A wide range of papers considered such diverse topics as the portrayal of the U-boat war in cartoons, the roles and experiences of the Welsh women who went to sea during the war, the stories of individual sinkings and skippers, the lives of BAME sailors on Welsh ships (one of whom went on to become, of all things, Shirley Bassey’s dance teacher), and above all, the impact of the war at sea on Welsh communities. As for yours truly, I talked about the extraordinary logistical operation, involving both colliers and trains, which was put in place to ensure an uninterrupted flow of the smokeless steam coal upon which the Grand Fleet depended, from the small area of the South Wales coalfield where it was mined to the fleet base at Scapa Flow in Orkney.
In addition to the talks, the other outstanding feature of the conference was the displays, some from local history groups, some from projects studying particular aspects of the war at sea (I was particularly struck by the work of Project Zero, a study of the Welsh airship bases which has produced a stunning CGI realisation of the Pembroke airbase), and above all, the display produced by the U-Boat Project itself, which has used a wide range of source material – including U-boat logbooks, etc, from the German archives at Freiburg, as well as contributions sent in by members of the public to the splendid Peoples Collection Wales website – to put together a fascinating visual study of the impact of the sea war on Wales. (It was gratifying to learn that one of the other sources they’d called upon was my own book, Britannia’s Dragon!) I hope that once all the anniversaries are over and done with, this display isn’t shut away in a storeroom and forgotten about – it deserves a prominent, permanent home. Here’s a tiny taster of it, one of several displays relating to my home town.
Oh, and the cake reference? It was a conference in Wales, so there were Welsh cakes galore. Morning coffee? Have a Welsh cake. Lunchtime? Have another one. Afternoon tea? And another.
The other news of the week, which those of you who follow me on social media will already know, is that I was humbled and delighted to receive a certificate of merit for the Maritime Foundation’s Mountbatten award at their awards dinner in London. I’ll say no more, as to say I’m chuffed with the citation would be a mild understatement.