In late July (so you may have missed it!) a blog by Dr Gethin Matthews was shared on the ‘Beyond the Trenches’ website, run by the AHRC. ‘Letters from the Holy Land’ looks at the influence of the Middle Eastern Campaign in the First World War upon Welsh society and culture.
Examining a range of material that appears in Welsh newspapers and periodicals, this piece looks at how Welsh soldiers whose service took them to Egypt and Palestine in 1916-18 described the lands they saw and the sights they witnessed. The core argument is that they used the language of the Bible to convey their experiences, and this way of understanding the campaign was readily accepted by the audience back home. Thus Egypt was understood as the land of the Pharaohs, from which Moses and the Israelites escaped across the Sinai desert – which the Welsh soldiers themselves crossed in 1916-17. Palestine was Canaan or ‘the Promised Land’; references were made to Biblical sites and when the soldiers reached Jerusalem (which was, of course, referred to as ‘liberation’) this was celebrated. The soldiers themselves were complicit in creating this narrative, and there are many reports of them singing Welsh hymns at Calvary and other important sites around the ‘Holy City’.
These notions took root in fertile soil back in Wales, where poets celebrated the valour of the Welsh soldiers in the ‘Holy Land’ and newspaper editorials looked forward to these territories being under enlightened British administration. Those who fell here were often commemorated as lying in sacred ground. It is an interesting question, which will require further research, as to whether the memory of this campaign in the Middle East was subject to the same disillusionment as affected other aspects of the conflict (mostly notably, of course, the Western Front). Notions of the futility of the fighting became commonplace in Wales in the 1920s and came to dominate the public perception of the war in subsequent decades, but to what extent was this true of the campaign in Egypt and Palestine? Perhaps a future blog post will offer some answers!