WW1 Conscientious Objectors - The impact on individuals eg poet TH Parry-Williams

A new academic year and a new resource! The new on-line resource (click ‘Pearce Register’), launched at the Eisteddfod by Aled Eirug, enables you to find Wales’ conscientious objectors. It will be of interest to a wide range of educators and students – from school studies into local history to student research at our universities. See below an example of fascinating research into the impact being a WW1 Conscientious Objector had on the early career of one of our greatest national poets, T H Parry-Williams.

 T. H. Parry-Williams and the Chair of Welsh at Aberystwyth in 1919-20

By Dr Bleddyn O Huws from Aberystwyth University.

 Thomas Herbert Parry-Williams (1887-1975) was the eldest son of the headmaster of the elementary school at Rhyd-ddu, a small village at the foot of the western side of mount Snowdon, and was a pupil there until leaving at the age of 11 to further his education at Porthmadog County School. After winning a scholarship to read Welsh at the University College of Wales Aberystwyth in 1905, he graduated with first class honours in 1908 (the first student ever at the College to achieve a first in Welsh) and obtained second class honours in Latin in 1909. He won a Meyrick scholarship to study Celtic at Jesus College Oxford where he became a student of the renowned Celtic philologist Sir John Rhŷs. From Oxford he went to Germany after winning another scholarship that enabled him to study Celtic philology at the University of Freiburg under the supervision of the eminent Celtic scholar, Rudolf Thurneysen. After Freiburg he went on to Paris and studied at the Sorbonne while he held a University of Wales fellowship. In his third year as a fellow Sir Edward Anwyl, his Welsh professor and mentor at Aberystwyth, offered him an opportunity to return to his Alma Mater to give a series of lectures. In December 1913 Prof Anwyl had been appointed Principal of the newly created Training College at Caerleon, and wrote to Parry-Williams urging him to return to Aberystwyth to lecture under his supervision and support. However, in August 1914 Prof Anwyl died unexpectedly at the age of 48, and Parry-Williams joined his two colleagues in the Welsh Department, T. Gwynn Jones and Timothy Lewis, as a temporary lecturer whose contract had to be renewed annually.   

HH - erthygl Bleddyn Huws - llun TH Parry Williams.jpg

T H Parry Williams

In addition to his brilliant academic career, Parry-Williams was also a renowned Welsh poet. He was the first person ever to have twice won both the chair and crown competitions at the same National Eisteddfod – the aptly called ‘double-double’ feat – first in 1912 at the Wrexham Eisteddfod and secondly in 1915 at the Bangor Eisteddfod. He is considered today as one of the most prominent poets and writers of the twentieth-century Welsh literary renaissance. His first collection of essays, Ysgrifau, published in 1928, displays his analytical mind and also hints of his keen interest in psychology. One of the hallmarks of his style of writing is the combination of polished literary and classical language with his own spirited colloquial Welsh dialect. His poetry and prose contain an existentialist view of the world, but Parry-Williams was also susceptible to life’s spiritual dimension: his work often reflects life’s ironic dualisms and paradoxes.

Although Parry-Williams had strong moral convictions, it appears he lost his Christian faith during the Great War, partly because of many Nonconformist preachers’ active involvement in the war recruitment campaigns. His anguish during this difficult period in his life is displayed in some of the poems he published in the College magazines, The Dragon and Y Wawr. In an English sonnet entitled ‘Change’, which first appeared in the Western Mail in 1919, he reveals his ambition to court the courage and strength of the mountains of his native Snowdonia in their timeless steadfastness in order ‘...To stand the storm and brave the batterings / Of every thwarting chance, to face alone / The fateful forms of unawaited things...’. That ambition undoubtedly reflected his personal predicament at the time, because shortly after the Military Service Act came into force, Parry-Williams registered as a conscientious objector and attended an Appeals Tribunal only to find that his request for exemption was turned down. After appealing against the Tribunal’s decision he was later granted conditional exemption because of his personal conviction as a pacifist, and also because his work as a university lecturer was considered to be of national importance.

The chair of Welsh was left vacant during the war years, and because of the generosity of the Davies family of Llandinam, the College authorities were in a position to advertise for a new professor of Welsh shortly after the war ended. David Davies MP, the College’s Vice-President, and his sisters Margaret and Gwendoline of Gregynog, had endowed the sum of £100,000 to the College to enable it to fill vacant chairs, and it was decided to create two chairs in Welsh, one in Welsh literature and another in the Welsh language. T. Gwynn Jones was appointed to the newly created chair in literature in August 1919, and a selection committee unanimously recommended that T. H. Parry-Williams be appointed to the language chair. However, when the College Council met in September 1919 to appoint the second chair, letters had been received from John Owen, the Bishop of St David’s, and from various branches of the Comrades of the Great War strongly objecting to the appointment of Parry-Williams because he refused to volunteer for active service during the war. A petition signed by a number of residents of Aberystwyth was also submitted to Council, voicing further objections to Parry-Williams because of his pacifist stance. They argued in favour of appointing Timothy Lewis because of his patriotism shown by his willingness to volunteer for the war and for serving King and country in the Somme and the Salient battlefields.

A vigorous campaign was launched against Parry-Williams in the press, and its two main instigators were J. Gwenogvryn Evans (1852-1930) and Beriah Gwynfe Evans (1848-1927). The former was a Celtic scholar who was a close friend of Timothy Lewis and also a member of the College Council, and the latter a well-known journalist who happened to be Timothy Lewis’ father-in-law. In what was a scathing reference to Parry-Williams, Gwenogvryn noted in a letter published in The Caernarvon and Denbigh in September 1919:

... I have no love of that ‘conscience’ that refuses to defend the State that protects it, and is eager to snatch the bread out of the mouth of a better man who was first in occupation.

Gwenogvryn believed that Timothy Lewis was a much superior scholar and welcomed the intervention of the Comrades of the Great War because he felt that they could assist in preventing Parry-Williams from being appointed. For Parry-Williams to be given precedence over Timothy Lewis was, in his opinion, scandalous.

But Parry-Williams also had his supporters, not least his father and his three younger brothers who had volunteered for the war. Faced with what seemed to be an orchestrated campaign against his son in the press, Henry Parry-Williams was prompted to send letters in confidence to E. Morgan Humphreys, the influential editor of two Caernarfon based newspapers, Y Genedl Gymreig and The North Wales Observer and Express, giving him information in order to put the record straight from T. H. Parry-Williams’s point of view, and offering counter arguments to some of the misleading and often libellous comments published about him.

Morgan Humphreys used some of the facts provided by Henry Parry-Williams in editorials he penned commenting on the whole affair. Henry Parry-Williams argued that his family had already made a notable contribution to the war effort by the service of his other sons, and felt that his eldest son was entitled to his pacifist convictions without having to face the sort of prejudice and hatred displayed against him by his opponents. Although he must have felt bruised and saddened by the whole affair, there is no evidence that T.H. Parry-Williams himself responded to the hurtful comments made about him in the press.

In face of such public anger and antagonism, the College authorities decided in September 1919 to postpone the appointment to the chair until June 1920. It was at that time Parry-Williams decided to relinquish his post as an assistant lecturer and register as a first year science student with the intention of entering the medical profession. Because UCW Aberystwyth was recognised by the General Medical Council as a teaching institution where a student could spend his preparatory year of scientific study, Parry-Williams remained at Aberystwyth before taking his University of London entry exam with the hope of qualifying as a medical doctor in due time at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, London. He studied physics, chemistry, botany and zoology with considerable enthusiasm and excelled in his exams at the end of the session coming top of his class and winning the Tom Jones Scholarship in Surgery worth £20. However, when the Chair of Welsh was re-advertised before the end of the 1919-20 academic session, Parry-Williams decided to re-apply for the post and was finally appointed. As he referred to the occasion later in life, ‘One morning I was an undergraduate student and in the afternoon a Chaired Professor!’ Even so, he kept a keen interest in scientific learning all his life, and in an essay he wrote many years later, he affectionately recalled his stimulating time as a fresher, referring to the year he spent as a science undergraduate as his annus mirabilis. He remained Professor and Head of the Welsh Department until his retirement in 1952.


This article was first published in ‘Prom’. For more information see:

‘Nid Nefoedd i gyd mo’r ddaear’: T. H. Parry-Williams a’r Rhyfel Mawr’, Llên Cymru, 37, (2015-16), 70-86.

‘T. H. Parry-Williams a helynt y Gadair Gymraeg yn Aberystwyth yn 1919-1920’, Trafodion Anrhydeddus Gymdeithas y Cymmrodorion, Cyfres newydd 21 (2015), 69-88.



Sign up to recieve our latest news