This is part of a series of blog posts by people who have stories to tell about items which form part of the Welsh Experience of World War 1 project.
Up until a few months ago, I’d never heard of MI 7b, and hadn’t much of a clue about my great uncles and their war service in the Great War. Today, April 12th is my 61st birthday, and I have been presented with an amazing story. It goes like this.
Once upon a time, a long time ago, three boys left Aberedw and went by train from Aberedw Halt on their separate journeys to the Western Front in France, and the killing fields of the Somme, Ypres, and one small corner of a foreign field whose name is unknown. Uncle Jim was shot and wounded at Mametz in the first Battle of the Somme, Uncle John was shot and wounded at the second Battle of Ypres, and Uncle Geoff was gassed early in 1918, I don’t know where or when, but he too survived. At the end of the war, Jim and John founded Craig y Nos prep school in Swansea, and Geoff went out to South Africa, where it was thought the climate would help his breathing. John died in 1954, Jim in 1955 and Geoff in 1961. They had spent all their post-war lives teaching and reached out to the young minds of very many people during that time.
What makes this story special is that when Jim was wounded, he started to write and as a result of his efforts he was recruited into a propaganda outfit run by military intelligence called MI 7. Between 1917 and 1918, he wrote extensively about tales of heroism and life in the front line trenches. His work was turned into propaganda articles that were meant for publication in allied newspapers and journals. Although his work was meant to be published, it was a highly secret operation. So secret, in fact, that immediately the war ended in November 1918, the unit MI 7 was disbanded and all its official documents were destroyed so no one would ever know it existed.
Uncle Jim was Lieutenant (later Captain) James Price Lloyd, the eldest son of the Rector of Aberedw and he took his work home with him. That is why over 150 different articles of MI 7b remain – the sole surviving archive and witness to a propaganda offensive that was directed, not at the enemy, but at the Home Front and the people of the Empire, her Colonies and Dominions.
By chance, these papers were discovered when I was clearing my aunt’s home. There at the bottom of an old leather trunk, full of stuff that was due to be sent as rubbish, was a small green pamphlet. On the front cover was the title MI 7b, for private circulation only and it was dated January 1919. It was the valedictory house journal of a secret organisation and it listed the names of all who worked there.
I looked for Uncle Jim, but I found A A Milne as well! I also found, Cecil Street the author of the Dr Priestly novels, the Frontiersman and author Roger Pocock, the Irish Poet Patrick McGill and JP Morton of Bystander fame. A little research showed me that it was a bit like the Magnificent Seven had ridden into town, except that these were more than twenty or so of the greatest literary men of their day all working for MI 7b, along with Uncle Jim!
It was then I remembered that there were family papers including Uncle Jim’s work, which had been kept in a box in a garage for many years and had lain unnoticed, unappreciated and forgotten for many years. It took me many months to sort out Uncle Jim’s papers and put them in order along with the dozens of photographs of the family taken between 1900 and 1920. The detailed picture that emerged was one that enthralled and excited me, but also scared me. I knew it was an important discovery, but I didn’t know what it was that I had. I had started out to write an account of Uncle Jim’s service record and my research notes grew into a book! It was only when I heard that the National Library was involved in a project called Casgliad y Werin Cymru – or People’s Collection Wales – and that project would feed into a wider programme, partly financed by the European Commission and called 1914-18 Europeana that I knew what to do.
I started out copy-typing the articles as I collated them – but that was too hard and too slow. I completed the collating task to identify two categories that provide the simplest of catalogues; the archive comprises “Tales of the VC” and what academics call rich or thick description of life in the trenches of the Western Front. I photographed each of the documents and tried to keep to the order in which they were written. Every page of the archive and the note books, each scrap of paper, cutting and original photographs has been digitised. In doing so, I became familiar with all the archive but, as yet, have read only a few of the texts.
The Casgliad y Werin project will achieve my objective to get the archive into the public domain so that the contents are preserved and ensure they survive, and be accessible to everyone without charge. In truth, every one of the Tales of the VC has already been bought and paid for, costing more often than not the ultimate price. I hope the relatives, the descendents of those whose heroism is recorded get to see and recognise the honour that is forever associated with their family. The tales should engender pride and respect, no matter what feelings one may hold about war and politics, for individual courage and sacrifice deserve nothing less. Another objective is to try and understand the significance of the archive; the contents may be easily read, but what does their very existence imply?
My initial reading shows me that not all the articles in the archive were “passed for publication” by the censor, though most bear the official stamp of MI 7b, or the mark of someone more senior in the War Office’s food chain. What is accepted, post correction and scrutiny, gets passed to the typing pool, some marked “Urgent”, and then was passed to biddable proprietors of newspapers and foreign news agencies. These were printed and informed public opinion, and moulded the debate on the Clapham Omnibus. Arguably, it is in the articles that weren’t used that the poignant and bitter truth is revealed. Many of the articles were too close to reality to have made it through the propaganda process without substantial revision; some of the early drafts are decidedly “off message”, but each adds a part to a vivid illustration from a contemporary perspective of a War fought almost a century ago.
“Britain’s Winged Warriors” describes the operation of the pigeon messenger service, others describe the “Evolution of the Tank”, or “How the Truth Comes to Germany By Air”; they are obvious propaganda pieces, but nonetheless interesting for that, but these general articles aren’t nearly as exciting as “A Trench Raid”, or “The Peril that Walks by Night”. These are the right-down dirty, bloody, guts n’ glory, tell-it-like-it-is literary pictures that could illustrate a “Penny Dreadful” comic, or send frissons down the petticoats of any Edwardian parlour maid, or stirred the blood and stiffened the resolve of the young man whose call up was imminent. One thing these Military Intelligence documents all have in common is that they were intended for publication in the press throughout the Empire, her Colonies, and Dominions. In total there are more than a hundred and fifty pencil drafts, manuscripts and typescripts, along with notebooks and maps, and each one still tells a tale. The truly exciting thing is, that all the documents were meant to have been silenced forever, because they were thought to be “too incriminating”. MI 7b was quickly disbanded in November of 1918, within days of the Armistice, and all its papers were destroyed, apparently.
Why did the Government and the Crown want MI 7 to disappear and for all the official papers to be destroyed?
The answer to the question “Why?” has yet to be answered fully, but it is very exciting to try and find out. The sheer scale of the propaganda offensive and the nature of the resources deployed to it suggests that “MI 7b – the discovery of a lost propaganda archive from the Great War” is a much bigger story than first meets the eye.
Copies of paper from the archive will soon be available to view as part of the Welsh Experience of World War 1 Project via the People’s Collection Wales website.
An e-book about the collection is also available.