Far from London’s Swinging Sixties but feeling the full force of the gravitational pull of its lawmakers, financiers and Armed Forces, Wales endured a number of traumas in that epochal decade that led the country down an unfamiliar path. The insensitive way in which our people and resources were being treated by the British Government had caused a feeling among many that their country was being oppressed and in danger of losing its defining identity. In the vacuum left by non-representation by a toothless and treacherous political mainstream, many young people felt they needed a different approach to creating an independent Wales. Precursed by White Eagle of Snowdon graffiti on walls, road signs and rocks, units of the Free Wales Army seemed to emerge spontaneously in all parts of the land, an important component in awakening the population’s sense of the nation’s destiny and of the resistance against encroachment of its land, water, people and language.
They adopted the White Eagle as their emblem and wore their homemade uniforms in public. They had a sense of internationalism and met representatives of the I.R.A., the Brittany Liberation Front, the Scottish Liberation Army, and other groups fighting to defeat occupying powers. They marched in Dublin with like-minded activists to commemorate the 1916 Rising. They also marched in Machynlleth, the site of the first Welsh parliament.
Away from the gaze of Special Branch, this group conducted armed training manoeuvres and bomb-making instruction in remote moorland areas. However, its armament was largely antique or the weaponry of the countryside. They claimed that they had “7,000 men” and were “ready for war”. Much of the energy of the F.W.A. was expended in propaganda including claiming responsibility for acts of violence which it did not commit. Their main objective was to achieve independence for their country.
Its commandant was Julian Cayo Evans, a product of the English public school system, who had fought Communist guerrillas in Malaya with the South Wales Borderers. He bred horses at his farm near Lampeter and his father was a former High Sheriff of Cardiganshire.
For an army, its paramilitary actions were few and, in the confusion of having a number of different groups and individuals planting bombs in the same period, difficult to definitively attribute. They were involved in the failed bombing in March 1967 of an Elan Valley water pipeline supplying Birmingham. Ironically, another type of warfare, the bouncing bombs of the Dam Busters, had also been practised in these same reservoirs. It is possible that the F.W.A carried out the bomb attack on the main administrative centre of the Welsh Office of the Secretary of State for Wales in Cardiff on 25 May 1968 in a joint operation with Mudiad Amddiffyn Cymru (Movement for the Defence of Wales).
They made their public debut at the vociferous protest at the official opening of the controversial Llyn Celyn reservoir in 1965 but arguably their greatest victory was during the aftermath of the Aberfan tragedy. The large sum of money that had been raised by voluntary donations to assist the devastated families had been become mired with sloth-like bureaucrats, showing little inclination, and even less sensitivity, in allocating the money to those for whom it was collected. With tensions mounting and the establishment acting in its usual cavalier manner, a journalist, John Summers, asked the F.W.A. to intervene and to exert pressure on the fund committee. In September 1967, 50 uniformed F.W.A. men marched through Merthyr Tudful with banners flowing, drums beating and singing battle hymns. At the post-march press conference, Dennis Coslett, a senior commander, issued an ultimatum that, if £5,000 was not paid to each affected family within the week, Merthyr Town Hall, the offices of the Disaster Fund and those of the solicitor acting as treasurer and secretary of the Fund would be bombed. The money was paid on time.
The F.W.A. and another nationalist group, the Patriotic Front, were invited to appear on David Frost’s TV programme. Coslett, who had lost an eye in a mining accident, wore an eye patch due to an infection. This led the celebrated broadcaster to refer to Coslett as “Dai Dayan” as he believed he resembled the Israeli general Moshe Dayan, an indication of how they were regarded by the media. However, despite their penchant for uniforms and self-publicity, the authorities were beginning to increasingly take them seriously.
The F.W.A. had plans for an uprising in Caernarfon to prevent the investiture of Prince Charles as Prince of Wales. To support this rebellion, they planned to take over the Welsh Office building they may have previously bombed and try to hold out for as long as possible. This campaign never got off the ground as 9 members including Cayo Evans and Dennis Coslett were arrested and charged with Public Order Act offences in the authorities’ drive to suppress protest ahead of the investiture. The trial in Swansea lasted 58 days and ended, with uncanny coincidence, on Prince Charles’ big day in Caernarfon Castle. Coslett refused throughout to speak English. He and Cayo Evans were sentenced to 15 months imprisonment mainly on the “evidence” of the interviews they had given journalists and regarded the experience as a show trial.
This was effectively the end of the F.W.A. and the drive for greater self-determination took on alternative tactics as a new decade dawned. Much of the story of the Welsh radicals and their confrontations of the 1960s has been airbrushed from the record and from the minds of those whom they sought to serve. It is important to acknowledge the struggles of those who precede us, to listen to the beat of our history, and to be curious enough to want to follow rivers from their sources to the ocean.