It all started in the dust, heat and uncertainty of World War 2 Cairo.
The origins of Undeb Cymru a’r Byd stretch all the way back to the early Forties and the efforts of a band of Welsh servicemen in the Middle East to forge a link with their compatriots and their homeland.
It was there that a young RAF officer had the idea of publishing a monthly Welsh language news magazine to be circulated amongst Welsh societies in Cairo, Alexandria, Jerusalem, Haifa and Casfarit in the canal zone. The young Welshman behind the aptly called Seren y Dwyrain was T Elwyn Griffiths now Honorary President of Undeb Cymru a’r Byd and formerly its longtime secretary and editor of Yr Enfys.
“There was a very flourishing Welsh life in the Middle East with concerts, Sunday evening religious meetings and cymanfaoedd canu popular amongst servicemen and although there were only five Welsh societies when the first Seren appeared in October 1943 there were 17 within eight months of its first issue extending from Italy and North Africa on one side, Persia in the north east and down as far as Sudan in the south,” he recalls.
Two very successful - and famous - eisteddfodau were held in Cairo in 1943 and 1944.
“There is no doubt that Seren y Dwyrain contributed in no small degree to the activities of these societies,” he said.
Through regular appearances of the magazine the societies were made aware of each other’s activities and of the movement of servicemen from one unit to another.
“This engendered a uniquely Welsh spirit of unity and patriotism and on more than one occasion the Seren was a catalyst to forming a new Welsh society.”
Printing a Welsh magazine in Egypt was not without its difficulties. “Finding a printer was a problem and when we did find one the printing shop did not have sufficient letter ‘Ys’ to cope with the Welsh language!
“Completed pages had to be immediately broken before starting on the next to keep up with the demands for a Y!” he said. He counts as one of the paper’s greatest achievements the stimulus it provided Richard Hughes to attain a tablet bearing the Lord’s Prayer in Welsh in the Pater Noster Church on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.
“That attractive tablet can still be seen today with Welsh taking its place alongside so many other languages.
“It is a fitting monument to those young men from Wales who served and died, some of them, in the Middle East during the war and every effort should be made by Welsh visitors to see it. It is a remarkable and moving experience,” he said.
Such was the volume of enthusiasm amongst these servicemen and women - most of them Welsh speaking - for Wales and its language that it seemed only natural to Elwyn, when the war ended, that something should be done to preserve and nurture this sense of Welshness amongst those away from Wales and it was with that in mind that a meeting was called in the Urdd headquarters in Aberystwyth in 1945.
The meeting was attended by the Urdd’s Chief Organiser, R E Griffith, Sir Ifan ab Owen Edwards, the Urdd’s founder, and on behalf of Undeb Cymru Fydd, T I Ellis and Dr Gwenan Jones. William Williams represented the National Library of Wales. Also present were ex-servicemen - J Eurfyl Jones, one of Elwyn’s closest friends from serving in Cairo; David Griffith, Blaenau Ffestiniog and Gwynfryn Jones, Aberystwyth - ex Haifa - and J G Price Evans, Capel Bangor who was a civilian worker in Haifa.
At that meeting Elwyn was able to voice concerns he had already expressed in Seren y Dwyrain about what he considered the inadequate measures taken in Wales to keep in touch with those serving overseas with the armed forces. “I had always felt a dire need for a central body in Wales that would remedy this lamentable deficiency.
Our Scottish counterparts were provided with abundant facilities of which we were very envious including Church of Scotland centres for troops. “I had been pressing for a Welsh national body to keep those serving overseas in touch with Wales and this to me became an even more relevant aspiration when the war ended and all the changes and reorganisation that came with that,” he said.
The Aberystwyth meeting saw Elwyn commissioned to draft what he describes as a ‘blueprint’ for the future. After two years of painstaking research that blueprint led to the establishment of Undeb y Cymry ar Wasgar, named in English, The Union of Welsh People in Dispersion by T I Ellis.
“During my researches it soon became abundantly clear to me that whatever organisation we would set up should be charged with creating a link between all Welsh people and those with Welsh roots living outside Wales.
“Of course by today we also embrace the friends and admirers of Wales abroad.” Undeb y Cymry ar Wasgar came into existence officially at a meeting in Aberystwyth on Saturday July 17, 1948, and in its first council meeting that afternoon Elwyn, by now a librarian by profession, was elected Honorary Secretary and editor of Yr Enfys - a title, he reveals, that came to him whilst drying the dishes in his parents’ home in Llandybie! His record at the helm has been an impressive one - remaining secretary and editor for 40 years having missed only two committee meetings in 60 years.
He also has the enviable record of attending for a full week every National Eisteddfod between 1948 and 2009! It is no understatement that Elwyn’s name became synonymous with Undeb y Cymry ar Wasgar or Undeb Cymru a’r Byd as it is by now known. Over the years the Undeb grew in popularity and can boast some very prominent officers and benefactors including the ‘father’ of Urdd Gobaith Cymru, Syr Ifan ab Owen Edwards.
Lady Megan Lloyd-George was the movement’s second president following the Archdruid Elfed, Wales’ foremost hymnwriters who composed for the movement a brand new hymn which includes the very significant verse reflecting much of what the movement is about;
Arglwydd holl randiroedd daear,
Ynot gwna ni oll yn un;
Na ad inni er ar wasgar,
Golli cwmni Mab y Dyn . . .
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