With the Second British Civil War now 80 years in the past, its incredibly complicated history is rapidly being lost from our collective memory and many of the smaller factions of the war are largely forgotten. One such faction was the heroic, but ultimately doomed tiny ‘Republic of Cantref Cemaes’, which grew out of the hills, valleys and chapels of the Pembrokeshire-Carmarthenshire borderlands. Sir Richard Fenton, in his seminal work ‘With Thomson and Mills-Bomb to Little England Beyond Wales: The Civil War in Pembrokeshire’ had this to say:
The Republic of Cantref Cemaes – Y Gweriniaeth o Cantref Cemaes
Straddling the border of north-west Pembrokeshire and north-east Carmarthenshire, the Republic of Cantref Cemaes has grown out of a number of independent-leaning local defence associations north of the ‘Landsker’ (the border between the English-speaking south and the Welsh-speaking north of Pembrokeshire) that have banded together to form a joint front against the King.
Centred on the windswept Preseli market-town of Crymych, the Cantref Cemaes was originally a province of the pre-Norman Welsh Kingdom of Deheubarth (‘Cantref’ meaning ‘100 towns). Following the Norman Conquest, Cemaes became a Norman Barony and in the 17th Century became the birthplace of the non-conformist Welsh Baptist Movement.
Growing religious dissent, resentment of the land-owning classes, poverty and hunger during the late 18th and early 19th Centuries festered and came to a head in 1839, in the form of the ‘Rebecca Riots’. Led by the legendary ‘Rebecca’ (actually a man named Twm Carnabwth), bands of cross-dressing Welshmen rose up to smash the hated toll-gates. These riots started in the Cemaes village of Efailwen and quickly spread across Wales, requiring military intervention and the formation of a national civil police force.
With dissent in the blood, the people of Cemaes also hold little truck with the other Welsh Nationalist movements (particularly the more militaristic elements, such as the FWA and the Kingdom of Dyfed) and generally just want to be left alone. However, they do send non-voting representatives to the Senedd at Macynlleth.
The Republic is firmly based in the deeply-rooted Welsh non-conformist chapel tradition. Each chapel is therefore responsible for electing its own assembly representative and for forming its own militia, as well as raising funds for the Republic. Chapel militias from the same district are then banded together to form regiments (‘Catrawdau‘) which generally serve within, or close to, their home district. The Army of the Republic of Cantref Cemaes is therefore just a very large LDV force. This has its advantages in defence, as every soldier knows his own territory intimately and can function extremely well in the guerrilla role. However, this organisational structure does stymie offensive capability and to mitigate this, each chapel recruits a quota of ‘volunteers’ to serve in the standing ‘Hedfan Colofn’ (‘Flying Column’), which is a regimental-sized rapid-reaction force, being well-equipped by the standards of the Republic, with motor transport and a very small amount of captured and home-built armour, as well as artillery.
However, the Republic is presently land-locked and therefore has little access to modern weaponry, ammunition and supplies other than what it manages to capture or trade at extortionate prices with neighbouring Welsh Nationalist factions. The Republic is therefore involved in a three-way race (with the FWA north of the Preselis and the Welsh Republic north of the River Teifi) to take the Royalist enclave of Cardigan and thus have access to seaborne trade and foreign support. Thus far, the three sides have maintained a united (though disorganised) front against the Royalists at Cardigan, though the situation has the potential to lead to conflict between these three Welsh Nationalist factions.
Another potential flashpoint is along the River Cynin, which runs north from the town of St Clear’s and marks the Republic’s eastern border, which extends up as far as the market town of Newcastle Emlyn, on the River Teifi. There, Lord Rhys’ Army of the Kingdom of Dyfed has become increasingly belligerent in attempting to impose his authority on the Republic’s eastern communities.
Among all this are continual raids and skirmishes with Loyalist forces along the Landsker, combined with the continual problems caused by refugees trickling north to Crymych from that ravaged country.
The two advantages enjoyed by the Republic of Cemaes are the determined and belligerent people and the hilly terrain, broken by moors, woodland, rivers, deep valleys, narrow sunken roads and densely-hedged fields. As in Ireland, this creates a perfect environment in which to fight a guerrilla war and the Republic’s armed forces have performed superbly in that role. One outstanding guerrilla unit are the ‘Daughters of Rebecca’ (‘Merched Beca’), a terrifying regiment of fighters from the Landsker who blacken their faces and dress like old Welsh ladies, aping the legendary Rebecca rioters of a century earlier. This proud heritage of dissent is commemorated in other unit titles, such as the Gatrawd (Regiment) ‘Twm Carnabwth’, named for the local man who became the original ‘Rebecca’, and the Gatrawd ‘Twm Siôn Cati’, named after the legendary Welsh equivalent of ‘Robin Hood’. Other units have titles drawing from a rich local seam of Welsh legend.
Aside from some British Army surplus, uniforms and proper military equipment remain rare and those uniforms that do exist are frequently home-made. As in other Welsh Nationalist forces, green remains a popular colour for uniforms and civilian dress alike, though the Army of Cantref Cemaes presents a very ragged spectacle. Nevertheless, armbands are universally worn as a field-sign, being in the traditional colours of Cantref-Cemaes; two horizontal red stripes on white. Some armbands have also been seen with a green stripe inserted between the two red stripes, representing their Welsh Nationalist affiliation. Flags are in the same colours.
[Figures are by Musketeer Miniatures (now Footsore Miniatures), sculpted by Paul Hicks and painted by me, with superb conversions by Martin Small.]