Dennis Coslett

Dashing commandant of the Free Wales Army

The free Wales Army enjoyed a brief notoriety between 1963, when it began to attract attention with its marches and press releases, to 1969, when some of its members were sentenced at the end of a 53-day trial which culminated (too neatly to be a coincidence, some observers thought) on the very day of the investiture of the Prince of Wales at Caernarfon. Dennis Coslett was among the nine men charged under the Public Order Act with a variety of offences that included membership of a paramilitary organisation and the handling of firearms and explosives.



Dennis Coslett, political activist: born Carmarthen 12 September 1939; married Averil Webb (one daughter, and two sons deceased); died Llanelli, Carmarthenshire 20 May 2004.



The free Wales Army enjoyed a brief notoriety between 1963, when it began to attract attention with its marches and press releases, to 1969, when some of its members were sentenced at the end of a 53-day trial which culminated (too neatly to be a coincidence, some observers thought) on the very day of the investiture of the Prince of Wales at Caernarfon. Dennis Coslett was among the nine men charged under the Public Order Act with a variety of offences that included membership of a paramilitary organisation and the handling of firearms and explosives.

The FWA's declared aim was to do for Wales what the IRA had done for Ireland: to initiate a revolution that would lead to independence. The group, including Coslett, carried the Red Dragon flag through the streets of Dublin in 1966 in the ceremonies marking the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising.

Its leader was a charismatic young man named Julian Cayo Evans, a breeder of Palomino horses and an accomplished accordionist, who had a flair for publicity and, in particular, for hoodwinking the more gullible among the reporters who flocked to west Wales to cover a story about "insurrection in the hills".

He and Coslett came to wider notice when they were interviewed by a facetious David Frost on a late-night television programme in 1967. It was this thirst for publicity that was to prove fatal for the FWA: the case against them rested largely on the evidence provided by journalists who had witnessed their drills and rifle practice, though all agreed that, in fact, these idealistic young men were, if a little naïve, quite harmless.

Dennis Coslett, a dashing figure who, like Moshe Dayan, the Israeli general, sometimes wore a black patch over his glass eye, was often to be seen at the head of the marches staged by the FWA. He was usually accompanied by his beloved dog Gelert, an impeccably well-behaved Alsatian, and dressed in the homemade uniform, complete with bandolier, pistol and insignia fashioned from the White Eagle of Snowdonia, in which the rebels liked to parade.

On one occasion, for the benefit of a reporter, he fitted a harness to Gelert's back which he said would take sticks of gelignite, thus making the animal a lethal missile. He had, he said, dozens more dogs hidden in the Black Mountains of Carmarthenshire, all trained to carry magnetic devices under the vehicles of the British army which would be sent to put down the Welsh rising. The story about these "kamikaze dogs" duly appeared in The Herald of Wales and was then taken up by the colour supplement of The Daily Telegraph, after which Coslett received hundreds of angry letters from dog-lovers.

The FWA, never more than 20 in number (to say nothing of the dog), made extravagant claims about their strength and firepower, and put on manoeuvres in which explosives and small arms were used. They were wont to claim responsibility whenever there was an attack on a reservoir or public building in Wales, though it subsequently transpired that these acts of arson, which caused a good deal of damage, were the work of a much more shadowy group calling itself Mudiad Amddiffyn Cymru ("Movement for the Defence of Wales"), known as Mac.

For all the FWA's shenanigans, there was a more serious side to their activities in the fraught atmosphere of the 1960s when Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg (the Welsh language society) and other militant groups on the fringes of the nationalist movement were taking direct action against symbols of the British state. They no doubt drew attention to some genuine grievances but they also divided nationalist opinion and had an adverse effect on the electoral fortunes of Plaid Cymru, whose president Gwynfor Evans won the Carmarthen by-election of July 1966, only to lose it four years later.

The party was inevitably tarred by its opponents, cynically enough, with the same brush as the one used against the FWA, and Evans believed it was largely responsible for slowing up Plaid's advance in parliamentary terms. The veteran nationalist Saunders Lewis, on the other hand, who had served in the First World War and was no pacifist, regarded the FWA as soldiers fighting for Wales and made a point of attending their trial, while many others showed sympathy for the accused men.

Dennis Coslett was born in Carmarthen in 1939. Short, dark-haired, lean and hard-bodied, he seemed the archetypal Welshman, or at least the physical type that passes as such in the world's view. He had considerable reserves of nervous energy and his speech, in both Welsh and English, was fluent and excitable.

He always maintained that he was anti-English only in so far as England ruled Wales, and wanted total separation for his country, a republic no less. Having been conscripted at the age of 18, he did his military service as an infantryman with the Royal Welch Fusiliers and later sailed the world as a merchant seaman. Returning to Wales, he worked as a shot-firer in the small private mines that proliferated in the anthracite coalfield of west Wales after nationalisation of the industry in 1947. It was an accident underground that had cost him the sight in his left eye.

The path that led him to the dock in Swansea in 1969 had begun in the late 1950s when it became clear that, despite united opposition in Wales to the flooding of the Tryweryn Valley in Merioneth, Liverpool Corporation was nevertheless able to turn it into a reservoir, with the loss of a Welsh-speaking community. The sense of injustice which thousands felt at this brazen trampling on the sensibilities of the Welsh people was exacerbated, in Coslett's view, by the ceremony at Caernarfon Castle in which the young Englishman whom he called Charles Windsor was invested as Prince of Wales.

Coslett and Cayo Evans also offered their services to the stricken villagers of Aberfan near Merthyr Tydfil where, in October 1966, a coaltip slid into the valley, killing 116 schoolchildren; it is not clear what they did, but Coslett considered the gold watch with which he was presented as his most treasured possession.

Exasperated by Plaid Cymru's steadfast refusal to take a tougher line on such issues as Tryweryn, the investiture and Aberfan, he sought other means of promoting the nationalist cause. He had formed a cell of five friends who styled themselves the Welsh Republican Army which, after drilling by their commandant, soon merged with Cayo Evans's FWA.

Coslett believed an independent Wales would never be won by constitutional means alone because the only language understood by the British state was one backed up by violence. "Force is to diplomacy what bullion is to banknotes," he said, quoting John Jenkins, a sergeant in the British army who was subsequently sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment for his part in carrying out explosions in the name of Mac.

Having set his face against the non-violent methods of Plaid Cymru, Coslett was to remain outside mainstream politics for the rest of his days. His last years were spent in practising the martial arts at which he was adept and writing Rebel Heart (2000) and Patriots and Scoundrels (2004), in which he collected his poems and speeches and gave his own defiant account of the turbulent events in which he had played a part. His books are full of the high rhetoric, heavily influenced by Patrick Pearse and Michael Collins, which he habitually employed to express his views.

Of the nine members of the FWA who were arrested in dawn raids, roughly handled by the police and brought to trial at Swansea on 1 July 1969, one was dismissed, two were found not guilty and six sentenced to terms of imprisonment, with three sentences suspended. Cayo Evans and Coslett, rightly deemed to be the ringleaders, were each given 15 months.

In the latter's speech from the dock, which he delivered in Welsh before sentence was passed, he reminded the judge, Mr Justice Thompson, that he had learned violence in the British army, ending with a typical flourish: "I sought to serve Wales and now I am prepared to suffer for Wales. I am ready for your sentence. Free Wales!"

Meic Stephens

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