Liverpool at War
By land, sea and air, on the home-front and the front-line, Liverpool was always in the thick of WW1.
At the dawn of the 20th century the storm clouds of war gathered over Britain. Liverpool’s geographical position nominated the city to become one of the chief bases of wartime operations.
Liverpool boldly accepted, fighting the enemy with bravery and tactical intelligence, ultimately playing a crucial role in our nation’s victory.
“As the ‘second city of empire’ Liverpool played a pivotal part in the war…”
To mark the fallen war heroes of WW1 one of the most poignant war tributes ever created is being exhibited in Liverpool this November.
Part of The Tower of London’s original Poppies: Weeping Window will flow down from the facade of St George’s Hall from 7th November 2015 - 17 January 2016.
Each individual poppy from the original installation represented a stark reminder of the 888,246 British soldiers who died fighting in The Great War - 13,726 of those soldiers were born in Liverpool.
But no war is fought on the battlefield alone. WW1 decimated a generation and every British man, woman and child suffered in one form or another, but the people of Liverpool were particularly hit hard.
As the second city of empire, Liverpool played a pivotal part in ‘the war to end all wars’. The city’s position as a global port and its role in shipbuilding made it high on Wilhelm II ‘hit’ list. But this is only one of Liverpool’s many connections to WW1.
To mark our city’s exhibition of Poppies: Weeping Window, It’s Liverpool takes a look back at some remarkable and moving facts about Liverpool’s role in one of the most ferocious conflicts of all time.
RALLYING THE TROOPS
Three days after our nation declared war on Germany, The Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener, appealed for 100,000 men to volunteer to join the army. Poverty and unemployment combined with a long established tradition of voluntary service meant that the men from Liverpool were swift to answer Kitchener’s call, rapidly signing up to join the fight. By the 28th August Kitchener had many more than his 100,000.
Initial recruits were largely unskilled or semi-skilled workers. On the 17th August 1914 the 17th Earl of Derby urged businessmen to serve together in battalions of comrades. It was believed that workers would prefer to serve alongside their colleagues. The new groups were to be called Pals. Kitchener was hoping for 1000 Liverpool Pals. Within 36 hours he has 2000. In fact, the Liverpool Pals were the first to be raised and the last to stand down from service. Liverpool’s pals were so successful that towns and cities across the nation emulated it.
Liverpool furnished Kitchener with one of the largest regiments raised between 1914 and 1918. Kitchener was delighted with our city’s response, sending Lord Derby a telegraph which read ‘Splendid! I congratulate you. Go ahead, Liverpool!’ Apart from the Pals battalions, another extraordinary set of battalions caught Kitchener’s eye.
Birkenhead’s 1914 Member of Parliament, Alfred Bigland asked the War Office for permission to form a battalion of men who were under regulation size (five foot and three inches) but otherwise fit for service. A few days later more than 3000 men had volunteered, many of them strong industrial workers and miners who had previously been rejected purely on their diminutive stature. These new recruits became known as ‘Bantam’ men.
MARCH ON ST GEORGE
Deeply impressed with Liverpool’s battalions, Kitchener organised a special visit to the city, held in late march 1915. Around 10,000 spectators gathered outside of Liverpool’s St George’s Hall to watch 1200 soldiers march in full service dress. The Bantams brought up the rear of the group and it reported that when Kitchener caught sight of them, he turned to Alfred Bigland, smiled broadly and fervently shook his hand. There and then, Kitchener promised the MP that they would be fully equipped as soon as possible so that they could take their place on the frontline.
MAKE DO AND MEND SHIPS
Much like men, vessels of all kinds, including Liverpool’s ferries, were called upon to fight in WW1. Commercial vessels such as trawlers, were turned into war-worthy ships. This remarkable process was done in Liverpool and was considered a huge achievement. Over the course of the war, 17 liners were requisitioned by the Royal Navy and turned into armed merchant cruisers by dedicated crews of carpenters and engineers.
One such commercial vessel, the Cunard liner the Carmania, engaged a German enemy liner in a vicious battle in September 1914. Carmania’s crew managed to sink the German liner even though the vast majority of its sailors were civilians.
FERRY ‘CROSS THE OCEAN
Another famous battle involving former commercial vessels took place on 23 April 1918, when two former Mersey ferries, renamed Daffodil and Iris, took part in the Zeebrugge Raid in an attempt to stop Germany using Zeebrugge as a submarine base. The action was successful and both ferries returned to service on the Mersey after the war.
A MERSEY MEN IN EVERY BOAT
The second largest mobilisation of men in Liverpool was for the Royal Navy. More than 12,000 Liverpool men signed up to fight the war at sea. Because of the scale of their involvement, there were men from Liverpool on every single battleship that left Britain between 1914 and 1918.
Artist Paul Cummins and Designer Tom Piper were commissioned by 14-18 NOW to create the sculptures which are now being brought to new audiences across the United Kingdom to prompt a new, nationwide dialogue around the legacy of the First World War.
SQUADRON SCORES BLOCKADE
A crucial role undertaken by Merseyside shipping was the blockade of Germany. The Admiralty organised a cruiser squadron based in Liverpool which was mobilised almost entirely from Merseyside shipping and its crew. The part played by this unit, known as the 10th Cruiser Squadron was critical to the success of the Royal Navy.
KEEPING BRITAIN FED
During the war, Liverpool became a lifeline to the nation with hundreds of convoys sailing into the city to keep Great Britain running and bolster the war effort. The food, fuel, weapons and troops that came into Liverpool enabled the country to win the war, ultimately helping to liberate Europe.
EXPLOSIVE WOMEN AT WAR
With so many loved ones in peril at land and sea, many women felt that winning the war was the only way to secure the safe return of their sons, fathers, husbands and brothers.
Although they were not permitted to directly fight the enemy, Liverpool’s women contributed to the war effort in a number of extraordinary ways. Taking up the mantle of their departed men, women kept the city running, becoming farmers, office and factory workers, bus drivers and mechanics.
FROM TOYS TO TORPEDOS
This development gave many women their first experience of regular, well-paid employment. But not all the roles were peacetime roles. The war created new and dangerous work for women and even set a precedence for WW2, when Local firms like Littlewoods and Meccano turned to the production of war materials, employing women for highly dangerous work.
To meet the demand for much needed weaponry new factories were also built in Liverpool. A munitions factory in Kirkby employed 10,000 people, 8,000 of them women, some as young as 18.
The safety record of Kirby’s munitions factory was exemplary, but there were numerous injuries and even fatalities. The extremely perilous work involved creating volatile detonators and women were regularly at risk of death from explosions.
The home front and front line brought people together in unexpected ways. Liverpool’s pre-existing social structures became much less relevant when in battle. One individual, who had been a policeman in Birkenhead before the war, recollected how he was saved from the clutches of the enemy by a man who he had previously arrested on a number of occasions.
HOME GROWN HERO
War creates heroes of many, but some feats stand apart. Captain, Noel Godfrey Chavasse from Kings Liverpool Regiment is one of only three people to be awarded a Victoria Cross twice and became the most highly decorated British officer in the war.
In 1916, Chavasse was hit by shell splinters while rescuing men in no-man’s land. It is said he got as close as 25 yards to the German line, where he found and rescued three men and continued to fight throughout the night under a constant rain of sniper bullets and bombing. Chavasse is believed to be commemorated by more war memorials in the UK than any other individual.
He performed similar heroics in the offensive at Passchendaele to gain a second VC. Although operated upon, he was to die of his wounds two days later in 1917.
Liverpool is a city with a powerful sense of pride in its history. But behind every WW1 story, fact, statistic and service number, there were real people, just like you and me.
‘Weeping Window’ makes us appreciate an important moment in history and consider the many people who made the ultimate sacrifice so that we could be free.
Join us in taking the time to visit Liverpool’s heartfelt tribute to our fallen heroes, a beautiful vision of devastating loss.
Poppies: Weeping Window will be exhibited from 7th November 2015 – 17th January 2016.
For more information visit Culture Liverpool’s website here, follow @CultureLpool and #PoppiesTour