Tag Archives: Liverpool

Riots, music halls and Spiritualists: World War One in the North West

In this blog article, Matt Shinn investigates various aspects of life during World War One in the North West of England.​

‘Location is everything in the First World War,’ says Mike Benbough-Jackson, Senior Lecturer in History at Liverpool John Moore’s University. ‘Your experience of the war could be completely different from someone else’s, depending on your locality. And nowhere bears this out better than the North West’.

If you’d spent the war in Liverpool, for example, you would have been in a maritime trading city, with a major Imperial role. And you might well have known some of the many Liverpudlians who were on board Cunard’s liner Lusitania, which was making for Liverpool when she was sunk by German U-boats in May 1915. Though the sinking itself is well-known, being one of the triggers for the United States entering the war, what is less well-known is that this event sparked a series of anti-German riots in Liverpool and Tranmere, with attacks on shops – and not just German-owned shops, but Chinese-owned ones too. A dark chapter in the city’s history, which few now are aware of.

As a major centre for the importation of animals, millions of which were used in the war effort – including the real-life War Horses – Birkenhead was also the centre of efforts by the animal charity the Blue Cross to bring the concept of animal rights to the fore.

Moths to a flame

The role of the music hall was also particularly important in the North West, with its large working-class urban populations. As Mike Benbough-Jackson points out, ‘music hall can be seen as just another of the channels for exercising pressure on men to enlist, drawing them like moths to a flame’. The World War One at Home project has featured the story of one such recruit, Percy Morter, who went to a show at the Palace Theatre, Manchester, where the renowned female drag artiste Vesta Tilley was recruiting for the army. The star placed her hand on Percy’s shoulder and encouraged him to take the King’s shilling: he joined the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, and died on the Somme the following year. And yet at the same time, the music halls could be much more than just propaganda tools – ‘they also included dramas featuring soldiers leaving, the loss of loved ones, and weeping widows’.

Liverpool Scottish at Bellwearde, June 1915 (IWM)
Liverpool Scottish at Bellwearde, June 1915 (IWM)

Mediums and hoaxers

The North West was also a particular focus for another phenomenon that was seen throughout the UK during the First World War: the growth of Spiritualism, as recently bereaved wives and parents tried to contact the spirits of dead servicemen.

‘The North West featured a very wide range of people who claimed that they could communicate with lost loved-ones,’ says Mike Benbough-Jackson, ‘from sombre Spiritualist churches for the august and scientifically-minded, Arthur Conan-Doyle types, through to crystal ball-gazers on the Blackpool seafront. I was struck by the extent, though, to which magistrates and the local police throughout the North West mounted sting operations, to try to clamp down on hoaxers.’ Women police officers, in disguise, were generally used to gather evidence: there were real concerns that so-called mediums, claiming to be in touch with the spirits of the dead, would cause distress.

While it might seem like a harmless quirk, ‘this kind of state surveillance is just one example of how the First World War was a massive set-back for liberal thinking in Britain. And it shows how big a question it became for many of the people who stayed at home during the war, of how you should behave during it. Many sporting events were cancelled, for example, and many people were unsure whether to take holidays. It’s surprising how personally people in Britain were affected by the war, and how different things became from the workaday world. You really need to look at the war with an estranging eye.’

The First World War and the fourth estate

Frank McDonough, Professor of International History at Liverpool John Moore’s University, has written on the origins of the First World War. As part of the roadshows associated with the World War One at Home project, he’s also presented research on the press reaction to the events leading up to the outbreak of war in August 1914, and in particular on how it was reported in the North West, in papers such as the Manchester Guardian and Blackpool Gazette.

‘The Manchester Guardian was one of the first papers in the country to realise that things in the Balkans could escalate into a world war – but that was right at the end of July 1914 (less than a week before Britain declared war on Germany). The press didn’t understand the Anglo-French Entente, and nobody thought that the Anglo-Russian Convention would lead to anything. Until then, the big story in the British press had been the prospect of Home Rule in Ireland.’ With their large Irish populations, readers in Liverpool and Manchester in particular had had their attention fixed across the Irish Sea.

War and reconciliation

Another perspective that Frank McDonough has comes from his spending a large amount of time doing research in Germany. ‘Germans take the position that the First World War was a disaster, leading to Versailles, the Weimar Republic and ultimately the Nazis. They fear that the centenary will be used in Britain just as another opportunity to rub German noses in it, with no reconciliation involved. They don’t recognise themselves in the depiction of the Germans as Huns in the First World War.’

Frank McDonough says, by contrast, that he would like to see the commemoration here as being about reconciliation. ‘People in the UK sometimes think that the war was all about the War Poets, but the War Poets hardly sold at all. Wilfred Owen’s poetry sold just 2,000 copies during the war – it was hardly Sergeant Pepper. The best-selling book about the First World War, after the conflict had ended, was Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front – which is about a German soldier.’

The depiction of the war in films and musicals has also spread the idea that it was ‘a complete waste, with generals using recruits as cannon-fodder, or even deliberately planning to kill off working-class recruits. It’s hard to shift that perception. The historical debate that’s attempted to turn it around hasn’t resonated with the public. But perhaps, through World War One at Home, it will.’

The Black Chair of Birkenhead

As the 2014 National Eisteddfod gets underway in Llanelli, Meic Stephens recounts the 1917 winner who was unable to take his seat on the Bard’s chair.

hedd-wynnFew poets achieve fame solely on account of the circumstances of their deaths, but in the case of Hedd Wyn (Ellis Humphrey Evans;1887-1917) it was the manner of his passing that caught the public mood and ensured that he would be remembered a hundred years later. The soldier-poet’s fate would be the stuff of one of the most abiding folk-narratives of twentieth-century Wales. Every schoolchild in Welsh-speaking Wales has heard of Hedd Wyn and many have visited Yr Ysgwrn, his former home in the hills above Trawsfynydd, which is now a small museum maintained by the National Trust. Just as familiar is the bronze statue to ‘the Shepherd Poet’ that stands in the village.

In 1917 the National Eisteddfod was held at Birkenhead, near Liverpool, one of the rare occasions when the festival has been held outside Wales. Because there was a war on, it was only a three-day event rather than the week-long celebration of the nation’s music, art and literature that it continues to be to this day. The Chairing of the Bard, generally considered to be the principal honour to which a Welsh poet can aspire and the main ceremony in the proceedings, was held on the second day, the sixth of September. The three adjudicators, all distinguished men of letters, were of the opinion that the most accomplished poem submitted for the competition had been written by a poet using the pseudonym Fleur-de-lis, and that in their estimation, the poem was worthy of the prize. The ceremony took its usual form: the Archdruid asked Fleur-de-lis to stand so that he could be acclaimed by the crowd that always gathers on these occasions. But no one got to his feet. He called a second time, again with no response, and a third, by which time it had become clear that the winning poet was not present.

After a pause, the Archdruid announced that the winner of the Chair competition had been killed in the war, paying the ultimate sacrifice shortly after sending his awdl (a long poem in the traditional, strict metres) to the Eisteddfod. He also informed the audience that Fleur-de-lis was the pseudonym of Ellis Humphrey Evans of Trawsfynydd, better known by his bardic name, Hedd Wyn. He had been serving as a private with the 15th Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers (Ist London Welsh), and that he had fallen ‘somewhere in France’. The prize was therefore awarded posthumously. The empty chair was then draped in black, to the great emotion of the audience, and would be known ever after as Cadair Ddu Penbedw (The Black Chair of Birkenhead), one of the most potent icons of tragic loss associated with the Great War. Hedd Wyn, virtually a monoglot Welsh-speaker, was thirty years old when he died but he is usually depicted as a sturdy youth full of idealism and promise. It was a poignant scene and, according to newspaper reports, there wasn’t a dry eye in the pavilion. Wales lost a disproportionately large number of its sons during the Great War but it has kept a special place in its affections for Hedd Wyn.

Hedd_Wyn_statue
Statue of Hedd Wyn in Trawsfynydd, Gwynedd, Wales. Image by Oosoom (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The winning poem was entitled ‘Yr Arwr’ (The hero) and related the myth of Prometheus to Christian symbolism. With the possible exception of some of his much shorter lyrics, it is generally thought to be his finest poem. It had been started in Trawsfynydd and polished in camp at Litherland, near Liverpool, and then taken to Flanders, where it was finished and posted back to Wales. Having enlisted early in 1917, the poet was killed after being struck in the chest by shrapnel on the day he first saw action, on Pilkem Ridge, on 31 July in the same year – the first day of the third battle of Ypres (Passchendaele). ‘He was a silent fellow,’ an officer commented, ‘it would appear he could speak but little English, or if he could he did not.’ Hedd Wyn was one of the 31,000 soldiers who died that day. ‘A fine day’s work,’ Douglas Haig wrote in his diary.

A volume of Hedd Wyn’s poems, Cerddi’r Bugail (The shepherd’s poems), was published in 1918 and with the profits from this book, supplemented by subscriptions, the statue was raised to him in his home village, a permanent reminder of the sacrifice of a whole generation. The poet was buried in Artillery Wood cemetery at Boezinge, and is commemorated by an inscribed slate at Langemarck. The story of Hedd Wyn was made into a film that was nominated for an Oscar in 1992. The Black Chair, together with other artefacts associated with the poet, is kept at Yr Ysgwrn.