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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.’

Occupational Hazards of a Secret Agent

In this guest blog, Paul M H Buvarp, a PhD candidate at the School of International Relations at St Andrews, explores the risks of working as an undercover propagandist during WW1.

War is a messy affair. Decisions are made and filtered through bureaucracies and offices, creating often very inefficient systems prone to mistakes and misunderstandings. Secrets are difficult to keep, plans are difficult to authorise and it is nearly impossible to receive clear directives. Perhaps the most vulnerable class in this regard in the First World War were those who depended particularly on secrecy, authorisation and direction — the secret agents.

Rowland Kenney (1882–1961) was one such secret agent whose frustration with the system ranged from humorous to downright despairing. Kenney was sent to Norway in 1916 to be the spearhead of the British propaganda campaign there. As an agent of the Foreign Office News Department, he received a cover identity as a Reuters Correspondent, which enabled him to make close connections with the press elites in the country. He was, by all accounts, very successful. By the end of the war, and in a period of only two years, he had personally been responsible for over one thousand pro-British articles appearing in the Norwegian press, and had held a significant role in shepherding the fall of the Berlin-influenced Norwegian national news agency and the creation of a London-friendly agency in its place.

The secrecy of his mission was essential not only because of his personal safety, but also because of the nature of his work. Kenney was of the belief that propaganda was at its most effective when it was not known to be propaganda. In one of his earliest reports, he wrote of his German counterpart in Norway and how that agent’s heavy-handedness and obviousness had turned the press and the people against his message.

It is difficult to tell to what extent his cover was upheld, i.e. whether some of his Norwegian contacts were aware of his true mission. There is nothing on paper to sharply suggest any of them did, and in fact, when he is referred to in Norwegian documents and memoranda, he is referred to as Reuters Correspondent. However, maintaining this identity was no easy task.

Oslo's Grand Hotel today
Oslo’s Grand Hotel today. Image by Asbjorn Floden (CC BY-NC 2.0)

In the summer of 1917, for example, the British Legation in Oslo received a visitor by the name of Ellison from Britain. It is not made explicitly clear who exactly Ellison was, but it is suggested that he was one of the many British do-gooders who spent the war going from place to place, dipping their toes in other people’s business. He appears—at least in Kenney’s writing—to have been unfortunately indiscreet. On Oslo’s main street stood the Grand Hotel (which still stands today) which doubtless was a centre-point for both Norwegian and foreign dignitaries, agents and elites in wartime. On the first day of Ellison’s visit, Kenney and Ellison were speaking in the foyer of the hotel, and Ellison evidently made the point that Kenney was in effect a secret agent of the Foreign Office. Kenney, mortified, acknowledged to his handler that it might have passed unnoticed, but that it may also have ruined his work.

A continuing theme throughout Kenney’s papers from the First World War is his constant battle to register his address with the Foreign Office, as well as to have them send certain necessary materials. Presumably, the Legation was under surveillance, and in order to maintain his secret position it was important that messages and packages could be received privately. While the idea carries merit, Kenney was more than a little annoyed when after nineteen messages had been sent about his new address, packages were still sent wrong. His twentieth message got the job done, only after it was passed through the Legation and encrypted in code.

Perhaps the most basic necessity to remain covert was the nature of payment for Kenney’s work. Payments were slow and unpredictable, and in order to elicit some form of response, Kenney sometimes had to threaten with resignation, or even borrow money privately from the British Minister’s private pocket. The Foreign Office payments naturally had to be disguised, so as to not blow the cover of his Reuters employment. When Kenney one day found his payment coming directly and openly from the Foreign Office, he was not amused: “The cat is out of the bag, and the spy hunters are dogging your tracks all over the place, but why, oh why, do your people do these things?” Being a secret agent was no easy task.

The First World War was in many respects an unprecedented challenge for governments and bureaucracies. It created a demand for a massive coordinated system, the likes of which had never before been seen. That the system was not as streamlined as it should have been is no surprise, and it is a credit to Kenney’s hard work, dedication and good luck that he at all succeeded. Notably, Kenney is still absent from the history books, so it might be safe to say that he has kept his cover very well.

WW1 Experts List: Now Available

The AHRC have compiled a list of WW1 researchers funded by the AHRC with expertise in the First World War and its commemoration who are happy to speak to journalists and broadcasters about their research. The list on the AHRC website includes their research specialisms and contact details, and the list will be updated throughout the period of the commemoration.

The researchers listed have expertise in everything from propaganda to poetry, shell shock to submarines, censorship to conscription, and fishing to the Western front. Preview these topics in the word cloud below.

If you need any further help in relation to media and press regarding WW1, contact the AHRC’s Communications Manager (Press and Media) – Danielle Moore-Chick. Email: d.moore-chick@ahrc.ac.uk. Telephone: 01793 41 6021

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