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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.’

Pulpits, mutinies and ‘khaki fever’: The unsettling stories of WW1

Matt Shinn has unearthed some unsettling stories as part of the World War One at Home project, which might not otherwise have got an airing.

Lester Mason, Lecturer in History at University of Wales Trinity Saint David, singles out the treatment of German immigrants in some communities in Wales, as a particularly dark aspect of the Great War in the Principality. ‘We might think of ourselves as liberal-minded,’ he says, ‘but look at how ordinary, law-abiding people of German descent were dealt with in the First World War – arguably, much worse than British immigrants in Germany were treated.’

Examples include the case of a liberal-minded, anti-Kaiser German Professor at the University College of Wales Aberystwyth, a Dr Ethe, who was forced to leave his post after there were disorderly street protests against him (several papers at the time sided with the protestors). ‘It’s a rather ugly story of anti-German sentiment, which was repeated throughout Britain,’ says Lester Mason – often mobs would go looking for German workers in barbers and hotels, where they had traditionally been employed. But the trouble wasn’t confined to so-called ‘enemy aliens’: there were also problems between locals and American naval personnel in Pembroke dock, and disturbances involving Belgian refugees in Milford Haven. ‘These are some of the less savoury aspects of the war, which have been forgotten or sidelined.’

These are some of the less savoury aspects of the war which have been forgotten or sidelined

British prisoner, 1918 (IWM)
British prisoner, 1918 (IWM)

A hotbed of immorality

Also unsettling is the way that the authorities treated young women in many parts of Wales, fearing an outbreak of what was called ‘khaki fever’ (the supposedly overwhelming attraction felt by young women towards a man in uniform). Women in Wales were policed under the Defence of the Realm Act, with arrests being made among those who were caught committing ‘indecent acts.’ Women in Cardiff faced a curfew. And at the same time, concerned citizens took things into their own hands: in Swansea, one councillor called the town a ‘hotbed of immorality,’ because of evidence of sexual activity between young women and visiting Scandinavian seamen – the Swansea Women’s Citizens Union subsequently launched a ‘Purity Crusade’ to ‘stem the tide of immorality sweeping over the town’.

Feeding the guns
Elsewhere in Wales, and throughout Britain, women were finding work in the many munitions factories that supplied the Front with bullets and shells. One of the largest munitions factories and weapons stores in Wales was at Pembrey, where dynamite and TNT were produced: from 1916 women were employed on the shop floor, alongside the men.

In July 1917 an enormous explosion left four men and two women dead. But it was the funeral of the two female victims – Mildred Owen aged 18, and Mary Watson, 19 – that drew the most mourners, including from among their fellow workers, some of whom wore their overalls to the service.

The war and Welshness

According to Lester Mason, ‘there has been a perception that the Welsh were less keen to go to war than people elsewhere in Britain. Recruitment figures for Wales are on a par with those for England and Scotland. But there is some anecdotal evidence of farming communities being reluctant to give up their labour. And then there’s the Welsh tradition of Non-conformism: the perception has been one of a more distinct pacifism in Wales.’ This remains a controversial subject, and there is a need for further research into ordinary people’s enthusiasm for war in Wales, based upon changing attitudes during the conflict, as well as gender, town and country, and even class distinctions.

Did the war change the way that people in Wales saw themselves in relation to England? ‘There’s a strange mix. There was nothing wrong in saying that you were fighting for England’s glory, or fighting in England’s war – some Welsh war memorials even said that, including the Cenotaph at Pembroke, which carries the inscription, ‘Forget us not o land for which we fell. May it go well for England, still go well’.

But at the same time, ideas of nationhood were also emerging throughout Britain during the First World War, and throughout the Empire. Though Plaid Cymru didn’t emerge till the Twenties, there was a growing sensitivity to being Welsh. People’s attitudes were flexible, and could accommodate the paradox: that you were both Welsh, and fighting England’s fight. And oddly enough it was the sense of belonging in the British Empire – even as the war brought about the beginning of the end of that Empire – that enabled them to do that.’

Rioting in Rhyl
Gerry Oram, Lecturer in History at the University of Swansea, singles out another dark story that the World War One at Home project has uncovered.

The Canadian army mutiny at Kinmel Park in Rhyl, North Wales, was one of a series that crept across Britain, in the latter years of the war and immediately afterwards. It was also one of the most serious. In March 1919 rioting broke out among 20,000 exhausted and disease-ridden Canadian troops, who found themselves stuck for months in a dilapidated training camp, waiting to be taken back to Canada. By the time that order was restored, five of them, having come through some of the great battles of the war, had been killed by their own countrymen. The tombstone that was provided by locals for one of the soldiers that was killed, Corporal Joseph Young, reads: ‘someday, sometime we’ll understand.’

By the time that order was restored, five of them, having come through some of the great battles of the war, had been killed by their own countrymen

Welsh women after the war
According to Gerry Oram, in Wales especially there is more to the traditional narrative concerning women in the First World War – of opportunities becoming available as the men went off to fight – than meets the eye. ‘We can see clearly that women in Wales were far worse off than in the rest of the UK,’ he says. ‘Their rates of employment were lower before the war, then there was some munitions work, but then after the war the percentage of women who were employed dropped to below the 1911 census figure. In 1931 it dropped further still.’

But then, according to Gerry Oram, the effects of World War One on the Welsh economy were catastrophic. ‘The war made Welsh industry very disjointed. The coalfields took on an importance that they didn’t warrant. Many industries that were given over to war work subsequently declined. And in agriculture too, which had traditionally employed many women, employment rates dwindled. This all led to a huge migration of young women, especially, away from Wales. It fits with one of our key narratives of the First World War: that Wales suffered disproportionately, compared to the rest of Britain.’

Two versions of history

Of course, one of the things that sets Wales apart from much of the rest of Britain is the fact that the country is bi-lingual. Gethin Matthews, who is a Lecturer in History at the University of Swansea, is in a good position to understand the implications of this, as he speaks both Welsh and English. ‘Some narratives come across differently in Welsh and English language sources,’ he says. ‘Take a figure like John Williams, the best-known preacher in North Wales during the First World War: he preached in uniform in the pulpit, encouraging men to enlist. He was seen as quite mainstream during the war itself, but in the Welsh language sources he really comes across as a hypocrite, as someone who had turned his back on the traditions of the Welsh chapel, in preaching for a just war. He’s seen as betraying the old traditions of pacifism and anti-militarism – of betraying the idea of Welshness itself.’

But then, in Welsh language sources ‘disillusion with the war starts earlier, and goes deeper, than it does in the English ones. And indeed, in economic terms the consequences of the war were awful for Wales: it’s impossible to say that the war was worth it. It’s no coincidence that the first conscientious objector to be elected to parliament, after the war, was elected in Wales.’
What the World War One at Home project has shown, though, is that Welsh chapels responded to the war in very different ways. Two Baptist chapels in Briton Ferry (near Neath) illustrate the point. One, Rehoboth, preached the message of a just war, and has 99 names on its roll of honour. Another, Jerusalem, just down the road, was known by its detractors as the ‘Kaiser’s Temple’, being strongly anti-war: it hosted anti-conscription meetings. There was a plurality of attitudes to the war, in other words. But while many historians have focused on the stories of Welsh conscientious objectors, for Gethin Matthews this is ‘more than their numbers warrant.’

 It’s quite clear that remembrance is more a matter of community in Wales than it is elsewhere in Britain

Finally, the long-standing narrative of Wales suffering more than the rest of Britain during the war, or being worse treated, has also led to there being a slightly different culture of remembrance in the country, according to Gethin Matthews. ‘The official commemoration is a devolved issue. But it’s quite clear that remembrance is more a matter of community in Wales than it is elsewhere in Britain. In England, money is given to schools to take children to visit the World War One battlefields. In Wales, there are initiatives to encourage children to find out about the men who joined up, and how their communities were affected by their going. That’s quite a different emphasis.’

With thanks from Lesley Hulonce, history lecturer at Swansea University, who undertook research for the ‘hotbed of immorality’ section.

Find out more about what research reveals about WW1 and its legacy in the AHRC’s Beyond the Trenches publication. Read it online or order a free copy here.