Great War Britain: Liverpool (Book review)

 

Great War Britain – Liverpool: Remembering 1914-18 by Pamela Russell (The History Press)

Review by Lee Ruddin

Home Front is a BBC Radio 4 programme specially commissioned to mark the centenary of the First World War. The fictious drama set against the backdrop of fact starts and finishes with the outbreak and cessation of hostilities respectively, reproducing the everyday experience exactly one hundred years ago to the day of each episode’s broadcast. Notwithstanding the airing of 500-odd, 12-minute-long episodes over the course of four years, the majority of listeners will arguably agree it remains essential listening regardless of what the minority says about 2014-2018 commemorations being overkill. Can the same be said about Great War Britain, Liverpool: Remembering 1914-18?

In a word: no. I say this in large part because readers of local history have been provided with academic (Mike Benbough-Jackson’s Merseyside’s War: Voices of the First World War) and amateur treatments (Stephen McGreal’s Liverpool and the Great War and Wirral and the Great War as well as Anthony Hogan’s Merseyside At War) of life on the home front since 2014. Museum-goers have likewise been spoilt by permanent (From Waterfront to Western Front: Liverpool’s First World War and City Soldiers) and temporary exhibitions (Reflecting on Liverpool’s Home Front, Charity and Liverpool’s Home Front and First World War Hero’s VC and Bar Medal Group) in 2014, ‘16 and ‘17 respectively at the Museum of Liverpool. Given such coverage, most if not all authors would struggle to pen a book considered essential reading, so it will come as little surprise to learn that Pamela Russell has penned merely a desirable one.

‘The conduct of war on the home front is critical for victory,’ the author writes two-thirds into the 153-page paperback. ‘The Great War was arguably the first war where the part played by those at home was absolutely crucial,’ she continues, which underlines why The History Press – working in partnership with museums and libraries from as disparate regions as Tyneside and West Sussex – commissioned the Great War Britain series. Although stylistically superior to its Pen & Sword counterparts (given less publishing errors and more high-quality illustrations), it remains substantively inferior to the above-referenced Merseyside’s War, which is firmly built upon primary sources and fixed on telling the local story. In the interests of contextualising Liverpudlian/Wirralian/Sandgrounder reaction to and participation in an international conflict, Russell arguably veers too far from the specific to the general, with readers not infrequently learning more about the national rather than local picture. Although time – serious time – spent in the newspaper archives is in evidence, more archival research (outside Liverpool, ironically, possibly in The National Archives at Kew or Imperial War Museum in London) would have resulted in a tighter thesis.

This is not to say that the thesis is loose, however, since six relatively equal-weighted chapters follow a chronological path: from the Outbreak of War to Coming Home via Work of War and News from the Front Line. The author succeeds in providing an ‘interesting and accessible’ volume, to be sure, though fails to truly ‘bring to life’ those caught up in the epoch-changing conflict (for this, readers need look no further than the aforementioned Benbough-Jackson; those wanting more are directed to Peter Jackson’s forthcoming film, which colourises black and white footage). The inclusion of statistics when recounting Liverpool’s rise to (inter)national prominence, the requisitioning and conversion of commercial vessels as well as the landing(s) of American “Doughboys” is admirable yet will arguably be all that even mildly-versed readers will learn. The book is anything but timely, hitting shelves approximately three-and-a-half years after its Pen & Sword equivalents, though the three-page Timeline ensures a first-rate opening. Other instalments in the series contain roughly the same number of pages, possibly an author’s brief, which makes repetition particularly frustrating given it comes at the expense of much-needed elaboration on, say, morale and memorials (with regards to the latter, I would heartily recommend David P. Hearn’s Lest We Forget: The Most Outstanding First World War Memorials, a richly-researched, lavishly-illustrated account of 138 in all, seven of which will be of interest to locals).

As readers would expect, the recruitment initiatives of Lord Derby, the trials and tribulations of the King’s (Liverpool) Regiment, the pivotal role played by women as “Munitionettes”, the pioneering work on shell shock at a Red Cross hospital in Maghull and the heroics of double VC-winning medic Noel Chavasse all feature prominently. The well-trodden ground of Belgian refugee relief is worth traversing given these intolerant times when the “Other” is increasingly being shunned by their neighbour. That locals were so tolerant and willing to provide refuge to fellow civilians is one of the few positive stories among a slew of negatives (I am particularly proud of my ancestors’ charitable attitude towards their plight, for instance, since my late grandmother often spoke of the shelter a Belgian family provided to her father after he was gassed by the Germans), a fact Russell recognises and recounts. I knew nothing of Lathom Park’s wartime role, shamefully, yet the nugget of information provided inspired this reviewer to walk the “War Horse Route” from Ormskirk.

The film Journey’s End was released (in February 2018) almost exactly 100 years to the day after the events its depicts (the Spring Offensive). Unlike Steven Spielberg’s War Horse, though, it is less of a must-see and more try-and-catch-it-when-it-comes-on-TV. In a similar vein, readers are advised to borrow (since a library on the Wirral now has my donated copy) – not buy – Russell’s book.

LEE RUDDIN

Great War Britain – Liverpool: Remembering 1914-18 by Pamela Russell is published by The History Press, priced £14.99