Liverpool In The Great War (Book Review)


Lee Ruddin reviews Liverpool In The Great War by Stephen McGreal (published by Pen & Sword)The Giant Spectacular in July 2014, which commemorated the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, attracted one million people to Liverpool and generated £46 million for the local economy. The vast majority of those in attendance were impressed by the show. For a small minority, though, the protracted parade left them feeling unimpressed. The five-day event, which featured three marionettes and was officially entitled Memories of August 1914, proved anything but memorable for Simon Carruthers and Betty Ainslie, two local attendees interviewed by the BBC. What they found disheartening was that a spectacle with the ability to stop traffic did not touch the hearts of spectators sufficiently enough to invite them to pause for thought and reflect upon those heady days when menfolk enlisted and departed for France and Flanders.

‘The fighting qualities of the Liverpool battalions are fairly well documented,’ Stephen McGreal writes in his new book, Liverpool in the Great War, so those left similarly ‘baffled’ by Royal de Luxe’s telling of the raising of the Pals have an array of titles to choose from. For others, however, who wish to learn more about life on the waterfront as opposed to (mostly) death on the Western Front then the above-referenced work is for them. Liverpool’s war years are a tale of production, philanthropy and, shamefully, persecution – pre-sinking as well as post-sinking of the RMS Lusitania. As such, McGreal, with a commendable control of the keyboard, takes readers from the Cunard factory (where women first manufactured 6 inch and 8 inch shells) to Mr and Mrs Richard D. Holt’s house on Ullet Road (which was turned into an auxiliary military hospital and, for its three-year existence as such, funded entirely by the Holts) and the internment of Carl Bernard Bartels on the Isle of Man (who sculpted the Liver bird). As thorough as the author’s discussion is with regard to the three aforementioned Ps, though, he could – indeed should – have written more about another two: precautionary lighting measures and post-war life. I will deal with the latter later.

Censors at the War Office Press Bureau upholding the Defence of the Realm Act, introduced in 1914, monitored newspapers diligently thus meaning that editors and reporters were at pains to put a positive “spin” on editorials and reports for fear of prosecution. Researchers today, not surprisingly, view such censorship in a negative light because it reduces the value of newspapers as a source of historical enquiry. By shining a light on the seventy-six post-war reports published in the Liverpool Courier, however, readers will be pleasantly surprised to learn that McGreal overcomes this hurdle to provide an invaluable, censor-free history, introducing the heroes who stood up and were counted during harrowing times on the Home Front. Compliments for ingeniously consulting post-war material outweigh any criticism for omitting material on post-war life, to be sure, yet McGreal ought to have fully acknowledged – like Matthew Richards, author of Leicester in the Great War, does in his 14-page epilogue – the burning issues that arose after the home fires had burnt out.

Numbering only 160 pages, Liverpool in the Great War is far from being a giant tome. Despite the fact it will get nowhere near attracting the same degree of interest or generating a similar amount of money as the Giants did, McGreal’s seventh book – arguably his finest yet – is sure to attract and generate the interest of Carruthers and Ainslie, among many others, since his telling of ordinary folk coping during extraordinary times is heartfelt and invites reflection. Although littered with grammatical and publishing errors, and containing little in the way of extracts from contemporary letters (six), the high number of illustrations included (117) further renders it a paperback worth purchasing.

Click HERE to read Lee Ruddin’s review of Stephen McGreal’s companion volume, Wirral In The Great War (also published by Pen & Sword).