Merseyside At War (Book Review)


 Lee Ruddin reviews Anthony Hogan’s book on the role of Merseyside (and Merseysiders) in the two world wars.

The long-running ITV period drama Foyle’s War was filmed in Liverpool recently. With the promotion of the protagonist from Detective Chief Superintendent to Senior Intelligence Officer, it was not surprising that producers turned away from Hastings and looked towards Liverpool (via Dublin) as a stand-in location for post-World War Two London. The city’s Georgian Quarter is an architectural gem yet it is two of the Three Graces (the Port of Liverpool and Cunard buildings serving as the Foreign Office and MI5 HQ respectively) that gleam throughout the three, two-hour-long programmes. Appearances can be deceptive, they say, and the majority of reviewers have welcomed Liverpool’s doubling-up for London. Few locals, if any, will feel deceived by famous landmarks making an appearance when the name of their city does not since the ninth series, written by Anthony Horowitz, was not billed as such.

This contrasts sharply with Anthony Hogan whose debut book, Merseyside at War, is billed – by the nature of its very title – as one that details and discusses Merseyside’s wars between the years 1914-18 and 1939-45. Yet it is less about “Merseyside’s” story and more stories about “Merseysiders”. By allocating more space to the latter than the former, readers could – possibly should – feel deceived by appearances. Before we touch upon two of the eight chapters concentrating generally on the lives of Merseysiders on the front line(s) or near to, though, let us first deal with the two chapters that specifically concentrate on life on the Home Front across Merseyside, what readers will arguably expect to read about, entitled ‘Anti-German Riots’ and ‘The Blitz’.    

Anniversaries can act as a midwife to the birth of lazy scholarship and this, we see, is no different in some of the works published prior to the one hundredth anniversary of the sinking of the R.M.S Lusitania. Too concerned with life aboard and loss overboard, some authors have failed to concern themselves sufficiently enough with the legacy of the events of 7 May 1915. By detailing localised anti-German riots shortly thereafter in chapter three, however, Hogan helps to redress the imbalance of discussions which hitherto lean towards the long-term, international repercussions of unrestricted submarine warfare; and by providing a chapter-length treatment (albeit one just over seven pages long) he shines a light on a dark chapter in way that Stephen McGreal does not in either of his two recent Pen & Sword paperbacks. After a period of reading press report upon press report about the attacks on and ransacking of German-run businesses, researchers become numb to the nasty actions of nefarious members in society. Yet even seasoned ones will find the story of Charles (a Liverpudlian of German ancestry) and ‘Dora’ (born in Germany) Bobbie numbing: licensees of the Britannia Hotel, they ‘witnessed the smashing of their public house on Breck Road during the anti-German riots [in 1915 and, in 1918, Hogan informs us] received the dreadful news that their son [Christopher] had died while fighting for the British Army against the German Army’ [my emphasis].

Readers will find the bombing of a makeshift mortuary in the gym at Marsh Lane Baths in May 1941 especially shocking because it prevented 40 unidentified persons (a number of which were killed when the Co-operative store shelter on Stanley Road in Bootle was bombed the night before) from being identified and buried individually. If the names of those were known there is little doubt, to be sure, that the author would have named each and every individual. Hogan names 143 victims elsewhere within chapter nine, though, ensuring that those victims of the Blitz will forever be remembered and thereby achieves his aim of ‘remembrance’. This is something, needless to say, for which he deserves praise. The same, however, cannot be said in regards (the lack of) numbers. Hogan is right to state, on the one hand, ‘it would need far more than one chapter … to cover all the raids,’ but he is wrong to believe on the other that it relieves him of the need to reference them. The damage caused, after all, was devastating; during the 18-month period between August 1940 and January 1942, there were a total of 68 raids over Merseyside which resulted in 4,000 deaths, 10,000 homes being destroyed and a further 184,000 properties partially damaged. Only very rarely does the inclusion of statistics convey a message that a photograph would and, sadly, this is one such rare occasion because the photos included are of a particularly poor (black and white) quality. This is something, needless to say, for which he is less deserving of praise. As such, I would direct readers to two works by Neil Holmes: Liverpool Blitzed: Seventy Years On (2011) and Merseyside Blitzed (2012). A shorter, cheaper and more colourful book, though, is Daniel K. Longman’s Merseyside War Years: Then & Now (2012). This not only includes ten-times as many vistas as Hogan’s work (nine compared with 90), but contains ten-times fewer publishing errors.

It would have been easier for Hogan to detail the life of, say, Noel Chavasse (1884-1917) – and possible, too, since the Oxford-born medic has been accepted by Merseysiders as one of their own after serving with the (10th Battalion of the) King’s (Liverpool) Regiment. Yet the author opts to take a harder path and introduces readers – save the well-read – to another honorary Merseysider, one who likewise served with the (8th Battalion of the) King’s but one who has yet to be sufficiently honoured: Bernard McGeehan (1888-1916). Only in 2006 – in between Chavasse polling third in a search for the “100 Greatest Merseysiders” (2003) and the “Chavasse Statue” (2008) being unveiled – did the Irish-born private, who was undoubtedly autistic, receive a pardon for alleged desertion (that resulted in him being shot at dawn). Chapter four might well be small at just over four pages long, and an easy if ‘unhappy’ and ‘depressing’ read, but a chapter-length treatment proves once more hard-hitting and leaves a big impression. The same goes for chapter ten, which discusses the life of George Rodocanachi (1876-1944), a doctor who heroically helped ‘more than 2,000’ Jews flee Nazi-occupied France so they would escape what ultimately he could not: the concentration camps. Although ‘Rodo’ worked in Marseille and died abroad, he was born on Merseyside – a place he called home for the first few years of his life. This fact notwithstanding, it is the former and not the latter who remembers him. While it is unlikely to be the last word on Rodocanachi’s Second World War record or, for that matter, his Chavasse-like actions during the First – especially given the recent increase in the number of disciples to the discipline of First World War Studies – it is likely that the author’s pithy pen portrait will help bring forward any potential unveiling date of a first memorial.

Despite references to the Beatle George Harrison and comedian Stan Boardman, Merseyside at War is more concerned, to reiterate, with front lines than the Home Front. This will not be music to the ears of those who have purchased a copy (or were about to) expecting to read about war(s) on Merseyside as opposed to Merseysiders’ war(s) yet they will, rest assured, find some of the humorous tales funny. It is Hogan’s detailing and discussion of the very unfunny matters of wartime internment and peacetime repatriation, however, and not his poetry or less-than-poetic prose that should lead locals to purchase copies. Local authorities did the ultimate disservice to members of the Chinese (chapter six) and Italian (chapter seven) communities on Merseyside who served abroad in the fight against intolerance, let us never forget, by acting in an intolerant fashion against them and/or their families at home. This is something that needed to be said and something, needless to say, for which he deserves particular praise.

Writer Anthony Horowitz announced he has put his (script) pen down after the airing of the last series of Foyle’s War. Let us hope that researcher Anthony Hogan, after a simple but successful first book, picks his pen up again – soon.

Merseyside At War by Anthony Hogan is published by Amberley Publishing. For more information, click HERE.

Also on this website are Lee Ruddin’s reviews of Stephen McGreal’s books Liverpool In The Great War and Wirral In The Great War, plus Lee’s article on Eleanor Roosevelt’s visit to Liverpool during World War Two.