Lee Ruddin reviews Wirral In The Great War by Stephen McGreal (published by Pen & Sword)
It is important that we commemorate the soldiers of the Western Front during the First World War Centenary. Such commemorations should not come at the expense of commemorating civilians on the Home Front, though, since the mobilisation of those back home assisted those at the front. Inhabitants of the Wirral contributed towards the war effort yet knowledge of Wirralians’ contributions have remained primarily the preserve of local historians. Thanks to Pen & Sword’s Your Towns & Cities in the Great War series, however, readers hitherto familiar with only “top-down”, (inter)national narratives can familiarise themselves with “bottom-up”, local histories. Only now – through such accessible paperbacks which are divided chronologically, not thematically – can the locals of yesterday be truly commemorated by the locals of today and tomorrow.
The publisher is to be applauded for commissioning Stephen McGreal to write Wirral in the Great War since he is a committed student of the First World War who is completely innocent of the charge of “cashing in” on the conflict’s centenary. Unlike those “celebrity” historians guilty of having cashed in on national centenaries either side of the last century, McGreal penned under-celebrated, locally-inspired works like Moreton and District Patriots, 1914-1919 (1999) and Cheshire Bantams: 15th, 16th and 17th Battalions of the Cheshire Regiment (2006). His more internationally-orientated texts, such as Zeebrugge and Ostend Raids (2007) and Boesinghe (2010), have been rightly celebrated by reviewers at Over the Front journal and Stand To! magazine respectively and illustrate the global reach a local historian can have.
As positive as this might first appear, beholding such knowledge can often result in a negative reader experience. I say this since some writers find it difficult to resist the temptation to over-contextualise which results, alas, in authors overreaching themselves. McGreal easily resists the temptation to overreach, thankfully, and demonstrates an ample ability to contextualise smaller stories within the bigger picture. That the Wirral played host to Belgian refugees, German POWs and American “Doughboys” undoubtedly assisted his endeavours, but it would be mistaken to believe that such occurrences render his feat less deserving of praise. The Wirral was not bombarded by the German Imperial Navy or bombed by Zeppelin airships or Gotha planes, let us not forget, and yet discussion of Cammell Laird shipyard in Birkenhead, ferry workshops in Wallasey and a munition factory in Hoylake illuminates the pivotal parts plucky patriots played on the peninsula.
There are, as there are in any work, omissions a reader would have preferred were not omitted. I would have liked, for instance, to have seen a reference to letters penned by Liverpool-born, Liscard-based Ada McGuire to her sister in the U.S. (housed at the IWM London); this a high-end criticism, granted, yet the small number of letters to the editor referenced (two) is arguably smaller than even those with low expectations would have expected. The large number of illustrations included (130+) make up for the aforesaid omission, to be sure, but it does not distract this reviewer from the fact that the text contains the largest number of grammatical and publishing errors of any Pen & Sword title previously thumbed.
Wirral in the Great War is nonetheless definitely worth purchasing, not side-stepping, since it provides a stepping-stone for the potential author of a more definitive work on the area during the years 1914-18.
NOTE: If you’re interested in the history of Merseyside’s involvement in the two world wars, you can also read Lee Ruddin’s article on Eleanor Roosevelt’s visit to Liverpool during World War Two by clicking HERE.