Merseyside at War 1914-1918: The Home Front

Wars are won and lost on the home front. So to fully understand the history of any war it is important to get some sense of how those who remained on the home front contributed to the war effort and how they experienced the war. In one way or another, each part of the British Isles was affected by the First World War. Merseyside’s role in shipbuilding and the import and export of goods meant that it played a central part in the conflict. But not everyone in the region saw or experienced the war in the same way. Some attacked German shops while others tried to protect families whose main breadwinner had gone to war. Workers defended their interests and pacifists resisted conscription. Almost everyone eagerly awaited news from the front.

As the ‘second city of empire’, Liverpool and its environs played a pivotal role in the war. Even before the conflict, the port was a life line. In all, by 1914 some 31 per cent of imports and exports passed through the port. This share increased during the war because many southern English ports were closed. Ships were like red blood cells that carried the oxygen of commerce to all parts of the globe. Some idea of the importance of Merseyside as a shipping centre can be seen in the 74 per cent  profit made Cammell Laird by 1916, though this company was also involved in munitions, another  industry that grew during wartime.

Perhaps there is no better indication of the importance of Merseyside to the health and wealth of Britian than reports in the German press. When she described the effect of the Zeppelin raids, Mrs Humphry Ward wrote that the Germans were being ‘fed on ridiculous lies about the destruction of Liverpool docks and the wreaking of “English industry”’. The German press may have exaggerated, but the fictitious report that described the ‘bombardment’ of Liverpool docks is a revealing fiction. Merseyside mattered.

For the people of Merseyside, the docks were, either directly or indirectly, the source of their livlihood. At that time ships had  a significance that they do not have today; some built vessels, many others worked on them and most knew someone who was often at sea. There was a sense of pride in having an association with these vessels. The loss of the Lusitania in May 1915 illustrates the way in which the region was closely connected to the sea. Although there is some debate over what triggered the anti-German riots that followed the sinking of the Liverpool-registered ship, it is unlikely that the ransacking of German shops all over the city, in what was described at the time as a ‘campaign of riot and pillage’, would have taken place if the ship had not been sunk.

Some of those at the forefront of the riot were women, including a statuesque lady in a military hat who led a chorus of Tipperary as they burned items  taken from Kaufman’s furniture store in Ellenborough Street. While this musical rioter is hardly representative of all Merseyside women, she reminds us that although they were not called on to fight the enemy women did contribute in to the war effort in a number of ways. One of the most notable examples is Eleanor Rathbone, who had returned to her home city in 1896 after completing her studies at Oxford. Her concern about the lives of the poor encouraged her to take the lead in the Liverpool branch of the Soldiers and Sailors Family Association, an organisation that provided relief for those whose husbands were at war. After Separation Allowances were paid in weekly instalments  from March 1914, the Liverpool Women’s Industrial Council noted an improvement in ‘the health and well-being of the children’.

Women worked in offices, factories and farms during the war. Yet many men continued to occupy peace time roles. Indeed, some industries were considered so vital to the war effort that workers were not called upon to serve the country. Edwardian Britain had seen confrontations between labour and capital, most notably during the general transport strike of 1911. The war did not smooth over these tensions. Sometimes fresh disputes were generated by the war. When 256 Birkenhead shipyard workers were fined at a munitions tribunal in September 1915,  one proclaimed that if this was the way British workers were treated they might as well be employed by the Germans. While in Liverpool, during 1916, dockers opposed the employment of women to load and unload ships. In 1917 Liverpool engineers joined a strike that affected munitions factories throughout England.

Despite these protests, the labour force did not oppose the war as such, only the way in which the government and employers were handling industrial matters. Others, however, had  political, religious or moral objections to the conflict. But these were a noticeable minority. The majority of people on Merseyside appear to have accepted, if not actively welcomed war. With so many loved ones in peril at land and sea, many felt that winning the war was the the only way to secure the return of their fathers, husbands, brothers and sons. The local press kept people informed about the experiences of men from both sides of the Mersey. As well as the well-known achievements of heroes like Noel Godfrey Chavasse who was awarded the Victoria Cross on two occaisons, newspapers contained stories from men in the trenches. One individual, who had  been a policeman in Birkenhead before the war, recollected how he was saved from the clutches of the enemy by a man who he had previously arrested on a number of occasions. The home front and front line were not as far removed as one might think.

By: Mike Benbough-Jackson

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