Merseyside Goes to War in 1914

Raising Kitchener’s Army

3 August 1914 was a sunny bank holiday. Thousands of Merseysiders spent it at the popular resort of New Brighton, strolling along the promenade and enjoying one of the last summers of peace. The day after, at 11pm on the 4 August, Great Britain declared war on Germany and plunged Europe into war which decimated a generation.

The peacetime Army was too small to mobilise for a European war alone and it was decided to introduce voluntary recruitment for the first time. Like most regions, Merseyside also had its own territorial units, six in total which belonged to the Kings (Liverpool Regiment). They were the 5th Battalion which had its origins in the 1st Lancashire Volunteer Rifles; the 6th Battalion, descended from the 1st Lancashire Volunteer Rifles founded in 1859; the 7th Battalion, first raised in 1860 as the 15th Lancashire Rifle Volunteers; the 8th Irish Battalion, composed entirely of men of Irish descent; the 9th Battalion, originally the 80th Lancashire Rifle Volunteers and the 10th (Scottish Battalion) raised in 1900 from men of Scottish descent.

Despite the strength of these battalions, Lord  Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War, decided not to use the territorial units to supplement the Army. Two reasons have been suggested by historians for this decision. The first explanation is that he had a deep mistrust for the part-time soldier which he had picked up while observing the French during the Franco Prussian War. The second and more probable explanation is that Kitchener believed that men were easier to train if they had no previous experience of soldering. That way, men with outdated knowledge would not have to be retrained. As it turned out, Kitchener was forced to reverse his decision. Some units were sent to the Western Front before the end of 1914. By 1915, the majority of the territorial forces were engaged in active service in France.

On 7 August 1914, Kitchener appealed for 100,000 men to volunteer for the Army. In Liverpool, poverty and unemployment combined with the tradition of voluntary service that went back to the Napoleonic wars and anti-French sentiment meant that men rushed to the nearest recruitment office to sign up. By 23 August, Kitchener had his 100,000 who were organised into the 11th Battalion, the first Service battalion in the country and a pioneer unit in Britain. On 28 August, Kitchener called again for another 100,000 men. At this point in the war, British forces had been engaged in two major battles, the battle of Mons and Le Cateau. Although the national press was doing it’s best to maintain morale, it was clear that the Army was struggling.  The men of Liverpool once again answered Kitchener’s call. By the end of the month, daily recruitment figures had broken all records.

They should be allowed to serve with their friends’: the Pals battalions

The majority of recruits in the early stages of the war were largely unskilled or semi-skilled workers. However, there was an untapped workforce of skilled workers that needed a different type of appeal. On 27 August 1914, the 17th Earl of Derby urged businessmen to serve together in battalions of comrades. It was believed that educated, white collar workers would prefer to serve with their workmates rather than being spread across various regiments. The new groupings were to be called Pals, and Derby hoped that 1000 men would come forward. In 36 hours, 2000 men volunteered and three battalions were raised in just over a week. 4000 men volunteered to serve in total and they were formed into four battalions; the 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th Battalions of the King’s Liverpool regiment.  The two reserve battalions, the 21st and 22nd Battalions stayed in Liverpool but were used as feeder and training units for the other four. The regimental depot was at Seaforth and according to an article in the Liverpool Courier from 13 May 1919, approximately 120,000 men passed through the depot between 1914 and 1918.

The Liverpool Pals battalions were the first groupings of Pals to be raised and they were the last to stand  down from service. The scheme was so successful that towns and cities across Britain quickly emulated it.

Kitchener was delighted by Liverpool’s response. Two days after Lord Derby’s appeal, Kitchener sent him a telegraph which read: ‘Splendid! I congratulate you. Go ahead, Liverpool! The city’s men had proven their courage and enthusiasm for the cause by furnishing Kitchener’s army with one of the largest regiments raised between 1914 and 1918.

Apart from the Pals battalions, there is one other particularly extraordinary set of battalions that caught the eye of Kitchener. In 1914 the Member of Parliament for Birkenhead, Alfred Bigland, asked the War Office for permission to form a battalion of men who were under regulation size (five foot and three inches) but otherwise fit for service. A few days later, some 3,000 men had volunteered, many of them fit industrial workers and miners, who had previously been rejected as being under height. These men formed what were initially called the 1st and 2nd Birkenhead Battalions of the Cheshire Regiment, later becoming the 15th and 16th Battalions of the Cheshire Regiment. Eventually two whole divisions, the 35th and the 40th, were formed from ‘Bantam’ men, but conscription saw standards drop and they were finally absorbed into the normal army.

Kitchener was deeply impressed with the battalions. In late March 1915, he arranged to visit both Manchester and Liverpool. 10,000 spectators gathered outside of St George’s Hall in Liverpool to watch the march past of 1,200 men in full service dress. The Bantams brought up the rear of the group and it reported that when Kitchener caught sight of them, he turned to Bigland, smiled broadly and shook his hand. They were the first Bantam unit that Kitchener had seen, and he later told Bigland that he was impressed by their efficiency and uniformity of height. There and then, Kitchener promised the MP that they would be fully equipped as soon as possible so that they could tale their place at the front.

Merseyside Contribution to the war at sea

 Apart from the King’s Liverpool Regiment, the second largest mobilisation of men in Merseyside was for work on the sea. In total, over 12,000 men joined the Royal Navy in Liverpool and a further 8,000 new men joined the mercantile marine. Because of the scale of their involvement, there were local men on every battleship that left Britain between 1914 and 1918.

Liverpool was a hugely important strategic port of Britain’s Western Approaches. Hundreds of convoys sailed into Liverpool and out again in order to keep Britain fed and stocked up for war. Another crucial role undertaken by Merseyside shipping was the blockade of Germany. The Admiralty organised a cruiser squadron based in Liverpool which was mobilised almost entirely from Merseyside shipping and its crew. The part played by this unit, known as the 10th Cruiser Squadron, was critical to the success of the Royal Navy.  Its patrol area extended from the Norwegian coast far into the Atlantic.

Plans for the mobilisation of a Merseyside fleet began with an early telegram from the Admiralty to the shipping companies warning them to prepare themselves. 24 hours after the declaration of war, a naval squadron, consisting of 25 armed merchant cruisers and a number or armed trawlers, was mobilised. This process of turning commercial vessels into war-worthy ships was a remarkable achievement.  Over the course of the war, 17 liners were requisitioned by the Royal Navy and turned into armed merchant cruisers by dedicated crews of carpenters and engineers. When a commercial vessel was signed over the Admiralty, and it’s men were paid off by their employers, the crew of that vessel could then sign on, under special naval orders, to serve on their old ship under the control of a Royal Navy captain.

One such commercial vessel, the Cunard liner the Carmania, engaged a German enemy liner in a ferocious battle in September 1914, one month after it had been put into commission as an armed cruiser.  The crew of the Carmania managed to sink the German liner even though the vast majority of its crew were civilians. Another famous battle involving former commercial vessels took place  on 23 April 1918, when two former Mersey ferries, renamed Daffodil and Iris, took part in the Zeebrugge Raid in an attempt to stop Germany using Zeebrugge as a submarine base. The action was successful and both ferries returned to service on the Mersey after the war.

By: Emma Vickers

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