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Wirral honours its war dead: A fitting memorial
When the Kaiser growled, Birkenhead roared back. From Oliver Street to the Persian Gulf; from Westbank Road to Messines, Abbot Street to Jutland, the town's young men needed no call to arms.
They volunteered in droves for their county regiment and fought - and died - on battlefields that were just names on the map to the majority.
The present surge of interest in the First World War provides moving and evocative archive film.
Clad in capes and puttees against the driving rain and cloying mud, the soldiers pressed forward; stiff-legged, jerky figures, against the German guns. Many fall, and are left behind, untended. The advance was all.
And when it was all over, the town was left with the burden of making sense of the appalling losses sustained in achieving victory.
One-in-eight who fought never returned, and many who survived bore lifelong physical and psychological scars. In a sense, they never came back either.
In a country determined to forget the horror, the sight of these gaunt and prematurely-aged veterans with their haunted eyes pricked consciences, prompting a nationwide movement for official remembrance.
But how best to record gratitude, justify if possible the slaughter and facilitate the grieving process? Opinions were sharply divided, with choices limited by a post-war economic slump.
Cammell Laird, the town's major employer, saw its workforce more than halve, from wartime levels of 15,000 to 7,000 by the end of the 1920s, when most memorials were built.
Birkenhead felt acutely the national housing shortage; the reality was far removed from the 'land fit for heroes to live in' the politicians had promised.
Birkenhead's main memorial, in Hamilton Square facing the town hall, followed traditional design. A cenotaph of white Portland stone replicates the national focus for remembrance in London's Whitehall.
Two mythical female figures, one holding the Victory laurel and a palm branch, symbolising peace; the other an official next-of-kin medallion which combatants wore at all times. Designer Lionel Budden, an architecture don at Liverpool University, had grounds for pride.
It is a fine monument and a fitting tribute to the 1,293 men of the town who were killed in the Great War.
But it was not to everyone's taste.
There was a spirit of post-war disillusionment; many took their lead from the war poets such as Birkenhead's Wilfred Owen and remembered not the noble, willing sacrifice of war, but the staggering waste and futility.
Owen was killed at the River Sambre, France, a week before the armistice and many who survived felt these monumental gestures in stone were frivolous, costly and inappropriate.
Almshouses for disabled veterans were a popular alternative; playing fields, memorial halls and hospitals and dependants' funds all had support. Someone had to decide, but who?
The answer was, the same people who had, at rallies and in speeches, exhorted those they were now planning to commemorate to go and do their patriotic duty.
'Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori' (It is sweet and fitting to die for one's country) was their ethos then.
Join up and die of wounds in a shellhole as the Spandau machineguns chattered and your pals fell all around you. Join up quickly, before you miss the fun.
Owen had his own take on the 'Dulce et decorum' motif. He called it 'the old lie'.
But the great and good of the town would have their way, and the townspeople would make their views known. Whether they were listened to or not is another matter. A 'consultative conference' was called by the mayor in March, 1919, but matters stagnated.
In November, 1920, an editorial in the Birkenhead News agonised that 'Nineteen twenty-one is approaching and nothing has been done'.
Neighbouring towns and suburbs, it added, 'constitute a reproach to Birkenhead, while nothing is attempted by the parent community.' Ample necks reddened under stiff collars.
Such feelings found their echo in the town.
Readers were aware that the paper's proprietor, A W Wilmer, headed a family that had lost two sons in the war, and backed his vociferous and hugely embarrassing campaign for action.
So, in 1922, they tried again.
An executive committee was formed comprising 12 Justices of the Peace, three ex-mayors, four ex-Army colonels...and three women.
Mayor, Cllr Luke Lees, presided, but was not optimistic. Timing, said His Worshipful, was simply 'not propitious', and although the will was there, the same could not be said of the money.
He had a point. Demobilised veterans could only claim unemployment benefits for a maximum of 39 weeks and employers did not always keep jobs open for returned servicemen. There was outrage at the way they had been treated, which Wilmer helpfully articulated via his columns.
Worse was to come. Mayor Lees also faced charges that his executive committee (the councillors, the colonels, and company) had over-ridden the feelings of the general committee which included veterans in choosing an 'emblematic statue' in Hamilton Square.
The more representative general committee wanted something useful.
And the site brought its own problems. The executive wanted the memorial on the North side of the square, while public opinion favoured a more prominent site, facing the town hall, the civic and 'official heart' of the town.
But that site already had a distinguished occupant who had been in residence since 1877: John Laird.
The memorial to the Victorian shipbuilder who had done much to create the town he surveyed from his pedestal was the only consecrated ground in the vicinity, and Armistice Day ceremonies had been held there since 1918.
The site held specific memories for many, Willmer editorialised in January 1923: 'During the Great War, the one consecrated spot in Birkenhead was the base of the John Laird monument, when in the grey dawn of the morn, scores of heartbroken wives and mothers saw their soldier boys troop by for the last time, on the point of their departing.'
The public supported Prof Budden, won the argument, and the magistrates, military and mem'sahibs backed down.
The revered shipbuilder was summarily uprooted and moved to his present home in early 1924; folklore dates the town's decline to the day Laird turned his back on Birkenhead.
Mayor Lees' reservations over raising the £5,000 to build the memorial were quickly realised.
The entire sum was to be achieved entirely through public subscription, and the appeal was launched with a stern warning (later forgotten) that work would not start until the full sum was at hand.
Despite a population of 150,000, money trickled in so slowly that a door-to-door collection was organised during the summer of 1922.
The 'Mayor's Appeal' soon became the 'Mayor's Earnest Appeal' and Willmer carried the names of those who had contributed every week on his front page.
Elevation to the ranks of the publicly-righteous proved insufficient; Willmer was reflecting his own values, not those of less-wealthy townspeople, dismayed and furious at the lack of consultation and information emanating from the memorial executive committee.
But those who had lost most, gave quickest. Payments were enclosed with returned application forms for inclusion of names on the memorial.
The mother of Cpl A S Robinson wrote: 'Please find enclosed five shillings subscription...in memory of my only son, aged 25, killed at Gallipoli.'
And poignantly, the mother of Arthur Aspey, killed in action in 1915, felt the need to apoligise for her financial straits.
'I am sorry that I am unable to send some money at present, but I will later on when things brighten up.'
In the midst of a dockers' strike affecting 1,000 men locally, and a worldwide slump in shipping, The Birkenhead News demanded that each inhabitant memorialise the men to whom they owe their existence: 'Visitors are frankly amazed at our apathy!', an anonymous correspondent exclaimed on the letters page. Meanwhile the cost of the memorial had risen by £1,000.
If the executive committee was to be spared loud civic guffaws from rival borough Wallasey, it had to find £350 in the two months before unveiling in July, 1925.
Wearily, a last appeal was launched, and due to the generosity of a Mr Harding, who gave £300, the target was reached, and everything was set for the big day the monument was unveiled.
And what a day it was.
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