The Athenaeum At War, 1914-18 p.1


In 1907 Liverpool celebrated in great style the seven hundredth anniversary of the grant of letter patent by King John to the fledgling borough on the Mersey.  The air was redolent of rejoicing at the astonishing progress which in two hundred years had transformed the small port and market town into the second city of Empire and a worldwide force.  There was optimism, and expectation of continuing progress and prosperity, the final paragraph of the souvenir booklet reads “There are questions to be dealt with ….. The prospect of Protection, with a diminished number of ships; the keen competition of southern ports; the possibility of the success of naval powers against us; such as these seem the only threatening clouds.  But the optimism which has carried us so far shall carry her yet further to the ideal goal of the fullest and best life for each of her dwellers”.  As if to symbolise this vision the frontispiece of the booklet has a depiction of an allegorical figure of “Liverpool” as a crowned classical lady, standing on a sea wall gazing at a distant horizon, with a large liner securely tucked under her arm.  Though one must doubt if the dwellers in the crowded courts, the unskilled workers fighting for work on the docks or the sack women stitching in there squalid workshops shared this sense of optimism.

In the minds of most people today, their vision of Edwardian England is of the long summers, picnics on the river, tennis on the lawn, country house parties and hunt balls.  But as “The History of Liverpool 1207 – 1907” indicated the long summer of Edwardian England was overshadowed by distant clouds of war as the “Great Powers”, Britain, France, Russia, Germany and the Austro Hungarian Empire eyed each other with increasing hostility, as new alliances were formed and the great arms race surge through public consciousness, though Jackie Fisher’s “Dreadnought” of 1906 seemed to be the ultimate defence.  The ship outclassed any other battleship in the world and a furious arms race had ensued in which the Great Powers tried to out build and outclass each other.  Most Britons rested secure in a belief that Britannia ruled the waves and the island was impregnable.

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HMS Dreadnought 1906.18.500 tons, 21 knots armed with 5 twelve inch guns (main armament) and many lighter guns.

Near home Liverpool was probably at its economic height, the great port that sustained trade and communication around the world, where the great liners raced across the Atlantic, but as mentioned above Southampton was pushing its interfering nose into this business, but the cargo ships sailed to ports in every continent and all seemed favourable?  At the Pier Head, the epicentre of this maritime world people marvelled at the newly completed Liver Buildings and eyed the construction of the new headquarters of the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board headquarters with its gleaming dome and proud inscriptions.
The Pier Had 1909.  The new Dock Board Building stands alone having been completed the previous year.  Work had been started on the Royal Liver Building, finished 1911 while the Cunard Building was not completed until 1916

The Proprietors of the Athenaeum were leaders in the commercial and industrial world of the port, they supported the professions.  The new University glowed in its Alfred Waterhouse brick at the top of Brownlow Hill.  Though there were still many slum dwellings and enlightened Corporations were tackling many of the most grievous social problems, educating the young, treating the sick and destitute, creating housing of a good standard on the sites of the old insanitary tenements of former years. No doubt many of the citizens were, as the booklet urged them, confident in the might of the British Empire, and its rule over more than a quarter of the world, sure of its justice and wisdom..

In the Minute Book there is no mention of international tensions, the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife at Sarajevo  on 28 June passes unnoticed by the Committee, even the subsequent declaration of war (August 4) is not mentioned.  However, the first entry which illuminated the mind set of this time, appears in November of 1914 and hints at the dark fears that underlay the superficial bravado of it being over by Christmas.  At their meeting that month the Committee raised the question of insurance against invasion and attacks by aircraft. This is a startling concern when one considers the infancy of fixed wing aircraft however Count Fredrick von Zeppelin had patented his design for rigid airships in 1895 and a civilian air transport service using these machines had been in operation for several years.  On the outbreak of war all sides quickly recognised the significance of the new aircraft and the German army quickly took over three of the civilian vessels and used them to bomb Liege in August 1914 bringing to reality a fear of aerial bombardment that can be traced back to the Napoleonic Wars, balloons under the orders of General  Von Heynau, had attempted to bomb Venice in 1849 but had been thwarted by a change in the direction of the wind, observation balloons had featured in the American Civil War and the development of fixed wing aircraft had contributed to the fear that aerial warfare was a forthcoming reality.  Aircraft had been used in the Balkan Wars in 1911 and 1912. The concept was seized on by imaginative authors, including H. G. Wells, in the 1890’s speculating on the possibility of a major European war, their pages filled with visions of mass bombing raids and massive slaughter on the ground.   The authors of these prophecies of doom, though it must be said they all told of the eventual triumph of the British Empire, all envisaged the probability of invasion.  This fear was stoked by the popular press, the Daily Graphic’s masthead on 3 August carried dire warnings of the Hun trampling over England.  So, It is not surprising that the Athenaeum was filled with trepidation.  On the 1st of February 1916 after zeppelin raids on London in the previous year insurance was taken out. When it was resolved “To increase insurance under the Aircraft and Bombardment Policy by £3000 so as to make it equal to fire insurance”.  By this time the threat of aerial bombardment was  a reality.  In 1917 when the aerial warfare was at its height and alarm was high, the Committee directed that the renewal of the policy was to be paid promptly.

In fact, Liverpool was well outside the range of aeroplanes of the period, and would have been at the extreme for the biggest rigid airships which began an aerial assault on London in January 1915.  These raids did little actual damage but nine people were killed on the first occasion and they caused considerable alarm and panic as any defences proved virtually useless.  The attacks became less effective with the improvements in fighter aircraft and the development of the incendiary bullet.  On 23 September 1916 Lieutenant W. Leefe Robinson flying a BE2c over Cuffley in Essex became the first man to shoot down an airship and was awarded the Victoria Cross.

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A strange inducement to enlistment

By David Brazendale, Proprietor