The Athenaeum At War, 1914-18 p.2

In 1914 unlike the Continental powers Britain did not have conscription and relied on voluntary enlistments to recruit is army which was small, 975,000 regulars, many dispersed in garrisons around the Empire, backed by an undervalued volunteer part time Territorial Force created in1908.  Britain’s main strength was seen in the Royal Navy which in 1914 could deploy eighteen of the new “Dreadnought” class of battleships.  These battleships were superior in speed, range and armaments to any others in the world.   The new ships were supported by a multitude of other vessels of varying age and effectiveness.

It was very soon realised that the land force must be greatly expanded to match those of the central Powers.  The aim of raising 100,000 volunteers was spurred on by Lord Kitchener and resulted in recruitment of the so-called Pals Battalions which were initiated at a parade at Knowsley Hall.  These units were designed to be recruited from amongst the young men of a specific town or occupation with the promise that they would served together under officers recruited from their home area.  The call was highly successful and six battalions of the King’s Regiment had been raised by this means by the end of 1914.  Something of the enthusiasm for military affairs is hinted at by the acquisition for the library  in January 1915 of a book giving the history of the Lancashire and Cheshire Regiments and their deeds of bravery (this can be found in the library in class 355).

The cap badge of the Liverpool Pals uses the crest and motto of the Earls of Derby.

The age profile of the Athenaeum then was drawn from persons of middle age and above ensured that few Proprietors were actually involved on the front line and it is noticeable that most of casualties recorded in the Minute Book were sons and younger relatives of the Proprietors , though in January of 1916 it was noted that 38 members were on active service.  It is probable that not all were on front line duties but filling training and administrative roles at home and abroad.   To support those who had enlisted it was proposed that the subscriptions of members on active service should be suspended (27 January 1915) and resolved at the AGM of that year, though it seems few members took advantage of this concession, though several did allocate the temporary use of their share to relatives, one of the first to do this was Mr G.O.T. Simpson who, in February 1915 authorised his father to make temporary use of his share.

The sorry tale of lives cut short begins in March 1915 when the President had to write to Sir James Barr expressing sympathy on the loss of his son.[1]  The following month R. Stewart Brown, the distinguished historian and antiquarian, resigned his membership on being commissioned in the Duke of Lancaster’s Yeomanry.  This volunteer regiment had been raised in Manchester and was sent to France in April 1915 while other squadrons served in Egypt and Palestine.

It was in 1916 that the war took a turn for the worse and the casualties mounted.   On 7 May the Germans submarine U20 torpedoed the Cunard liner Lusitania off the Old Head of Kinsale, an action that was to bring about momentous changes in the war. It was also the year to two great battles.  At the end of May the German High Seas Fleet, under Admiral Scheer, escaped from Wilhelmshaven and ventured, rather cautiously, into the North Sea.  Thus was precipitated a scenario which had haunted the British Government, of the German fleet gaining control of the North Sea and cutting the vital shipping lanes before launching an invasion.  Off the Horn Bank the German fleet was intercepted by Admiral Beatty and his battlecruisers from the Firth of Forth while Admiral Jellico with the Grand Fleet headed south from Scapa Floe. 

RMS Lusitania  Length 757 ft 31.500 tons Launched 1906, Maiden voyage Liverpool to New York May 1907

In the inconclusive encounter between the fleets the Royal Navy suffered the loss of three battlecruisers while only one German capital ship was sunk.  Ever since there has been fierce argument about whether it was an English victory or defeat.  The modern opinion is that though it might be classified as a tactical defeat with heavier losses on the British side it was a strategic victory when after which the High Seas fleet never again tried to leave its base to tangle with Jellico’s Home Fleet, so that powerful German surface navy, was removed from the war.

However, amongst the 6000 casualties on the British side, mainly sustained when the battle cruisers “Invincible”,” Indefatigable” and “Queen Mary” instantaneously blew up after shell  hits found weaknesses in the armoured protection– as Admiral Beatty said “ There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today”.  Amongst the British casualties that day was the son of Professor Patterson, a Proprietor.

Only a month later, as the British public digested the lessons of Jutland which was widely regarded as a great disappointment that the Royal Navy on which so many hopes had been planned seemed to emerge with a tarnished reputation and a new commander when Admiral Jellico was transferred to work at the Admirably and the flamboyant David Beatty replaced him in command of the fleet. On July 1st the new great offensive on the Somme was launched.  The “Big Push” on the Somme was to sweep across country that had not been fought over in the previous year and as the great artillery bombardment smashed the barbed wire, shattered German opposition and morale was to allow for a big advance of the new armies.  None of the hopes were fulfilled and men of the new Kitchener’s Army were slaughtered in what has become, perhaps the most symbolic event of World War1.  In the months of fighting that followed the British army lost 42000 men and made no strategic gains.  Amongst those associated with Athenaeum who were killed at this time were the sons of Richard Dart, R. Bodley, Alexander Guthrie and Professor Herdman.

The devastated landscape in which the battle of the Somme was fought.

By David Brazendale, February 2021

[1] Sir James Barr (1849-1938) Born in Ulster, trained as a physician at Glasgow University.  Appointed to Liverpool Northern Hospital.  Worked in Kirkdale gaol and was involved in first training programme for hangmen 1891.  He was knighted in 1905 and in his retirement was a strong supporter of Marie Stopes programme of birth control.