- Citizen Soldiers: The Liverpool Territorials in the First World War
Using the methodology of local history, McCartney has written an intriguingly revisionist work about World War I. The study makes modest claims, since it can speak only for the soldiers from Liverpool, but the implications are more far reaching, going against the grain of common assumptions about the war and the experience of the British who fought in it. McCartney does not explicitly say so, but Fussell's pioneering work, now more than a quarter-century old, is implicitly her foil, even though her picture encompasses only Liverpool.1 Fussell forcefully depicted the devastating effect of the war upon the British soldiers, as well as their alienation from those at home, and he makes clear what a watershed the war was. But McCartney places much more emphasis on continuity with the period before the war, particularly regarding how volunteer soldiers thought of themselves both before and during World War I. Her discussion of the close relationship of the soldiers with Liverpool shows the regional nature of British society before World War I.
McCartney captures the social significance of the Territorials, who were far more middle class and respectable than the regular army. When the war began, their ranks were swelled by volunteers determined to [End Page 278] protect their country from the German threat. The author might exaggerate the degree to which they actually believed that Britain would be invaded. She concentrates on the various Liverpool units, particularly the Scottish Battalion, with their Scottish caps and kilts, although she does not discuss the significance of their identification with Scotland.
She does not obscure the grimness of the war, the deprivations of life in the trenches, and the high percentage of deaths. The story told in the national press tended to obscure the horrors of war. But, locally, despite official censorship, the soldiers were able to write home ungarnished accounts of their experiences, and the Liverpool press provided accounts of warfare closer to actuality than might be expected. These "citizen soldiers" maintained a strong sense of having come out of civilian life, destined, should they survive, to return to it. The large proportion of the troops who were both middle class and Liverpudlian allowed the conduct of war to be comparatively flexible and compassionate. Nevertheless, it was an intensely hierarchical situation, reflecting the nature of English society itself. The troops were also anxious to make a name for themselves and their city, as they did in the battle of Hooge in June, 1915. It continued to be celebrated in the city after the war.
There is no obscuring the dreadful cost of the war. Yet, McCartney's book about the preservation of community in the Liverpool Battalions has the effect of mitigating the horror of war in a way that might to a degree strain credulity. But, with its rich use of local sources, and a command of the relevant literature, this local study of willing soldiers enriches and changes our sense of the story of World War I and its significance.
1. Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory (New York, 1975).