Grimsby in the Great War

Grimsby in the Great War

Stephen Wade

Pen and Sword 2015


The description of the Great War as the first 'total war' has become worn to the point of cliché, but for all that this phrase has been thrown around with increasing abandon ever since the publication of Ludendorff’s memoirs, precious little consideration is given to the real meaning of this phrase for the mobilised home fronts.

The Pen and Sword series, Your Towns and Cities in the Great War, not only takes the first steps in addressing this, but also plays a very valuable part in illuminating the role played by the British Home Front between 1914 and 1918. Stephen Wade’s choice of Grimsby immediately stirred my interest. After all, a hundred years ago, the Lincolnshire town of Grimsby was a major commercial port and base to one of the largest fishing fleets in the world. It also stands in close proximity to the major industrial port of Immingham and the iron and steel making centres of North Lincolnshire.

Not only was Grimsby ideally placed to act as a base for ships operating against the German coast and the critical maritime choke point of the Skagerrat, but the port itself would be a tempting target for German naval and aerial bombardment. Add to this the raising of a Pals Battalion, in addition to the usual quota of pre-1914 professional soldiers drawn from most industrial towns, and it is easy to see how Grimsby’s Great War was anything but a distant affair from the earliest days of August 1914 through to the early years of the post-war settlement.

On approaching this book I very much expected to be immersed in a community subjected to the usual privations of mass-mobilisation for war industries and a citizen army, but also forced to confront the horrors of war through the experiences of an extensive merchant fleet and as a community vulnerable to direct enemy fire. Wade’s slim volume goes a considerable way in achieving this.

Organised chronologically, Wade begins with a brief outline of the road to war and themes linked to the partial militarisation of some sections of European society in Edwardian times. Organisations such as the Volunteer Training Corps and the Territorial Army, as well, of course, as the Royal Naval Reserve, already prepared significant sections of the population for potential conflict. Wade mentions the impact of the Cardwell reforms, but chooses to ignore the later Haldane reforms under the New Liberals. Emphasis is rightly given to Grimsby’s status as a global port despite its relatively small size – Wade reminds us that the 1911 census for Greater Grimsby and Cleethorpes returned a population of 74,659 and of this, Grimsby itself provided about 8000 men for the war. The global nature of Grimsby’s links meant that these 8000 witnessed the war in all its forms and all its theatres, from the experiences of the volunteers in the 10th and 11th Lincolns to civilian seafarers interned in German ports from August 1914 until the cessation of hostilities or engaged in mine sweeping duties in the North Sea. The enormous range of Grimsby’s engagement with the conflict presents the author with a very difficult task in view of the page limit set by the series. Perhaps it is useful to consider how Wade has dealt with the land-based civilian, military and maritime experiences of Grimsby and its people.

Of course, the book is primarily a history of the town and Wade certainly makes a good job of identifying the salient features of the changes wrought by war. For sure, he singles out the employment of women in the male-dominated world of industrial engineering and presents an interesting glimpse of the munitions factory established on Victoria Street in premises previously used for curing fish, but Wade is careful not to labour the stereotype of women being introduced to factories for the first time during the Great War in a town with a long-established history of female industrial labour. Instead, the author looks at the employment of women in carting – work definitely associated with male physical strength – and also in the caring roles which naturally proliferated as the casualty lists grew. Importantly, Wade does not shy away from engagement with the paradox of war that misery and physical hardship are frequent companions to economic opportunity and excessive profit and the reader learns a little about the enterprises that grew out of the war’s appetite for materiel. Whilst it is true that male war workers could earn far more than soldiers – and far more safely - a reminder of the hardship experienced by heads of households emerges from Wade’s use of soldiers’ letters expressing concern for women left to manage on meagre budgets and having to deal also with queueing and rationing. Grimsby not only produced civic structures to ease the burdens faced by householders, but also responded quickly to the difficulties faced by the bereaved. The latter should come as little surprise in a community where loss at sea was a regular feature of life in peacetime.

The most interesting chapter, however, addresses The Problems of Peace. Having outlined the sometimes traumatic manner in which Grimsby adapted to the demands of state-directed labour, conscription and rationing, as well as an influx of refugees, all amidst fear of naval bombardment and zeppelin raids, Wade naturally highlights the difficulties of then reversing the militarisation and partial socialisation of society in the aftermath of the Armistice. It is clear that Grimsby’s 'return to normalcy' was anything but smooth and swift.

The author steers clear of the stereotypical scenes of elation and dancing in the streets and instead looks at a community counting the cost of four years of human and material loss on an unprecedented scale. The perspective is sombre and the use of oral historical sources apposite. Overall, Wade has successfully communicated the impact of lengthy international conflict on an urban population whose economy was based on very strong links with the wider world. The human as well as more impersonal historical experience looms large in an enlightening narrative.

The difficulty of writing a domestic history of the Great War is the encroachment of themes from the main theatres of conflict. It is impossible to consider the impact of the Great War on any substantial British community without being drawn into discussion of the titanic struggle on the continent and in other more remote regions. The raising of the Grimsby Chums forms a constant thread through the narrative of the chronological chapters. Wade steers well clear of writing a history of the Chums and those looking for this should turn to his bibliography. Nevertheless, the fate of serving soldiers weighed constantly on the minds of relatives in Grimsby and mention is made of major actions, especially the Somme, and reminds the reader that even in a port town, the majority of manpower in the Great War was directed towards land forces.

At times, discussion of military events on the Western Front sits a little incongruously in the text, but engagement with these issues is unavoidable. Readers need to remind themselves that they are looking at the history of a British mainland town and not the history of those who fought overseas, no matter how inextricably the two narratives are intertwined. Significantly, Wade has also paid due attention to Grimsby’s men in other branches of the army and those who were on active service before Kitchener’s mass call to arms. He also looks at airmen and acknowledges that Grimsby officers served in a very broad range of battalions. The reader is left in no doubt as to the extent of the military impact in a town where over 10% of manpower ended up in uniform.

Of course, it is Grimsby’s role as a port that makes its experience of the Great War particularly interesting. Wade quotes from a report by Sir Sam Fay, a member of the Railway Executive Committee and erstwhile General Manager of the Great Central Railway, written after the war on the impact of August 1914,


The heaviest responsibility has been the accommodation of HM vessels…in fact the use made by the Admiralty of Immingham and Grimsby Docks has amounted to an unrestricted use of the Docks as if they were a naval dockyard, whilst at the same time the administration has been carried out entirely by the civil element.


This telling extract emphasises the immense change forced upon port towns and drives home how civil society was, to a not inconsiderable extent, expected to militarise itself. The battles of Dogger Bank and Jutland are naturally discussed, but perhaps of greater interest are descriptions of the more mundane, but extremely dangerous, mine-sweeping work carried out by Grimsby trawlers or the conflict between Grimsby merchantmen and German U-Boats, which didn’t always end in German victory. Furthermore, Wade makes reference to the coastal batteries at Spurn Head and Kilnsea as well as to the establishment of a Royal Naval Air Service base at Killingholme. Amidst all this military activity and conflict, fishing also had to continue and losses here grew markedly. The port authorities also had to be alert to the risk of espionage, made all the more difficult by the cosmopolitan nature of pre-1914 Grimsby. Any community that chooses to live from the sea embraces untimely loss and hardship, but Wade’s volume forces the realisation that maritime communities during the Great War bore an especially heavy burden and in Grimsby’s case bore that burden stoically.


What then has Wade’s book achieved? For sure, this is not Grimsby’s answer to Chickering’s magisterial survey of Freiburg during the Great War and there will certainly be those aware of the enormous potential stored in the collections in the National Archive in relation to Grimsby’s war experience, but this volume serves a more prosaic and possibly more important purpose. Those of us who are now well and truly into middle age can just about remember Great War veterans as very elderly people. For those below the age of 40, the First World War no longer represents a tangible human experience. Wade’s volume, and others in the series, stand to inform those whose only knowledge of the seminal conflict of the twentieth century might be half-remembered utterances from reluctantly attended History classes at secondary school. It will enlighten those who wish to read of the enormous impact of the Great War on a relatively small, but important, port town. The mixture of well reproduced illustrations and personal anecdotes alongside a well-informed narrative provides an excellent introduction to a phenomenally important chapter in Grimsby’s history. Of course, there will be those who criticise the text for its lack of academic historical methodology, but this volume is not intended for the academic historian. That said, having spent over thirty years reading weighty academic texts on the Great War, I still found thought-provoking material in Wade’s book and certainly consider that it has added to my understanding of the course and impact of the 1914-18 war. This book should be available in every bookshop and newsagent in Grimsby. It should also find a home in every Grimsby school and college library and in every clubroom. Anyone with a link to the town should read the book, as should anyone familiar with the Humber estuary. Grimsby In The Great War plays a valuable role in ensuring that the privations, sacrifices and exceptional achievements of a now long-departed generation are remembered not just in the context of the Western Front and other theatres of war, but also from the perspective of a hugely restructured and sometimes traumatised and destabilised home front.


Dr Peter Edwards

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