A hundred years ago today, English war poet Wilfred Owen was killed in northern France, just one week before Armistice Day – 11th November 1918 – marked the end of World War One. I was first introduced to Wilfred Owen at school, and during the decades since then I have been moved and disturbed in equal measure by Owen’s graphic depictions of the realities of war through the eyes of one who lived it.
This year marks the centenary of the end of the Great War and has engendered much media attention, including the story about the unveiling of a statue of Wilfred Owen in his home town of Oswestry in Shropshire. I was surprised to read that the poet spent a significant part of his life in the town of Birkenhead where his father had worked on the rail network, mainly at the now demolished Woodside Station near to the docks.
The Wilfred Owen Story in Birkenhead is run by a charity and celebrates Owen’s connections to the town and his war poetry. The weekend of the 100th anniversary of his death seemed like an ideal time to take a look in combination with visits to two other local places of interest. Unfortunately, this was not to be. The Wilfred Owen Story is only open on three weekdays for just a few hours, with no exception being made this weekend despite the historic occasion.
After exploring other parts of Birkenhead, I returned to Hamilton Square en route to my final destination. Even though it was just 3 o’clock, it was a grey afternoon and the sun hadn’t broken through the cloud cover all day. The elegant Georgian Square was all but deserted and I enjoyed the colours of autumn in solitude as I walked the pathways by the cenotaph.
A chance encounter led to another war time story and a tale of treasure salvaged from a distant sea bed. As I trained my lens on the cenotaph, the only other person in the Square paused so as not to walk into my shot. I thanked him, and this led to an interesting conversation.
Keith ‘Scouse’ Cooper told me the story of a world record breaking salvage operation which took place in 1981 in the Barents Sea 240 km off the coast of Russia and Norway.
Over 400 bars of gold bullion were retrieved from the wreck of HMS Edinburgh which was scuttled by her crew on 2nd May 1942 to avoid capture, three days after being hit by torpedo fire by German U-boats. The gold – worth about 1.5 million pounds (about 65 million in today’s money) had been loaded just days earlier in Mumansk, Russian part-payment for supplies and military equipment, and was on its way to Britain.
After nearly 40 years on the sea bed, the bulk of the gold was finally brought up from the designated war grave more than 800 metres down. Keith was one of the divers involved in the international salvage operation. I asked Keith if he’d got rich from his share of the proceeds; he told me the money was long gone.
Back home, I found this film online, which follows the Salvage of The Century operation as it unfolds and the gold is hauled up by ‘Scouse’ Cooper and the other divers.
Scouse’s story linked perfectly to my next port of call which was a few minutes’ walk away next to the Mersey Ferry terminal at Woodside landing stage. Before going in, I spent a few minutes looking across the river Mersey to Liverpool waterside which looked quite lovely as dusk started to descend.
The U-Boat Story is an unusual museum and is well worth a visit. It offers an opportunity to see what life was like on board the actual German submarine, U- 534, the last U-Boat to leave Germany, which was brought to Birkenhead in 1993.
It is still a mystery as to why U-534 and the two other type 22 submarines which accompanied her defied the German command to surrender on the morning of 5th May 1945 when World War II was declared over. Instead, her crew fired torpedoes at the British coastal command bombers which had spotted the German subs off the coast of Denmark. After some exchange of fire, a depth charge sank U-534. Almost all of her crew escaped and were rescued.
In the 1980s, suspicions arose that this last U-Boat to leave Germany might have been carrying Nazi treasures to be hidden in Norway and reclaimed after the war. She was eventually raised from the bed of the North Sea but no treasures were discovered. She was cut into the five sections, making it possible for visitors to see her interior.
It’s impressive to see how the submarine survived four decades on the sea bed, and the interesting and informative audio visual recordings make it easier for those of us who are not mechanically-minded to make sense of what we are viewing.
Inside, the exhibition centre has an interesting display which includes U534’s time line and houses additional artefacts which were recovered.
A display of everyday items including wine, board games, shaving equipment and personal nick-nacks remind visitors of the ordinary human lives combatants lived before and during the conflict, and that those lost were not just militia, but men.
Anthem for Doomed Youth -Wilfred Owen
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, –
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing down of blinds.