Saturday, November 08, 2008

All Quiet on the Fleetwood Front

It’s Armistice Day this Sunday – the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, of course – and whilst Ken will be busy laying the wreath at the Cenotaph, I’ll be up Bourne Hill keeping an eye on the geophysical survey. (Well...I will be if this damned flu's cleared up anyway. And the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month is on Tuesday, of course...Sunday is Rememberance Day...I said I had the flu, so, come on, give me a break will you?) Whatever the case, I will be wearing my poppy because some things are just too important to ignore. With this in mind, I thought that this particular posting from my hard drive was the most appropriate for the occasion.

One of the main reasons for Fleetwood’s existence (prior to it being built, of course, it was known, quite simply, as Quaggy Meols) was as a tourist resort. By 1859, however, visitor numbers had taken a bit of a downturn. In particular the North Euston Hotel (despite the original roman pillars supporting its portico) was floundering to such an extent that the whole kit and caboodle was sold off to the government who promptly reopened it as the North Euston Barracks.

Before long (as tends to happen when moustachioed officers get a toehold in a town) hutments were erected opposite the Queens Hotel on Poulton Road. Next rifle ranges were established at Rossall Point and the sounds of guns discharging, soldiers yelling and seagulls exploding filled the once peaceful skies.

Yes, that really is Rossall Point…possibly under attack from an invasion of whelks.

The North Euston itself became the officers’ quarters (its residents enjoying nothing more than posing for photographs in scenes reminiscent of some Ennio Morriconi film as can be seen below) and the ailing Fleetwood was reborn as a garrison town.

Before anybody complains, the chances are that the colour scheme in our retouched image above is completely wrong. I honestly have no idea what colour the uniform was…although I reckon it wasn’t khaki, officers affording the luxury of brightly coloured clothes because they had much less chance of being shot twenty miles behind the front line.

As is often the case, the military presence wasn’t particularly welcomed around the district. After all, in Fleetwood the cod-head rules and any outsiders bearing weapons would just be an insult. One example of the growing enmity between the inmates and the incomers occurred in 1889 when Robert Cock of Rossall Grange Farm complained to the authorities that the troops were trespassing on his land: “They have plundered my orchard and fruit trees, left gates open and the fences are broken down and the men go about just as if the farm belonged to them and the cattle are let into the crops.”

All of which brings us neatly to Wilfred Owen, the famous anti-war poet.

Wilfred Owen (despite having pacifist sympathies) enlisted with the 3/28th London Regiment, which later becomes the 2nd Artist’s Rifles Officer’s Training Corps, in 1915. One year later, aged 23, he was commissioned into the Manchester Regiment and took up lodgings at 168a Lord Street, having been placed in charge of the firing range at Rossall Point. Later that year he moved to 111 Bold Street. Don’t believe me? Well, there’s actually a blue plaque on the wall at 111 Bold Street if you want to take a look.

And just for good measure, here’s a photograph of the great man himself:

Owen was killed in action two years later in 1918 leading a raiding party on the Sambre-Oise canal. By that point, however, he’d written some of the most famous war poetry ever to emerge in English literature, which was perhaps as well, otherwise we’d never have heard of him.

We’ve decided to reproduce one his poems here, firstly because there’s not much point in talking about him if we’re not going to give an example of his work, and secondly, because it fleshes out this article nicely. This one was written between October 1917 and March 1918:


Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,

Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,

Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs

And towards our distant rest began to trudge.

Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots

But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;

Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots

Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,

Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;

But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,

And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime. . .

Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,

As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,

He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace

Behind the wagon that we flung him in,

And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,

His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est

Pro patria mori.

Eventually the army packed up its kit bags and left Fleetwood altogether (probably preferring life on the front line to warring with the locals). The North Euston was once again sold, redecorated and returned to its original purpose. A War Department stone can still be seen in the wall at the front of the hotel, whilst another (connected to Wilfred Owen’s rifle range of course) can be found in the garden wall surrounding the house opposite the Queens Hotel.


Anonymous said...

I’ll be up Bourne Hill keeping an eye on the geophysical survey.

Let us know if you discover anything 'ambivalent'.

Brian Hughes said...


The only ambivalent thing I've noticed at the moment is this cold what I've got, which doesn't want to break and/or clear up. I strongly suspect that I'll have to send Lieutenant Chris up to Bourne tomorrow to take charge. There's a gaggle of students due up there and...well...need I say more? (Somebody got to protect them from the Aberdeen Anguses, for a start.)

JahTeh said...

Our Dame Mary Gilmore wrote a goodly quantity of anti-war poetry for WW1 and WW2. This is what we should be reading on Remembrance Day. We had a terrific tv doco with an actress reading the letters from an Australian company and as each man's letter finished, his photo stayed on the screen and she said how many days he lived from the date of the letter. It was extremely well done and got the message across.

Sorry you're ill, it's probably an rh-negative virus.

Brian Hughes said...


"'s probably an rh-negative virus."

Isn't Rh-Negative transmitted by rusty needles? Some sort of little prick anyway...

Andrew said...

Seems an odd place to station an army. Invasion coming from the west? Risk of being pelted with spuds?

I still have some Tescos home brand tissues left if you would like me to send them to you.

Brian Hughes said...


I suspect it was used more for training than for any actual defence...although there are a few important sheep around that need careful protection.

"I still have some Tescos home brand tissues left if you would like me to send them to you."

Nah...there's still some wear and tear left in the sleeve of my jumper yet.

Anonymous said...

I miss tescos...the diminutive height of the shelves; the pugnacious yoghurt selection...and of course, the curry section.

On second thoughts, it may have been 'Sainsburies' which I'm told is in a different universe to Tescos.

Brian Hughes said...


Sainsburies is certainly in a different class, and their deli is greatly superior.

Jayne said...

Love the poem, painted a far truer picture than the war-mongering propagandists.

Brian Hughes said...


Not quite so 'Gung Ho' as Rupert Brookes...