Saturday 23 March 2019

Cecil Lewis (1898 - 1997) – British WW1 aviator, writer, journalist and BBC pioneer

Cecil Arthur Lewis was born in Birkenhead, Wirral, UK, on 29th March 1898. His parents were Edward William Lewis, a Nonconformist Church Minister, and his wife Alice Lewis, nee Rigby.  In 1901, the family lived in Shropshire and by 1911, they were living in Hampstead in London.

Educated at Oundle School, Cecil left in the spring of 1915, and lied about his age in order to enlist in the Royal Flying Corps.

After initial trianing at Brooklands – Cecil’s mother Alice was superintendent of a hospital in nearby Weybridge – Cecil was posted to France.  Cecil’s book “Sagittarius Rising” is the account of his wartime experiences.

Cecil explains that in preparation for the Somme Offensive in July 1916, Contact Patrol was carried out by planes and was designed to provide aerial liaison between the Front Line and the Battalion and Brigade Headquarters during battles when other means of communication became impossible.  In spite of endless practice before the big day, this initially proved less effective than hoped, due to the necessity for ground troops to use flares to signal to their planes which also meant giving away their position. 

However, later on Cecil Lewis tells us, “… we got used to the dangers of low flying over the front line, and used to go right down to a few hundred feet and find the position of our men by actually seeing them in their trenches.”

“The war below us was a spectacle. We aided and abetted it, admiring the tenacity of men who fought in verminous filth to take the next trench thirty yards away.

Echoing the feelings of WW1 soldier poet Wilfred Owen, Cecil described the “horrible futility of war, the mountainous waste of life and wealth to stake a mile or two of earth.  A caricature of common sense, both sides eager, when they had licked their wounds, to fly at each other’s throats again.” (p. 93).

After the war, Cecil travelled to China for the Vickers Aviation Company to teach new pilots to fly and establish a Peking-Shanghai air service.

Cecil went on to help set up the British Broadcasting Company - the forerunner of the state owned British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).  The Company was founded in 1922 as a private company by a consortium of radio manufacturers who wanted to create a market to encourage the sale of wireless sets.

During the 1930s, Cecil wrote and directed numerous cinema films and won an Oscar in 1939 for his screen adaptation of G.B. Shaw'’ play "“Pygmalion”.

Cecil served in the Royal Air Force (RAF) during the Second World War.

He died on 27th January 1997 at the age of 98.

Source:  “Sagittarius Rising” by Cecil Lewis (1898 – 1997), published by Warner, London 2000 with a new Foreword by Cecil Lewis;  first published by Peter Davies in 1936.

Tuesday 19 March 2019

"Futility" Statue Hamilton Square, Birkenhead, Wirral commemorating the 88 Pupils of the Birkenhead Institute who lost their lives in WW1

Several of us attended an extremely interesting talk held at The Wilfred Owen Story in Birkenhead, Wirral, UK on Monday, 18th March 2019 – the 126th anniversary of the birth of Wilfred Owen, WW1 soldier poet.  The talk was given by Jim Whelan, sculptor of the "Futility" statue in Hamilton Square commemorating the 88 pupils of the Birkenhead Institute school, among them Wilfred Owen, who lost their lives in WW1. The statue replaces the WW1 Memorial Playing Field that was the sports field for the school, which was sold for housing recently.

Jim also told us that he also made the amazing model of a WW1 Western Front Trench, which is on display at the WOS.

Jim brought along some of the models he used when he started his work on the statue, which took two and a half years to complete, and talked us through the complicated procedure involved. Cast in bronze at a Liverpool Foundry, the statue represents an exhausted World War One solider after a gas attack.  It was produced using a sketch drawn by a former pupil of the Birkenhead Institute who went on to become an art master at the school.  His name was Dave (D.S.W.) Jones and he drew the soldier to illustrate Wilfred Owen’s poem “Futlity” specially for Jeff Walsh’s book “A Tribute to Wilfred Owen”, published in 1965. Wilfred was a pupil at the B.I. from 1900 – 1907. 

Jim Whelan has also produced completed works to commemorate the Everest climbers George Malory and Sandy Irvine who disappeared on the North-East ridge during their attempt to make the first ascent of the mountain in 1924.

Afterwards, we walked over to the statue, which is set slightly apart from the main commemorative area in Hamilton Square, and Jim answered our questions about the statue.  You really have to try and see the statue – there is so much detail

Get the train to Liverpool Lime Street, then take the Ferry across the Mersey from Pier Head to Woodside.  Hamilton Square is a short walk up the hill, past the Hamilton Square Station. Obviously if you don't like the idea of the river crossing you can take the train from Lime Street to Hamilton Square station. 

The statue has its own Facebook Page

Sunday 17 March 2019

Book Review: “The Channel Islands in the Great War by Stephen Wynn” (Pen & Sword, Barnsley, 2019)

To the best of my knowledge I have never come across a reference to the Channel Islands during the First World War, though their involvement in the Second is well documented.  This fantastic book puts that right.

In the Introduction, Stephen explains the geography and history of the Islands, which are closer to France than to England. They are British Crown Dependencies and inhabitants are British citizens.  Chapter One sets the scene and goes into detail about the different regiments, corps and units with which the men of the Channel Islands served, with biographies of those who died.  There is also a section on the Women of the Channel Islands and their part in the war.

I was fascinated to learn in Chapter two that there was a Prisoner of War Camp for German prisoners on the Island of Jersey at Les Blanches Banques.  The camp had running water, and electric lighting – facilities that many of the neighbouring houses did not have at that time.  It opened on 20th March 1915 and closed in October 1919.

Chapters three, four and five deal with 1916 – when Conscription was introduced – 1917 and 1918.  Chapter six is entitled “Red Cross nurses from the Channel Islands”, Chapter seven covers War Memorials and lists all those from the Channel Islands who lost their lives during WW1. Chapter eight those who died after the Armistice.

Stephen Wynn gives detailed biographical information about many of those from the Channel Islands who were involved in WW1.  He mentioned that in his opinion there is sufficient material about the Women of the Channel Islands in the Great War to merit another book and I do hope that comes to fruition.  With illustrations throughout and an index, Stephen’s book is a fitting tribute to the men and women of the Channel Islands during the First World War.  He also raises an interesting question in the final chapter of the book – “what criteria was used to decide who should be included as a casualty of war?”

I found a great deal of interesting facts for my weblogs and Facebook pages and will spread the word about this book which is a must for anyone interested in the history of the First World War.

“The Channel Islands in the Great War by Stephen Wynn” (Pen & Sword, Barnsley, 2019). For further information please see

Lucy London, March 2019