Did New Brighton in Wirral start two World Wars?
Once a thriving staycation hotspot, New Brighton in Wallasey is beloved for the usual range of seaside arcana. Fish and chips. Sea and sand. A lighthouse and promenade. Yet in the wider scheme of history, the Wirral outpost has far more consequential, ignominious claims to fame. You see, according to some, this sleepy resort of 20,000 souls has the dubious dishonour of starting two World Wars. And while such distinctions may be apocryphal – little more than inter-generational tittle-tattle – the whispers must be explored.
Of course, when discussing global conflicts, finding a succinct genesis is virtually impossible. Consensus is illusionary in such debates, because the exact catalyst of any disagreement can be difficult to pinpoint – beholden to semantics, perception and the capricious accuracy of records. For our purposes, though, it is best to dispense with diplomatic flimflam and focus on the first real gunfire of each World War. You know, the first explosive action, so to speak. And in that regard, New Brighton has a compelling case as the birthplace of both battles.
Where the first shots of World War I fired from Fort Perch Rock in New Brighton, Wirral?
First, let us consider the Great War, which Britain entered on 4 August 1914. Journalist Lorna Hughes posits that, just 30 minutes after war was declared, Major Charles Luga, a Wallasey dentist, ordered a shot to be fired across the bows of an errant Norwegian ship as it edged towards the New Brighton coast. Luga was stationed at Fort Perch Rock, a costal defence built to protect Liverpool from French invasion during the Napoleonic era.
When the first shot missed, Luga ordered another to be fired, before the ship was finally intercepted. Once ashore, the shipmaster said he did not know war had been declared, and he thought the gunfire was playful – just some good-natured hijinks between men of the sea. Luga was probably not amused, but his itchy trigger finger became the stuff of urban legend nevertheless.
At best, many historians are suspicious of this tale. At worst, they issue scathing rebuttals in the form of unsolicited Reddit tantrums. Many historical sources credit Melbourne, Australia with firing the first official shots of World War I – almost a day after Luga’s supposed intervention, I may add – though determining a correct answer requires levels of forensic traceability beyond the scope of this humble blog.
Where the first shots of World War II fired from Fort Perch Rock in New Brighton, Wirral?
Nevertheless, history repeated itself a quarter-century later when Wirral once again became embroiled in the early skirmishes of worldwide combat. At 11:15 am on 3 September 1939, British prime minister Neville Chamberlain declared by radio that the country was at war with Germany. Barely 15 minutes later, those anarchic ragamuffins of Fort Perch Rock were at it again, accosting a harmless shipping vessel bobbing towards the dock.
Duly flustered by the suspicious boat, Fort commander Colonel CJ Cocks channelled his inner Luga and ordered warning shots to be fired. “I fired two shots across the bows,” wrote Cocks in Notes on Fort Perch Rock, his 1977 homage to the military defence. “These were probably the first shots of the war.”
Once again, it is difficult to substantiate Cocks’ claims, with Poland holding strong credentials as the original epicentre of World War II. Regardless, the innocuous fisherman was fined £50 for his troubles, and New Brighton received another folktale steeped in hyperbole.
The legacy of Fort Perch Rock
For its part, Fort Perch Rock made it through the war unscathed and was decommissioned in 1956. Evidently, Hitler did not deem it of huge strategic importance, and the landmark is now used for exhibitions and private hire. An escape room opened inside the fort earlier this year, complete with World War II-themed conundrums, a fitting nod to the building’s heritage.
To wit, in 2009, a memorial service was held in New Brighton with seven shots fired from Fort Perch Rock – one for each decade since the outbreak of World War II. Officials deigned to mention the resort’s rumoured role in that outbreak, choosing instead to focus on the brave people of Wirral who died fighting the axis of evil. Thoughts also turned to those who died during World War I, offering grim context to an otherwise eccentric story.
Indeed, cast against such a morose backdrop, it seems somewhat perverse to quibble over who started these wars and where. We should celebrate the end of conflicts rather than chronicling their complex origins. But to conceive of New Brighton – humble, salt of the earth New Brighton – as a lightning rod of international chaos is to understand the dry wit that makes Wirral tick. “Only Wallasey could start two World Wars,” goes the old refrain – accurate or otherwise. And only Wirralians could find that funny, a comedic inversion of our token underdog nonchalance.
Ultimately, it does not really matter if New Brighton started two World Wars. Local dads and grandads will refuse to listen, anyway, preferring instead to parrot the hackneyed tale – adding and losing a few details every year. What matters is that these whacky stories survive – for entertainment, if not for posterity – and that we keep writing new editions. There may even be a kernel of truth in there somewhere, caught beneath the bluff and bluster. I would not expect The Guinness Book of Records officials to come knocking anytime soon, though. At least not until World War III.
- Liverpool Echo
- Notes on Fort Perch Rock by Colonel CJ Cocks