Researched and Written by Mike Royden – www.roydenhistory.co.uk
In the north-west corner of the western field fronting the Higher Road RSPCA Liverpool Animal Centre (known locally as ‘The Horse’s Rest’), is an unusual and very rare grave. It could be classed as a war grave – the importance of the headstone has certainly been recognised as such, as it now has Grade II Listed Building Status. It is the final resting place of ‘Blackie’ – a war horse that served during the First World War. But how did he come to be here?
Blackie was the name given to the horse that served with the 275th Brigade Royal Field Artillery ‘A’ Battery – 55th West Lancashire Division during the First World War, alongside his master Lieutenant Leonard Comer Wall, A” Battery, 275th Brigade, Royal Field Artillery (55th (West Lancashire) Division). His groom was Driver Francis ‘Frank’ Wilkinson, 675411 (formerly 1345) ‘A’ Battery, 275th Brigade, Royal Field Artillery. Frank was the son of Thomas and Elizabeth Wilkinson and husband of Catherine E. Wilkinson, of Mitford House, Netherfield Road, Everton.
Leonard Comer was born in West Kirby, Wirral and was the only son of Charles Comer Wall (1867-1928) and Kate (nee Earle) (1874-1954). Charles Comer was brought up in Great Homer Street, Liverpool, where his grandfather George’s business was located. George was a landowner and provision merchant with a number of men and shop boys in his employ. He had moved to Liverpool by 1861 after learning the trade under his step-father back in Derbyshire. He set up the family business of George Wall and Co. Limited, mainly concerned with grocery provisions and margarine manufacturing, and was joined by his sons Charles and Percy when they were old enough. As the business prospered, the family moved to Grange Road, West Kirby, to a more substantial merchant’s house befitting his status.
It was in West Kirby where Charles met Kate Earle, who was a native of Newfoundland but was sent to England at the age of seventeen to continue her education. Kate was recorded as being a boarder at Kirby Park Ladies School, run by Louisa Stowell, in the Old Village of West Kirby in 1891. The courtship progressed and the couple arranged their wedding. Their marriage banns were read at St Bridget’s church in West Kirby in August 1895 but they left West Kirby for Kate’s birthplace in order to be married at St. Andrew’s Anglican Church, in Fogo, Newfoundland, on 28 September 1895. Shortly after their marriage the couple left Newfoundland to return to England and Leonard was born in 1896, being baptised on 11 October in St Bridget’s, West Kirby.
Blackie is believed to have been born around 1905, but other details of his early life and how he came to serve with the R.F.A are unknown, although he is likely to have been part of the rounding up and purchasing of horses from local farms and businesses at the beginning of the war. He may even have belonged to the Wall’s family business. He would have been stabled and trained at the West Lancs Barracks in Spekeland Street, Liverpool, before moving to France with the Division in September 1915.
Tragedy was to strike on 8 June 1917 when flying shrapnel killed Blackie’s master, Lieutenant Wall, and his groom Frank Wilkinson. Leonard was just 21 years old and Frank 23 years of age. Blackie was badly wounded but after a period of recovery, the horse was able to return to duty and serve the 275ths until the end of the war, being involved in and surviving the fierce battles of Arras, Somme, Ypres and Cambrai.
By then, the terms of Lieutenant Leonard Comer Wall’s will had become known. He had requested that if he did not survive the war that his faithful horse should be cared for, and when Blackie died to be buried with Wall’s service medals. On realising what Blackie meant to her departed son, Kate Wall purchased the horse, while allowing him to continue to be looked after by the West Lancs. Division at Spekeland Road barracks, where he would be used by the Territorial Riding School in Liverpool.
It is believed that Blackie, adorned with his master’s medals, along with another war-horse known as ‘Billie,’ used to lead Liverpool’s annual May Day Horse Parade, when Liverpool carters would decorate their horses and parade through the city. When it came time for him to retire, he was pensioned off in 1930 to the ‘Horses’ Rest’ on Higher Road in Halewood (the RSPCA), where he remained until his death in December 1942 at the age of 37. The marks of his shrapnel wounds were clearly visible until his death, which received press coverage across the country, from the local Liverpool Daily Post to the Gloucester Citizen, Portsmouth Evening News, and Dundee Evening Telegraph.
He was buried in the north-west corner of the western field fronting Higher Road, along with his master’s medals, and a gravestone was erected. The gravestone has been cleaned in recent years making the inscription legible and is accessed via a grassy walkway alongside the northern edge of the field boundary. The inscription on the sandstone headstone reads:
AGED 35 YEARS
‘A’ BATTERY 275TH BRIGADE R.F.A. 55TH DIVISION
FRANCE AND FLANDERS 1915-1918
AT THE LIVERPOOL HORSES’ REST
The grave has been covered by modern artificial turf and is surrounded by a modern low ornamental white picket fence. In December 2017, Historic England announced that the grave and headstone had been given Grade II Listed status, the first war horse grave to be granted such protection. This came about when Historic England were contacted by members of the public concerned that Blackie’s resting place was threatened by proposed building work. They were advised to apply for listing and their application was successful.
Blackie’s close association with his master, and the fact that he is buried with his master’s medals, reflects the strong bonds that were shared between thousands of soldiers and their horses on the western front. His grave has strong cultural and historic significance in representing the key role animals played, and the sacrifices they made, in the First World War. It is a rare memorial, commemorating an individual animal that served in, and survived, the major battles of the First World War.