Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Lost at sea

RMS Alcantara, former ocean liner, sunk in combat 1916
While images of the First World War are inextricably linked to the trenches of the Western Front, over 44,000 British men lost their lives at sea, and an estimated 35,000 German sailors died in the war.* The war at sea was more important than most realize: Germany’s attempt to build a powerful navy and threaten Britain’s domination of the seas was a key factor leading to the outbreak of war, and Britain’s naval blockade of Germany was critical in ending the conflict.      

RMS Baltic, before conversion to military transport ship
Dreadnought battleships, developed at the start of the century, were equipped with guns that fired at ranges of nearly 20 miles, while submarines launched torpedo attacks with devastating results (the best known sinking was that of the RMS Lusitania in 1915, in which 1,198 passengers died).  But in the race for naval supremacy, many civilian ships, including luxury ocean liners, were also requisitioned and re-fitted for military service. The “Big Four” of the White Star Line (the RMS Celtic, RMS Cedric, RMS Baltic, and RMS Adriatic) –some of the world’s largest ships— all served in the British Navy in the First World War. 

Henry Smalley Sarson was born in London, but emigrated to Canada and was working as a farmer when war broke out in 1914.  On September 25, 1914, he enlisted in the army and pledged “to serve in the Canadian Over-Seas Expeditionary Force, and to be attached to any area of the service therin, for the term of one year, or during the war now existing between Great Britain and Germany should that war last longer than one year.”** Sarson was wounded in 1916 while serving with the Canadian Field Ambulance; he published a small volume of poetry From Field and Hospital that same year.

The Armed Liner

The dull gray paint of war
Covering the shining brass and gleaming decks
That once re-echoed to the steps of youth.
That was before
The storms of destiny made ghastly wrecks
Of Peace, the Right and Truth.
Impromptu dances, colored lights and laughter,
Lovers watching the phosphorescent waves,
Now gaping guns, a whistling shell; and after
So many wandering graves.
                        —H. Smalley Sarson


Philip Genders, killed at Jutland
 Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery 
Those who lived during the Great War were gripped by a sense of the catastrophic changes it caused.  What once was bright and shining is now coated with the “dull gray paint of war.” Decks that previously echoed with the steps of spirited young men and women have been swamped by “the storms of destiny,” leaving in ruins the abstract ideals that had provided hope and stability. Gone are the luxury ocean liners, the leisurely lovers, and the light-hearted dancers; ugliness and impermanence now mark the world.† 

The final lines of the poem offer a bleak picture of the future: muzzles of the ship’s guns gape with an insatiable appetite for yet more blood and death, while the bodies of those who die at sea can find no final resting place. Their graves wander with the ocean currents, denying their loved ones the opportunity of choosing an inscription, making a visit, or marking the burial site.   

After the First World War, the British built memorials at Plymouth, Chatham, and Portsmouth for their sailors who have no known grave but the sea.  In 1936, Germany completed its World War I naval memorial at Laboe, but in 1952, the memorial’s purpose was expanded to “commemorate fallen sailors of all nations.” While the change was made due to political pressures following the Second World War, it is in keeping with George Bruce’s 1884 reflection on those who die at sea:

The sea is the largest cemetery, and its slumberers sleep without a monument. All other graveyards show symbols of distinction between great and small, rich and poor: but in the ocean cemetery, the king, the clown, the prince, and the peasant are alike undistinguishable.††



Portsmouth Naval Memorial 
Laboe Naval Memorial

















*British naval casualties figures appear in the article published on Ancestry’s website, “Revealed: 1-in-3 British Naval Heroes Were Underage.” The figure for German naval deaths can be found in Alison Smale’s, “Militarism and Humiliation Cast Shadow on Germany,” published online by the New York Times, 26 June 2014.   
**Sarson’s attestation papers can be found at the Imperial War Museum’s website Lives of the First World War, Henry Smalley Sarson.”
†For other poems on ships and ghosts of the dead, see Rupert Brooke’s “Fragment” and John Allan Wyeth’s “The Transport.”
††George Bruce, Wrecks and reminiscences of St. Andrews Bay, John Leng & Company, 1884, p. 413.


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