Remembrance Sunday falls this year on Armistice Day itself. This year also marks 100 years since the end of the First World War which saw an estimated 10 million people lose their lives.
The conflict spawned many creative outputs as people sought to express the horror, and the suffering of it all. Poetry in particular is exceedingly well known through the works of Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, Ivor Gurney, Wilfred Owen, and David Blunden to name but a few of the more famous examples.
Within British consciousness of the First World War, the struggle and poetry relating to the Western Front is most well known, but this Remembrance Day we have chosen to tell the tale of the naval war and the art that went with it.
Whilst some four million British and Commonwealth men served in the army, a fraction of that number served in the Royal Navy, but it could be argued that those men of the Royal Navy won the war.
There is an excellent series on the BBC at the moment, called 100 days to victory, which looks at the massive German offensives in early 1918 which pushed the Allies nearly back to Paris, and the subsequent counter-offensives which led to the Armistice of 1918.
What is less well known is that the German offensive itself was prompted by a need to win the war quickly as food and materiel shortages, caused by the Royal Navy blockade, were causing severe discontent in Germany amongst the general population as families went hungry.
As this story has become forgotten, so too has some of the poetry; from Rudyard Kipling’s The Fringes of the Fleet, and Editha Jenkinson’s The Mine-Sweepers to others referenced here:
This is an excerpt of a poem which was sent in by Mr E. Carter of Weybridge to the Surrey Herald and published 24 December 1914, and references the public dissatisfaction with the blockade employed by the Royal Navy who were expecting the Navy to sweep in and destroy the German Hochseeflotte a-la Nelson:
What is the British Navy doing?
We have the right to ask,
In this mighty war that’s being waged,
Do they fulfil their task?
Now tell me pray! What have they done?
This was likely a direct reaction to the raids on 16 December 1914 on Scarborough, Hartlepool, and Whitby by the German fleet and killed 137 civilians, seemingly unopposed by the Royal Navy.
To A Naval Cadet by Noel F. M. Corbett, which as the name suggests, tells the story and experience of young boys aged 16 and sent to sea to serve:
Called from the sheltered peace
Of naval colleges,
True to the training and the breed of you,
Putting your games aside,
You thrilled with boyish pride
To think that now your Motherland had need of you.
In Song of the White Ensign, William M. James talks of six campaigns but this excerpt of the Battle of Coronel is poignant to the feeling at the time, of patriotism and duty in the face of adversity:
They scarred me and pocked my beauty with the bursts of their well-aimed shell,
When they found me showing my colour to the westward of Coronel;
I hated being torn and tattered; they gave me no time to mend,
But they saw my honour untarnished, for my halliards held to the end.
These are but a brief sample of the poems from the naval perspective of the first world war, and there are many more out there. This Remembrance Day, search for some of these and remember all those who have died in conflict.
Share with us some of your favourite poems, and if you are a poetry student, perhaps think about some of these poems in your next assignment.
Image Credit: Leanne Putt
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