Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Thoughts on WW1

I couldn't let the centenary of the outbreak of WW1 go by without something, and it just so happens that I have come across two things in the archives recently that I thought worth recording. Both relate to the war at sea, and although not important in themselves they have now become important to me - historical memory in action I suppose you might say.

The first incident relates to the torpedoing of the British Chantala in April 1916; one particular document I read struck me as interesting for the way it provides some evidence of the incident from the German point of view. The submarine commander (a Claus Rucker, I believe) must have picked up the survivors of the sinking; the account of events given later by the master of the Chantala describes a man nearly broken by the stress and responsibility of command: storming back and forth, spitting, foaming at the mouth, screaming abuse, incoherent at times. One cold and clear-eyed passage from the papers in ADM 137/1196 sums it up:

'In the opinion of the master of the CHANTALA the commander of the submarine is on the verge of a serious nervous or mental breakdown.'

No use feeling anything but enmity towards your enemy in the circumstances, of course, but I can't help thinking what a pitiful scene this was; I wonder if Rucker survived the war and ever recovered?

The second incident also concerns the loss of a British ship in the Mediterranean, but in this case it is something missing from the documents that is important. The torpedoing of any ship must have been an appalling spectacle: the chaos and din, the struggle to maintain order, the rush for the boats, the almost inevitable collapse of discipline as the ship founders and then the physical shock of the cold water. But this particular ship was a horse transport, and the screams of the terrified animals must surely have added to the nightmare quality of it all. No one saw fit to mention the dreadful fate of these creatures in any of the documents (I suppose the people who sent these telegrams, drafted reports and what not had more important things to worry about), but this is what immediately occurred to me; and rightly or wrongly, my own overactive imagination has rushed to fill the gap, in the process magnifying the horror of the sinking.

So no great ideas or theories - the war is too vast and complex a subject to offer anything in that line - just two small and relatively insignificant incidents that, to me at least, convey something of the essential terror of the conflict.

No comments:

Post a Comment