Remembering the Fishermen who served during the Great War

Fishermen Against the Kaiser Shockwaves of War- 1914- 1915Was grateful to hear Saltdean based historian Douglas d’Enno talk about his 2010 book ‘Fishermen Against the Kaiser-Shockwaves of War 1914- 1918 -Volume 1’ ( ‘Pen and Sword’, 2010)

A fascinating work indeed. A vital contribution to understanding the Great War at Sea. The focus is on 1914-1915 with a second volume still to be published.The writer’s extensive use of source material, with clear cross referencing, is admirable.

Douglas d’Enno’s case is that the outbreak of war took fishing fleets on both sides by surprise,though soon they would be seizing each other’s boats. Also that the Royal Navy was at first quite suspicious of fishermen.

Initially there was a concern that fishing boats and their nets could get in the way of Royal Navy activity. Moreover, lack of fishing boat activity in certain stretches of water would highlight minefields’ location to the enemy. On 25th August 1914 whole swathes of the English Channel and the North Sea were closed to the fishermen. And the market was in danger of stagnation.

Yet fishermen were soon involved in the war. Large numbers joined the Royal Navy Reserves. Others assisted in evacuating Belgian refugees. And significantly

“During the war no fewer than 1,455 trawlers, 1372 steamdrifters, and 118 motor drifters were pressed into naval service. Nor should the humble smack be forgotten, for a number were assigned to special duties-…..” ( page 41) Admiral Beresford is given the credit for realising the potential of the fishermen in the war effort.

And for those who remained at sea, life became increasingly dangerous. For example at the end of August 1915, the Boston fishing fleet, accompanied by some vessels from Grimsby, encountered German warships. Fifteen ships were sunk and the men were taken as prisoners of war.

Fishermen seemed particularly useful on board minesweepers. They served in the Dardanelles just before the Gallipoli landings and in the Adriatic, also on a sortie to Zeebrugge on 23rd August 1915.

Former fishermen performed courageous acts rescuing survivors of U boat shelling such as when the U9 torpedoed three battle cruisers, or during the Lusitania sinking, amongst others. But there were also times that the fishermen would not always succumb to naval discipline with examples of insubordination and unruly behaviour being reported. But overall this writer honours fishermen who lost their lives on account of the war, and how quickly they adapted to serve.

A further strength of this book is that it covers other lesser known issues such as the use of Crystal Palace as a naval training ground, inflation during World War 1, the wretched plight of fishermen captured by the Germans, the number of Scottish women who moved to East Anglia to work for the fisheries.

Looking forward to Volume 2.

The writer includes extracts from lesser known poetry at the start of each chapter; Contemporary work from ‘Punch’, Alice Brooks,  Geoffrey Dreamer, along with  World War 2 poet Michael Thwaite. Dreamer’s work has been covered elsewhere on this blog ; however was previously  unaware of Joseph Powell’s poem ‘Night at Ruhleben’ .  Ruhleben was a German camp housing  a large number of interned British citizens and captured British sailors. Joseph Powell was elected as camp captain.

It’s also helpful to be reminded of the work of naval historians from the 1920’s who are overlooked now such as E.Keble-Chatterton and Lowell Thomas. From reading ‘Fishermen Against the Kaiser’ , got to learn about 1918 work titled ‘ Fishermen in War Time’  by Walter Wood.
Now available on line
Fishermen in war time -text

As a tribute to the fishermen who served during the Great War ,felt appropriate to post an extract from a poem by one ‘H. Ingamells’ titled ‘The Minesweepers ‘ which first appeared in an anthology ‘These were the men poems of the war 1914- 1918 ‘ (from 1919), also cited by Douglas d’Enno .

Starts on page 81 Text-These were the men

Little they care, come wind or wave,
The men of Grimsby Town,
There are mines to destroy, and lives to save,
And they take the risk, these sailormen brave,
With a laugh and a joke, or a rollicking stave,
As the gear goes plunging down.

Honour the trawler’s crew,
For fear they never knew !
Now on their quest they go
With measured tack and slow
Seeking the hidden fate
Strewn with a devilish hate.

Death may come in a terrible form,
Death in a calm or death in a storm,
Death without warning, stark and grim,
Death with a tearing of limb from limb,
Death in a horrible, hideous guise :
Such is the mine-sweeper’s sacrifice !
Careless of terrors and scornful of ease,
Stolid and steadfast, they sweep the seas.

Cheerfully, simply, fearlessly,

The men of Grimsby Town,
Do their bit on the rolling sea
The storm-swept, treacherous, grey North Sea
Doing their duty unflinchingly,
Keeping the death rate down.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *