The Great War at Sea

A Much Neglected Genre

“War’- Francis Ledwidge (Killed in Action 31st July 1917)

Image-Newhaven Fort -courtesy of South-East History Boards

Darkness and I are one, and wind
And nagging thunder, brothers all,My Mother was a storm I call
And shorten your way with speed to me
I am Love and Hate and the terrible mind
Of vicious gods, but more am I
I am the pride in the lover’s eye
I am the epic of the sea .

The purpose of this blog is to encourage research into Great War at Sea Poetry, written by combatants and non-combatants alike. Trying to establish how the sea as a setting for human conflict and the sea as an actual natural element were sources of inspiration.

The Great War Centenary

At the time of writing it not clear whether or not the 1914-1918 commemoration will be a period of remembrance or an attempt to reconstruct how the Great War is viewed. But the War at Sea is deemed to be neither important nor of great significance to the direct experience of warfare and/or the final outcome of the Great War. The centenary of the outbreak of the Great War is due in a matter of weeks , but as I write there is little in the way of commemoration of the war at sea. And it’s possible to produce whole documentaries about the Great War without mentioning the conflict at sea once.

The majority view is that the Great War was fought and won on the Western Front. Although there is a general awareness of the Eastern Front and Gallipoli campaign-less notice is paid to more remote areas of conflict such as Mesopotamia (Iraq) and Africa: The ‘Westerner’ line is that neither the Allies defeat at Gallipoli or the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk concluded Germany and the new Russian Republic didn’t end the war. The collapse of the German forces in the Autumn of 1918 led to an Armistice and then a treaty.

The British naval blockade impacted on Germany and any neutral countries that were trying to trade with Germany. Vital raw materials and foodstuffs couldn’t reach the industry and the population causing severe hardship and a degree of demoralisation. Furthermore, German U boat sinking of British merchant ships caused massive loss of life and economic damage. Important but neither factor was sufficient to end the War. But was is overlooked is that the German Fleet never reached the Channel . And U boats didn’t manage to seriously disrupt troopships and supply vessels crossing from Britain to France.

Number of men serving

Is the Great War at Sea sidelined as proportionally fewer men served in the Royal Navy and its associated force than the Army : The historian Martin Stephens in his ‘Never Such Innocence- a New Anthology of Great War Verse’ (1988) partly explained the lack of sea and air poetry
“ The numbers of men involved in both the war at sea and the war in the air were miniscule compared with those involved in the land campaign.”

But still some 640,237 men served in the Royal Navy ( along with other related forces such as Royal Naval Air Service, and Royal Naval Division and Mercantile Marine Reserve ) during the Great War. Even if we remove the Royal Naval Air Service and the Royal Naval Division as not really being devoted to conflict at sea, the numbers were not inconsequential.
Martin Stephens went out to say
“ Unlikely soldiers such as Wilfred Owen and Isaac Rosenberg might well join the Army, but pre-war poets were much less likely to find themselves in the Royal Flying Corps, the Royal Naval Air Service or the Royal Navy, with the Navy, in particular, tending to retain its traditional intake; there as no ‘New Navy’ to go with Kitchener’s ‘New Army’, nor a need for one.”

Certainly this contention answer more if we accept that there is such a category as ‘war poets’ as a distinct category apart from others usually, non-combatants, who might be writing poetry.

Were there such beings as ‘Sailor Poets?’

The first use I can find of the term ‘Soldier Poets’ is in 1916 .But has Great War at Sea poetry suffered from the fact that none of the poets with literary connections such as having Edward Marsh as a patron or being connected to The Poetry Bookshop served with the Royal Navy :Though literary agent Edward Marsh, (most possibly using his position as secretary to Admiral Lord Winston Churchill) assisted Rupert Brooke to obtain a commission as a lieutenant in the Hood Division of RNVR (Royal Naval Volunteer Reserves), they fought on dry land. Brooke is most known for his sonnets-such as ‘The Soldier’ – than any sea related poetry.

Furthermore, the most famous Great War at Sea poem is ‘ My Boy Jack?’ by Rudyard Kipling about the Battle of Jutland , Kipling was aged 50 when he wrote it and was too old to serve. His 1916 anthology ‘Sea Warfare’ , containing articles, anecdotes, and poems relating to the ‘Great War at Sea’ was sponsored by the Admiralty. But as one sharp critic mentioned ‘He wrote a series about Jutland, but he had not been within 500 miles of the battle’.

Another factor to consider is that surviving so named ‘Soldier Poets’ also were memoir writers : Siegfried Sassoon with the ‘George Sherston’ series, Robert Graves with ‘Goodbye To All That’ , Richard Aldington ‘Death of a Hero’ , Edmund Blunden with ‘Undertones of War’. It’s quite a task to find the Royal Navy equivalent : Lieutenant Edward Hilton Young whose verses ‘A Muse At Sea’ were published in 1919 and his war memoirs ‘By Sea and By Land’ (1920) only produced one collection of poems.

The most prolific must have been Captain Ronald Hopwood, who eventually became an admiral, had three of his own collections published, ‘The Old Way and Other Poems (1916), ‘The Secret of the Ships’ (1916) , ‘The Laws of the Navy another Poems’ (1918), and ‘The Secret of the Ships’ (1918). Scottish poet William Soutar served in the Royal Navy in 1917-1918 but seems to have written no poems about his time at sea. Other men serving in the Royal Navy who wrote poetry include Ltn. Noel F. Corbett and Ltn. Paul Bewsher.

A Tradition of Sea Poetry

Yet some of Britain’s most famous poets and well known poems concern the sea: Coleridge’s ‘The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner’, Swinburn’s ‘ ‘Channel Crossing’ , Thomas Campion’s ‘Hymn to Neptune’.. Moreover some of these poems concern sea conflict such as Lord Alfred Tennyson’s ‘The Revenge- Ballad of the Fleet’ ( about Sir Richard Grenville’s action against the Spanish Fleet at The Azores in 1591.)
And it’s not possible to overlook Felicia Dorothy Heeman’s ‘Casabianca’ (Written in 1826 about the 1798 ‘Battle of the Nile’) -best known for the first lines which have been parodied so many times.

The Boy Stood on the burning deck
Whence but all he had fled
The Flame that lit the battle wreck
Shone him o’er the dead

Significantly it’s hard to find examples of poets who spent much time at sea apart from John Masefield ( who was working on board merchant ships from 1891-1894)

A decline in sea poetry ?

One possible line of investigation is that little sea poetry of any literary consequence was being written during the first quarter of the 20th century. John Masefield’s ‘Saltwater Ballads (1902) is an exception. For example a popular anthology such as The Poetry Bookshop’s ‘Georgian Poetry 1913- 1915 ‘ (1915) included no sea-poetry apart from James Elroy Flekker’s ‘The Old Ships’. It’s hard to imagine that avante-gardist Imagist poets writing about the sea.

Treating the limitless and untameable sea with reverence and awe would suit the 19th century romantic temperament..
It is interesting to note that Rupert Brooke’s ‘Channel Passage’ (1909)

The Damned ship lurched and slithered ‘Quiet and Quick’.
My cold gorge rose’ the long sea rolled; I knew
I must think hard of something, or be sick

Seems to be mocking Swinburne’s ‘Channel Crossing’ ( possibly along with other works such as Whitman’s ‘In Cabin’d Ships at Sea’, ) as if sea related poetry belonged to a bygone age.

Perhaps there would not be another poem such as Swinburne’s ‘Channel Crossing’ just as there wouldn’t be an equivalent of Turner’s seascapes? A possible flaw with this line of argument is that the sea as a source of inspiration for symphonic music was far from over : Edward Elgar composed ‘Sea Pictures Where Corals Lie’ in 1899, and 1910 saw the first performance of Vaughn Williams’ ‘Sea Symphony’ …though Vaughn Williams used lines from Walt Whitman’s ‘Leaves of Grass’ from 1855.

This is not to say that ‘war at sea’ poetry was not being written and published: Sir Henry Newbolt ‘Collected Poems 1897- 1907 ‘ contained two particular poems that could be connected to such a genre. ‘All Admirals’ and ‘Drake’s Drum’ . Both patriotic rallying calls though don’t seem to relate to a specific conflict. The ‘war at sea’ had little significance to Britain fighting The Boer War of 1899-1902, But his work seemed to be a reminder of Britain’s historical role such as evident in the first verse of ‘Admirals All’

Effingham, Grenville, Raleigh, Drake,
Here’s to the bold and free!
Benbow, Collingwood, Byron, Blake,
Hail to the Kings of the Sea!
Admirals all, for England’s sake,
Honour be yours and fame!
And honour, as long as waves shall break,
To Nelson’s peerless name!

One event at sea that can’t be overlooked is the loss of the Titanic on 15th April 1912 , with over 1,500 deaths. In an age of increased literacy, growing newspaper circulation with pictures and photographs, the impact on the population was immense. An anthology of 304 pages, titled ‘Poetical Tributes on the loss of the R.M.S. Titanic’ edited by Charles Forshaw emerged by the end of 1912. The sea was shown to conceal hidden dangers that were still a threat to the largest and most modern ships in the world.


There was a growing trend amongst poets, who were concerned with the Western Front to pursue pastoralism a vision of agricultural countryside, Blunden, Gurney, Sassoon’s prose are prime examples: The inhumanity and mechanical cruelty of the Western Front contrasted with the wonders of the countryside feature so well in Blunden’s ‘Behind The Lines’ ( From ‘The Shepherd’ published 1922)

The thrush that haunts the mellow ground
And runs along and glances round
Will run and revel through my brain
For a blue moon befooling pain,
And elms so full of birds and song
There shall be green the winter long

Guy Cuthbertson in his recent Wilfred Owen biography (2013) , how different writers would even ‘adopt’ a county; Tennyson was connected to Lincolnshire, Thomas Hardy to Dorset, Hilaire Belloc to Sussex. But the sea was too unruly, too powerful an elemental force, to be used in such a fashion. The countryside could be evoked as a place of sanctuary, the sea could not. To Georgian poets such as Rupert Brooke, the countryside could appear as a place of ‘imagined freedom’ to borrow a term from historian Max Egremont, the sea could not. In respect of the poem ‘War’ by Ledwidge quoted above, the Sea is used as an image of war. In ‘The Sea’ by W.H.Davies the Georgian, and one-time ‘super-tramp’ , the Sea is ultimately a destructive force.. The central character is a woman whose child is missing and found when being crushed to death by the waves colliding with the rocks.

That night I saw ten thousand bones
Coffined in ships, in weeds and stones;
Saw how the Sea’s strong jaws could take
Big iron ships like rats to shake
Heard him still moan his discontent
For one man or a continent.

The sea is still a hostile element, and humanity still relatively helpless even in the world of dreadnoughts.
Take lines from ‘Guns at Sea ‘ by Imtarfa :One of eight poems that appeared in a 1917 anthology ‘The Muse At Arms’.
“For the sea finds out your weakness, and writes its lesson plain.
“The liar, the slave, the slum-bred cur – let them stay ashore, say I,
“For, mark it well, if they come to me, I break them and they die.
The land is kind to a soul unsound; I find and probe the flaw,
For I am the tears of eternity that rock to eternal law.

‘ Destroyers’ -Henry Head

With purple bays and tongues of shining sand,
Time, like and echoing tide,
Moves drowsily in idle ebb and flow;
The sunshine slumbers in the tangled grass
And homely folk with simple greeting pass,
As to their worship or their work they go.
Man, earth, and sea
Seem linked in elemental harmony,
And my insurgent sorrow finds release
In dreams of peace.

But silent, grey,
Out of the curtained haze,
Across the bay
Two fierce destroyers glide with bows a-foam
And predatory gaze,
Like cormorants that seek a submerged prey.
An angel of destruction guards the door
And keeps the peace of our ancestral home;
Freedom to dream, to work, and to adore,
These vagrant days, nights of untroubled breath,
Are bought with death

Henry Head was a famous neurosurgeon: Doesn’t seem to have had much poetry published, and this poem- perhaps Henry Head’s sole ‘war at sea’ contribution- is from ‘Destroyers and Other Voices’ , published by Oxford University Press in 1919. The first few lines could be from Whitman, then the second verse develops into something quite different.- a war poem. But again ‘war at sea ‘ poetry can show a realistic side to conflict which isn’t graphic. No wheels of mule cart dragging over dead men’s faces, or some poor wretch choking in a gas attack, Instead there is a brutal realisation that civilian life for all its relative ‘freedoms’, is “bought with death.”…..the notion that “Man,earth and sea/ Seem linked in elemental harmony ” is an illusion -its ‘an angel of destruction that guards the door’.

The slightly shortened version of this piece originally appeared on the Great War at Sea blog. On reflection, there are sections which need to be re-examined particularly the notion that the sea was a hostile element as far as poetry from the early 20th century was concerned as this overlooks the fact that the sea protects Britain from invasion, something which poets were well aware of.

Historical Comment

The idea began at the end of 2011 by this writer- Michael Bully- via a discussion on the Great War Forum. Originally the idea was to give a talk about the Great War and Hove, at the (redundant) St. Andrews Church at Waterloo Street, Hove, and to break up the monotony of having to listen to one speaker by having Great War at Sea poetry read out. This led to discussions concerning Great War at Sea Poetry and how unrepresented it seemed to be.

It took a while but in May 2014 the website and blog appeared. The intention was that this would generate enough interest to ensure that a printed anthology of Great War at Sea poetry  would  be published to mark the centenary of Jutland on 31st May 2016. This goal has proved to be somewhat over ambitious. With ten months  to go , it now seem unlikely to be realised.

Another development has been a growing interest of mine in World War 2 at Sea poetry, particularly in the work of Alan Ross. It’s most likely that the website will evolve to include work up to 1945.

Thanks Due

I’d like to thank all my Great War Forum pals who have offered suggestions and who have supported the project.
Also Geoff Harrison and Dave Lomas for their ongoing support , and all the other individuals and groups who have expressed an interest.
I also wish to thank Lucy London from the Female War Poets blog for her advice and support.

Associated Blogs

There are two related blogs I’ve started running which are updated on a more regular basis .    Have moved the goalposts to include World War 2 naval serving poets Alan Ross and Roy Fuller.


The purpose of the website is to stimulate interest in  Great War at Sea poetry. Always keen to hear of examples, particularly to be found in local newspapers, national newspapers and magazines. This was the poetry the population were reading and writing.
To send E mail please use link at top of the pages.
Michael Bully
July 2015