It’s the season of Remembrance. Like everything else, it’s a bit different this year. Social distancing and lock down has means traditional parades are postponed and the Royal British Legion faces its biggest challenge yet in terms of poppy sales and fundraising. It could all be a bit grim. And yet…
People rose to the challenge. The RBL launched the ‘Every Poppy Counts’ campaign including printable posters to make window displays and a virtual Field of Remembrance. When out walking The Wolf I’ve spotted poppy themed door wreaths and beautifully coloured window displays. The local council here has festooned the High Street with poppies and live streamed a wreath laying service complete with a playing of the Last Post, even though there could be no public attendance.
I knew I wanted to write about Remembrance. Being a history loving military wife, it means a lot to me. It’s not just remembering the fallen though; it those who still serve, those who have been forever changed by service, those left behind, the veterans, the heritage…this list goes on.
But what to write? So much has already been documented. Remembrance inspired travel is a no go. So I got to thinking about a service that made a huge contribution but is often overlooked: The Merchant Navy.
Merchant seamen were civilians who chose to work at sea. We use the term sea-man but it wasn’t just men. Women and children too, sometimes. Cargo steamship SS Fiscus was torpedoed in 1940. Fatalities included the brothers Kenneth and Raymond Lewis aged 14 and 15, who had signed onto the ship using a forged letter giving permission from their Father to go to sea. Makes me feel a bit better about the fact I caught one of my teens forging my signature on a letter for her teacher recently. Could be worse!
Women sailed too, albeit in lesser numbers. Around fifty women are known to have died in service. It’s easy to imagine that the ships were an exclusively male environment, isn’t it? It makes it all the more important that when a sea-woman’s story is known, it is celebrated. Take for example, Victoria Alexandrina Drummond MBE. She was the first female marine engineer in the UK, the first female to make it into the Institute of Marine Engineers, served on foreign and UK ships and was decorated for her bravery under enemy fire.
Male or female, life as a Merchant sailor in time of conflict was not for easy and nor was it fair. For example; despite the fact the MN was keeping the nation fed, sailors could not always expect to eat well. Fresh food might only be available in port, and only if the Ship Master agreed to budget for it. Some Shipping lines were known for feeding the crews as well as they could. Others not so much. Shipping company, Hogarth & Sons of Glasgow, earned the label “Hungry Hogarth”.
Working hours were long with a basic week of sixty four hours before overtime, although this was reduced in the early 1940’s to fifty six hours. The pay was poor, especially when compared to wages for those involved in war work ashore. Shockingly,up until 1941, those sailing onboard British vessels attacked and sunk by enemy action had their pay stopped from the moment the ship sank. Even if a sailor was lucky enough to be picked up, or survive time at sea in a lifeboat, this was all classed as non working time and unpaid. Probable death, untold trauma and no wages. Imagine setting sail knowing that was your likely outcome?
Add to that long periods of time away from home with little to no communication. Many seamen had no fixed abode ashore and lived a transient life split between time at sea and life in hostels. Those with families and homes must have gone home as strangers and with the next sailing looming large. As an army wife I can tell you separation is hard. I can’t imagine doing it under wartime conditions for less pay, with longer hours and minimal compassion. These are people who knew sacrifice.
The Merchant Navy is remembered beautifully in Leith where a sandstone monument pays tribute to merchant sailors who have sailed in times of war and peace. The jaw dropping Laboe Naval Monument near Kiel in Germany commemorates all lives lost at sea. Both are beautiful and both well worth a visit if you ever have the chance.
I couldn’t hit publish on this post without giving a mention to Bridget Elizabeth Talbot. She wasn’t a merchant sailor, but she did invent a watertight torch for life belts to give sailors overboard a better chance of rescue. Many merchant seamen made it home thanks to her invention and her tenacity in getting it made part of compulsory kit. Remembrance should include everyone and every sacrifice. Let’s keep the history and the stories and the sheer courage alive. Lest We Forget.