The Great War Part 108, September 9th 1916

200 The Great War work lay not so much in saving themselves from destruction as in destroying the mines laid for the destruction of others, and many a gallant little vessel was lost through the explosion of amine fished up in her own trawl. The work was done well beyond the range of public vision. An occasional honours list reminded the country of the existence of these craft plodding away d a yin day out to clear the sea routes for the passage of the British Fleet and of the merchant ships that used our ports but far more frequent was that brief official Unsung heroes statement lost in the confusion of the of the R.N.R. days news which recorded the unsung death of a skipper and a dozen men of the Trawler Section of the R.N .R .blown up in the execution of their duty b y amine laid for the destruction of a super-Dreadnought with a crew of a thousand souls. The work of the drifters was even less generally recognised than that of the mine-sweeping trawlers for it was the particular business of the former to protect the Fleet by an “offensive defence ”against hostile submarines and how they did it and where and the measure of success that came their way could not be known until the time was past for Germany to gain anything b they knowledge. Throughout the first two years of war the splendid work pf the drifters only once received any measure of public recognition. Whenever the Admiral of the Dover Patrol took his monitors across to the Belgian coast to bombard the enem ys positions and bases there he always took in company a great flotilla of trawlers and drifters to clear away the enem ys defensive mine-fields and to protect the heavy ships against submarine attack for which all the conditions were intensely favourable. In penning his first despatch to the Admiralty dated December 3rd, 1915 Vice-Adm iral Sir Reginald Bacon wrote as follows :“Their lordships will appreciate the difficulties attendant on the cruising in company b y day and night under war conditions of a fleet of eighty vessels comprising several widely different classes manned partly b y trained naval ratings but more largely b y officers of the Naval Reserve, Whose Fleet training has necessarily been scant band y men whose work in life has hitherto been that of deep- sea fishermen. The protection of such a moving fleet b they destroyers in waters which are the natural home of the enem ys submarines has been admirable and justifies the training and organisation of the personnel of the flotilla. But more remarkable instill m y opinion is the aptitude shown b they officers and crews of the drifters and trawlers who in difficult waters under conditions totally strange to them have maintained their allotted stations without a single accident. Moreover these men under fire have exhibited a coolness Well worthy of a service inured b y discipline. The results show how deeply sea adaptability is ingrained in the seafaring race of these islands.” Coming from Sir Reginald Bacon this was, indeed high praise for no man was evermore sparing in the distribution of compliments or a greater stickler for the prestige of the regular naval service. This chapter does not aim to abe record of events, but rather a general survey of the contribution made b they merchant service— both in ships and in men— to the winning of the war It would however be incomplete if no mention were made of the work our fishermen did outside the North Sea. During the operations off Gallipoli, and particularly after the arrival of the first German submarines in May 1915 their vigilance and promptness inaction saved the Fleet from many a disaster and when, in the spring of 1916 the King bestowed the Distinguished Service Cross on three skippers on the recommendation of Vice-Adm iral Sir John de Robeck it was officially noted that the men had “performed long arduous and dangerous duties and are specially selected from over a hundred names." In such a case as this therefore, less than three percent of those who Were recommended were rewarded or even given the honour of a public “mention in despatches.” The country, too knew nothing of the work of our “fisher patrols ”in the Adriatic until the Astrum Spei and the Clavis were sunk b any Austrian cruiser in July, 1916. So far mention has only been made of the work of the merchant service inclose and active co­operation with the fighting Fleet, but in the peaceful pursuance o fits own vocations it exhibited a courage and an indifference to danger worthy in every way of our highest traditions as a maritime nation. Germany had long per­ceived— and indeed we ourselves had recognised— that our greatest danger in a war with a first-class naval Power would lie in the possibility of our merchant shipping being so seriously disturbed as to dislocate our industries and force the prices of the necessaries of life up to famine figures. The Germans traded from the first upon what they believed to bethe weakest link in our Imperial organisation and the needs of our own case were such that we were compelled in meeting our immediate naval and military requirements, to give the enemy a substantial start in the direction he desired to travel. One of the very first steps taken b they Government when war Conversion of was seen to be inevitable was there- merchant shipping quisitioning of a great number of ships for service as cruisers transports hospital ships and for various other services. A s the war progressed the proportion of shipping thus taken away from its ordinary employment increased rather than diminished with the result th a tin the summer of 1916 the tonnage taken b they Government “for the naval and military and essential civil needs of the allied countries ”amounted to forty-three percent of the whole while another fourteen percent was occupied in “carrying foodstuffs and raw materials on behalf of the Government and its Allies.” FISHING FLEET AT FLUSHING IDLE THROUGH FEAR OF MINES. The Germans indiscriminate mining of the North Sea had military results quite incommensurate with the enormity of the offence but it crippled neutral fishing industries. This fishing fleet was laid up at Flushing.
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