Cicely Fox-Smith’s powerful poem about the brave crews and the miscellaneous collection of merchant vessels – many old and unfit in normal times – that kept the UK supplied during World War I despite the efforts of the German Navy.
My thanks to Charlie Ipcar of Facebook’s Cicely Fox-Smith group for reminding me about this poem. For more about this sailors’ poet, click here. For more about the Merchant Navy during World War I, click here and here, and for a guide to researching this topic, .
These were the ships that kept on going
When the seas were thick with the War’s black sowing –
Great ocean liners in white paint and gold,
Shabby little colliers, all grime and green mould,
Up-to-date cargo boats ugly as sin,
Old seven-knotters with their plates rusted thin,
Has-been clipper-ships, laid up for ages,
Fitted out and rigged new and sent to earn their wages,
Coal-ships and cotton–ships,
Sound ships and rotten ships
From Thames and Clyde and Merseyside that fetched their ports no more –
Tyne ships and Humber ships,
Grain-ships and lumber-ships –
Ships that went down in the War!
These were the men that knew no shirking
The hungry waters where death lay lurking –
Grizzled old skippers that had grown grey in ships,
Young brassbounders with the down on their lips,
White-faced black squad and tanned A.B.’s
In oil-stained boiler-suits and torn dungarees,
That dropped beside the wheel on the deck all bloodied,
That drowned in the darkness when the stokehold flooded,
That froze on the rafts in the bitter Atlantic,
That drifted in boats till the thirst drove them frantic,
Some with wives and youngsters to cry their eyes red,
Some with neither chick nor child to care that they were dead.
Not reckoned greatly daring men,
But every-day seafaring men,
Who stood their trick and earned their whack and took their fun ashore,
Until on every tide for us
They took their chance and died for us –
Men that went down in the War!