Saturday 26 October 2013

The strange story of the sinking of the Gulcemal

I have a feeling that the centenary events for the First World War are going to be a shock for some of us.

I am old enough to remember the Old Contemptibles, those survivors of the British Expeditionary Force in 1914, marching along Whitehall on Remembrance Day, and they have all gone now.  What next year will mark is the shift from remembrance to history - and to military historians in particular.

That means engaging with the former enemies properly, and on an equal basis.  I still hear bizarre stories from military conferences about how the German or Turkish points of view are completely sidelined by old buffers, and embarrassingly so if there are German or Turkish experts present.

I was thinking about this because of the strange story, which I have just written about in the e-magazine Fighting Times, about the sinking of the former White Star liner Gulcemal (ex-Germanic) in the Sea of Marmora in 1915 (briefly on sale for 99p).  The story is strange because - the gulf between British and Turkish military historians is still so wide - that it only just came to light, nearly a century later.

It happened because of a question whether the liner, once holder of the Blue Riband of the Atlantic, then carrying 6,000 Turkish reinforcements bound for Gallipoli, had actually sunk after its brush with the submarine E14.  Night fell, the British never saw what happened and, for some reason, British officials never thought of asking the Turks.

Consequently, the British Admiralty paid out a record sum in 'prize money' for the sinking in 1919, just as the very same ship was being chartered by the British Military Mission in Berlin to take Russian prisoners of war home from Hamburg.

A typically bureaucratic mistake, and the article explains why it was made.  You can hardly blame them, but why did nobody ask?


Simon said...

David. I rather feel that transition from rememberence to history happened some time ago.

I'm 28, which hardly seems THAT young, and was struck the other day to think that I have NEVER met a veteran of the first world war. I'm pretty sure I once met a woman in an old people's home were we had been sent on a school trip who would have been an adult in the first world war, but everyone I can think of who i actually knew at all was born after 1918. It is therefore almost impossible for me to relate to world war one as an event that really affected real people, in the way that I can still do for the second world war.

For me it is glorious to think that my young daughter will probably grow up not really knowing anybody from world war 2 either, and that, for her, living memory will only ever be of (some sort of) peace.

David Boyle said...

Perhaps you're right, but I was born only 40 years after the end of WWI, and I assure you I don't feel that old (this may be a delusion on my part). But I also have young children who can really make no sense of it - in some ways I'm pleased, in other ways I don't want the lessons so forgotten that we risk having to learn them again...