It was in our Dennistoun tenement, late one night in 1964, that I became aware of the reality of the First World War. In our wee multi-purpose kitchen with its coal fire, gas cooker, clothes pulley and two armchairs there was a big black and white telly, with a small screen.
I was propped up on one of the armchairs by the fireplace playing with Airfix ‘sodjurs’ on a wee tray. Only ma da and me were awake. He switched on the box and a program began, it was called ‘The Great War’. Like many East End children of the era, the father figure in my home was often a stranger. So the chance to sit up late, ‘wae ma da’, and experience the magical world of a TV documentary for the first time, was a bit special.
The opening titles were set against bleak trench scenes, haunting images of the living, and skeletal faces of the dead. The theme music matched the mood of the intro and the voice of the narrator carried a sombre, funereal tone. That slightly spooky introduction made a huge impression on my eight-year-old mind.
Fast forward to 2018. Driving north on the west coast of Jutland, in Denmark, I’m heading for the recently opened ‘Sea War Museum’ to do some research for an educational publication. The main road out of Esbjerg soon narrows. A convoy of huge lorries is heading south. I keep hard right as they roar past with tubular elements for wind turbines. They’re on their way to the Vestas facility by Esbjerg harbour. Running parallel with the main road, and at a safe distance from traffic, are cycle paths. Even here in one of Denmark’s most remote regions there’s excellent infrastructure for the all-conquering bicycle!
The Sea War Museum is in Thyborøn, a small town in the north west which is, historically, one of Denmark’s largest fishing ports. After a few hours driving through the watery, marshland scenery under big skies, signs for my destination begin to appear.
The museum is situated at the end of a peninsula, right on the coast. Stepping out of the car, the first audible sound is the roar of the North Sea on the other side of the sand dunes. A quick stroll around the grounds reveals a selection of military artefacts on display – everything from torpedoes to naval guns. However, it’s inside that the real exhibition begins.
The museum was opened on the 100th anniversary of the 1916 ‘Battle of Jutland’. The battle gets its name because it was fought off the Danish coast. Independent Denmark was fortunate in that it played no military role in the 14-18 war. However, the flotsam and jetsom of the biggest naval confrontation of that conflict was washed ashore here along the north west coast.
On the day of my visit it’s quiet with only a few guests. There are no parties of excited school children. In fact, the voices I hear are whispered and mostly German-speaking. The subdued lighting and the collection of 100-year-old maritime artifacts transport you back into another era.
Relics of the naval battle are everywhere. There are some extraordinary exhibits. One of the most prominent is the periscope from the German submarine, the U-20. It ran aground in Danish waters. You can, if you want, look through the very same viewer that the U-20’s commander, Walter Schwieger, used to locate and target the RMS Lusitania in 1915. His torpedo attack on the ship cost nearly 1,200 of the 2,000 passengers their lives. The man who sank the Lusitania did not survive the war. Schwieger was commanding the U-88 in 1917 when it struck a mine. He and his crew were lost.
However, the most eye-catching exhibit in the entire museum is the brass conning tower of a submarine. It looks almost new, having been polished up to its original golden-bronze colour. To my surprise, I discover it’s from the wreck of the Glasgow-built submarine, the E-50.
According to records, E-50 was a Group 2 E Class Submarine. It was ordered in November 1914 as part of the ‘Emergency War Order’. This was only months after James Keir Hardy had spoken at a final rally for peace in a rainy Trafalgar Square on 2 August. Hardie was often heckled during his speeches opposing the war, and that day was no different. Like other spokesmen for the working classes across Europe, he was ultimately ignored and sidelined. The rush towards Armageddon was on, and the armaments manufacturers stood to profit while Europe’s workers were sent to murder each other.
The E-50 was built by John Brown and Company on the Clyde. Laid down on 15 March 1915, it was launched on 14 Nov 1916. The long period between being laid down and launch was partly the result of the yard never having built submarines before. Apart from that, John Brown and Company was busy with a high volume of surface warship work. But the submarine E-50 was finally completed and commissioned on 23 Jan 1917.
The Glasgow-built vessel survived at sea for only one year. During that time it was involved in an unusual underwater collision with a German U-boat, the UC-62. Remarkably, the E-50 escaped with no serious damage, but its luck ran out months later. According to reports, ‘On or about 1st February 1918 the submarine is believed to have struck a mine near the South Dogger Bank Light Vessel. There were no survivors of the sinking.’
The wreck of the E-50 was discovered in 2011. Its conning tower is remarkably well preserved. On a brass-coloured plaque are the names of the crew. Each soul that perished, from Commanding Officer, Able Shipman, to Stoker 1st Class, is remembered. This is no mere exhibit, it’s a memorial.
Seeing this part of Glasgow is especially poignant. Ma auld da was just bairn when the first rivets went into this vessel. His formative years were spent during the First World War. Perhaps that is why he was so interested in the documentary series that night in 1964? Did the father he never knew die in trenches? He may well have thought that, but he never said.
I have no photos of my father as a child. But I do have an ‘image’ of him from those war years. It comes from an unexpected source. In some very old court records, a nurse, a Miss Higgieson, was attending his mother at a lodging on Broomhill Street. My dad’s mother was about to give birth and Miss Higgieson ‘attended her in her confinement’. Part of the record reads, ‘There was a child of about sixteen months old playing about the floor and she told me that that child was illegitimate and that the father of it was an old sweetheart. She told me that her husband was not the father of that child.’ This story, buried in the archives, shed a light on my father’s turbulent childhood during the war years. With a little more research, I had a biographical sketch of his upbringing and teens. It is a desperately sad story, and one he did not share with any of us.
In spite of the best efforts of Keir Hardie and the peace movement in 1914, the nation’s brightest and best were sent to be slaughtered. The social upheaval it caused at home is hard to imagine. What we do know, however, is that these events took place at a time when more than half of Scotland’s revenues were withheld by London to be spent on ‘Imperial Services’. The nation was bled dry of its resources, both human and physical. With Ireland negotiating its way out of its enforced Union with the UK, Westminster finally decided to stop publishing Scottish revenues in 1921. In that year Scotland contributed £119m to the exchequer in London. Of that £119m a mere £33m was spent on Scottish services. If Scots had come to realise that Westminster was helping itself to more than half of the nation’s wealth, the demand for home rule would surely have been irresistible.
Heading south to Esbjerg, to be with my son, the sight of the E-50 had given me food for thought. Here I was in a small independent country – our North Sea neighbour – that had declared its neutrality on 1 August 1914. Unlike Scotland, Denmark was not bound by the foreign policy decisions taken by its larger southern neighbour. What Danish defence forces there were, mobilised to safeguard the nation’s neutrality. As a result, Denmark, a country with a 1,000-year history like Scotland, was mostly untouched by the 14-18 catastrophe.
I also reflected on ma auld da, Harry, and the accident of birth that left him fatherless and impoverished. Other memories of him came back, too: his pools coupons, his whisky breath, and his plaintive voice singing country and western songs on an old upright piano.
Back in 1964 ‘The Great War’ series had captured his attention. In the era in which he was born, and with the circumstances of his birth, it’s doubtful he ever learned much about his father.
As I looked up from my Airfix sodjurs and saw him transfixed by the documentary, staring men in uniform moving like regiments of staccato Charlie Chaplins, he was, perhaps, wondering if one of those soldiers was the father he never knew.