It’s never been entirely clear to me why the First World War hasn’t generated the same level of interest that the sequel has here in the U.S. of A. Granted we weren’t in it for very long but it provides an opportunity to not only see how a conflict manifests itself differently throughout the world and at different levels (from the grand strategic to the very personal and individual) but also to examine a fault line between eras. How do civilizations act (and react) do the death of one age and the birth of another? You can see traces of both the ‘old’ Romantic era and the ‘new’ Modern one struggling in the same time and place which, I suspect, has more to tell us about where we might be headed than WWII does 1. So, I’ve been dipping my toe into WW1 readings lately and quite enjoying it.
I recently finished The Wolf by Richard Guilliatt and Peter Hohnen. I wasn’t sure what I expected when I started the book and I don’t have much in the way of nautical interest generally but this was a compelling read. The book follows the journey of the German commerce raider SMS Wolf which spanned the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans (64,000 miles) over 14 months without one trip into port. The ship sustained itself solely through the cargo of the ships it captured. It’s total damages were 30 ships damaged or sunk, totally 138,000 tons. More importantly, the activities of the Wolf had a disproportionate impact on the war effort of the allies, forcing them to restrict the shipping of cargo and troops, revealing rifts in the alliance and causing domestic discord (at least in Australia).
It’s the latter story which is both interesting and frustrating in revealing how little things have changed in our response to threats over the past 100 years. The Australian government, refusing to accept ever more compelling evidence that a commerce raider was prowling in their waters, decided to curry popular support by creating a scare of a secret fifth column of people of German decent. There were internment camps, calls for mass deportation and increasing paranoia about the dangers from the Hun. Re-skin those positions, speeches and laws to the boogy man of the week (Muslims, immigrants, gays, etc.) and you’d hardly know we were in the 21st century.
But apart from that little bit of deja vu, the real story is what went on board on the Wolf itself. As the Wolf had to be self-sustaining, abided but the contemporary laws of war and had no friendly port to pull into, she had to keep all of her prisoners on board for the duration of her journey. That meant some prisoners were kept on the ship for nearly a year and at one point the ship, with a crew of almost 350, had around 400 prisoners on board, including women and children. Keeping so many people in such a small area for extended periods of time and under stressful conditions is bound to lead to all sorts of differing conflicts and relationships and The Wolf does not dissapoint in discussing them. The dynamics between the Germans and the prisoners (of different nationalities), the prisoners amongst themselves, the officers and the crew (while at sea, there was a mutiny of the German Navy and word made it to the crew, causing much confusion and consternation), the ‘civilians’ and everyone else, are facinating and that’s totally separate from the war going on outside the ship’s hull.
As, I suspect, is true with most wartime deployments, it’s the end of the mission that is the most stressful. You’re tired, anticipating being home (or at least out of the battle), and the temptation to give into complacency or paralysis from too much caution can prove fatal. The Wolf had to navigate British blockade many thought wasn’t possible, under terrible weather conditions, with ever decreasing supplies. Prisoners were suffering from scurvy and beri-beri, coal was running low, and huge winter storms were running rampant across the Atlantic.
The prisoners were faced with the dilemma of both hoping to be found by allied ships and dreading the possibility. After all, an allied warship could decide to blow the Wolf out of the water instead of asking for her surrender.
In fact, there are so many levels of drama and conflict within this story I can’t help wondering why it hasn’t been brought to the screen or used to drive a fictional story based on these dynamics. Change the backdrop to a sci-fi universe with the Wolf becoming a spaceship and the story practically writes itself. Or, imagine a much (MUCH) grimmer version of the Love Boat (please no guest cameo by Gopher) where the cast is forever stuck on the Pacific Princess. And no worries, there were enough ladies as prisoners to allow for all sorts of romantic plot lines.
Here’s a video of the Wolf (along with her seaplane the cleverly named ‘Wolfchen’ or ‘little wolf’).
And a bit from one of the authors…
- Which is unfortunate since people here are more familiar (or as familiar as a historically blind culture can be) with WWII and it remains the ‘go to’ conflict for historical analogies. ↩