Wednesday 15 June 2016

Merchant Seamen

I've read about soldiers and sailors,
    Of infantry, airmen and tanks,
Of battleships, corvettes, and cruisers,
    Of Anzacs, and Froggies, and Yanks:
But there's one other man to remember
    Who was present at many a fray;
He wears neither medals or ribbons
    And derides any show or display.

I'm talking of A.B.'s and firemen,
    Of stewards and greasers and cooks
Who manned the big steamers in convoy
    (You won't read about them in books).
No uniform gay were they dressed in,
    Nor marched with their colours unfurled:
They steamed out across the wide oceans
    And travelled all over the world.

Their history goes back through the ages –
    A record of which to be proud –
And the bones of their forefathers moulder
    With naught but the deep for a shroud.
For armies have swept on to victory
    O'er the bodies of those who have died;
'Tis thus that the nations do battle
    For country, and freedom, and pride.

In thousands they sailed from the homeland,
    From Liverpool, Hull, and the Clyde;
To London, and Bristol, and Cardiff
    They came back again on the tide.
An old 'four-point-seven' their safeguard –
    What nice easy pray for the Huns
Who trailed them with bombers and U-boats
    And sank them with 'tin fish' and guns.

The epic of gallant 'Otaki',
    That grim forlorn hope 'Jervis Bay',
Who fought to the last and were beaten –
    But they joined the illustrious array
Whose skeletons lie 'neath the waters,
    Whose deeds are remembered today,
And their glory will shine undiminished
    Long after our flesh turns to clay.

They landed the Anzacs at Suvla
    And stranded the old 'River Clyde',
Off Dunkirk they gathered the remnants
    (And still they were not satisfied),
They battled their way through to Malta
    And rescued the troops from Malay;
They brought back the Eighth Army munitions
    And took all their prisoners away.

And others 'signed on' in the tankers
    And loaded crude oil and octane –
The lifeblood of warships and engines,
    Of mechanised transport and plane.
But these were the U-boat's chief victims;
    What death they were called on to face
As men were engulfed by infernos
    In ships that were 'sunk without trace.'

They were classed a non-combatant service –
    Civilians who fought without guns –
And many's the time they'd have welcomed
    A chance of a crack at the Huns.
But somehow in spite of this drawback
    The steamers still sailed and arrived,
And they fed fifty millions of people –
    And right to the end we survived.

And now that the turmoil is ended,
    Our enemies vanquished and fled,
We'll pray that the living will foster
    The spirit of those who are dead.
When the next generation takes over,
    This country we now hold in lease
Will be theirs – may they cherish its freedom
    And walk down the pathways of peace.

When the Master of Masters holds judgment
    And the Devil's dark angels have flown,
When the dark of the heavenly council
    Decrees that the names shall be shown,
They will stand out in glittering letters
    Inscribed with the blood they have shed:
Names of ships – and the seamen who manned them:
    Then the ocean can give up its dead.

by Edward Carpenter

This poem is taken from Voices from the Sea : Poems by Merchant Seamen, edited by Ronald Hope and published in 1977 by Harrap (London) in association with the Marine Society.


  1. Thanks for sharing, what an amazing tribute to these men. My Great Grandfather's older brother was a merchant sailor who died in the closing weeks of the Great War from the Spanish Flu. As I understand it, the ship he worked on had been transporting American troops to France. His name was Robert McDonald, from Whitehead, Co. Antrim, and was only 18 when he died.