The poet, Philip Larkin, in MCMXIV (1914) wrote that:
World War I was greeted in England – Grinning,
as if it were all An August Bank Holiday lark.
He further described it as – Never such innocence,
Never before or since.
Ireland too had such innocence about war back then and many secretly sympathised with the German cause. The new Mercier Press book, Secret Victory (Ireland and the War at Sea 1914 – 1918) by Liam Nolan and John E. Nolan, catches the innocence and secrecy of the times as Cobh became the focus of a joint British and American effort to fight against the German U-Boat threat that, by the end of 1914, had sunk ten merchant ships and eight warships and the Germans only lost five U-Boats.
Cobh was called Queenstown in those days and was a hub of an almost forgotten sea war. By 1917, millions of tons of merchant shipping had been sunk and if it had not been for American intervention, Britain might have surrendered. Curiously, when America joined the war, the joint fleet working out of Cobh was under the command of British Admiral, Sir Lewis Bayly.
The authors have a fine journalistic style to present this history, when there was no radar/sonar, no depth charges and only basic minesweeping techniques. The sinking of the Lusitania is covered in gruesome detail. The Cunard Line bought hundreds of coffins at £4 each and shipped them to Cobh at urgent expense but about 800 of the nearly 1,200 victims were never recovered.
Roger Casement’s pre-1916 Rising deal with Germany to bring in 20,000 rifles and a million rounds of ammunition is well covered against a background of war at sea, where in November 1916, U-boats sank forty-two ships.
The brutal destruction of a Canadian Red Cross ship, Llandovery Castle, by U-boar 86, is told in all its inhuman detail as is a British ploy to lure a U-boat into the Waterford harbour and destroy it with German mines, and secret charts were recovered. The bodies of the German crew were buried locally but no further detail was given.
Another interesting detail was the hostility of some Cork men to the crowds of US sailors who poured into Cork for rest and recreation. The authors attribute some of this unrest to elements within Sinn Fein and it is just another example of the human drama that war brought to an Ireland where thousands of its brave sons died in Europe in a futile war of victory.