UntitledYou’re a movie producer and you’re sitting in your palatial Hollywood office and you’ve just seen War Horse and you managed to understand some of the accents and thought “Wow! I can do that so much better” and outside in the lobby you’ve gathered a motley crew of writers and ne’er do wells to brainstorm the big idea that will get you the Oscar for the epic you are going to make. Leaving aside how you are going to rewrite history to fashion the ending your American audience will accept, you also need to consider the cost. The CGI bill will be enormous. This movie will cost a fortune because of the scale. What you need is a story to take you away from the mud and the blood of the Western Front, somewhere where there aren’t so many Geordies and people who don’t speak what passes in England for English….that place is the sea.

Now of course, this is the moment where if this was being done with sound the effects people would do that bit with the needle scratching across a record, and hopefully not a classic; something by Ant and Dec perhaps. I digress… because even at sea, the ocean at that time belonged to Britain, in the main, and her ships were full of men from the British Isles and the Dominions and all the accents of her enormous Empire. But, in this glorious book by Tony Bridgland we get a truly international cast of wonderful people and a century on from their exploits nationality is the last thing that matters because it is the people and their deeds that the stuff of movies are made of. So, Mr Movie Producer, here is your Great War epic: No trenches, no poets, no mud, but plenty of blood, tragedy, loss, heroism and the vastness of the sea. It’s like a real life Patrick O’Brian novel with a dozen Jack Aubreys  – but however real parts of his story were, this one is all is all true. Sometimes you have to pinch yourself.  Occasionally you might need a good mate to give you a good smack in the kisser.

The skill of the author doesn’t just bring the men to life; he does it for the ships, too. Think back a couple of reviews and I was lost in an ocean of giants and the great ships of the Royal Navy – the battleships and battle cruisers that have taken on a mythology in the modern era as you see them on flickering newsreel in line astern crashing through the waves. They’ve all gone and next to nothing has been saved to remind us of their scale or what they meant to us. But there were other ships fighting the Great War and in this book we see them, trawlers and brigantines, little freighters and all kinds of rusty tubs; converted by the Admiralty to take a gun or two to lure the evil U-Boats to their deaths. Sometimes it worked. It is, without doubt, a remarkable story and worthy of the telling and I am so pleased that Pen & Sword dusted it off for one of their “timely re-issues”.

But it doesn’t end there, because the Germans, brilliant seaman and fighters that they were and perhaps still may be for all I know; developed a plan of their own and the final chapters tell an incredible tale of the commerce raiders which left the Baltic and sailed all over the world sinking British merchantmen while avoiding the Royal Navy. Read it and marvel at the seamanship and the humanity of the German sailors. They were not cruel men. My favourite passage, one of pure sentimentality and romance has the aristocratic captain of one of the raiders walking alone on a captured sailing ship he had served on as a runaway boy and finding his bunk and peg and transporting himself back across the miles and years to his youth and all the emotions come through and you are there with him as the sea swells and the ship creaks and yaws in the breeze. It is magical writing and the imagery stays with you. I can almost feel the salt air on my skin.

It sounds like the best fiction and you can see some actor doing it on a screen, but this happened and it was real in 1917.

The best books bring history and people to life. They don’t leave it as dates and events milling about in a sea of facts on paper for you to pass by your eyes and forget as soon as you’re done. They churn up your thoughts and leave the good stuff sticking in the corners of your head and heart and you never forget them – that is how it should work and that is how your history teacher should have been in class at school, in my view, and then you might have carried on with the thing forever and a day. I’ve read some gems and an awful lot of dross – but this book is top drawer. So, there you have it. There was more to the Great War than trenches, mud and poetry. There were little ships, blood and parrots. Tony Bridgland wrote a classic. Second time round it deserves to reach a wide audience. Hopefully someone will read it and be inspired to make it into a BIG story on a wide canvas.  There is a German movie about the Emden doing the rounds and that is wonderful news. But there is material in this book to thrill any audience equal to the tale of the extraordinary Commander Geoffrey Spicer-Simson and the men who dragged their boats across land to fight the Germans on Lake Tanganyika…the saga which inspired the African Queen. The Q-Ships were a world of dramas and this book brings many of them together beautifully in company with those brilliant German mariners I cannot ever forget.  It is an epic of men who went down to the sea in ships. Get to know them.

Mark Barnes

The Story of Q-Ships and Decoy Ships in the First World War
By Tony Bridgland
Published by Pen & Sword Maritime £14.99
ISBN: 978 1 78159 170 3

Mark Barnes

Mark Barnes is a longstanding friend of WHO, providing features, photography and reviews. He has contributed to The Times of London and other publications. He is the author of The Liberation of Europe (pub 2016) and If War Should Come due later in 2020.