A man adrift on a slim spar
A horizon smaller than the rim of a bottle
Tented waves rearing lashing dark points
The near whine of froth in circles.
God is cold.
Thus begins another nameless poem by Crane, which was only ever published approximately thirty years after his death.
The poem is perhaps best understood as describing Crane’s near-death experience aboard the Open Boat. While trying to make it to safety, the men aboard the lifeboat suffered a secondary catastrophe when waves overturned the lifeboat and the survivors struggled to float to shore, one man drowning in the process, clinging to the raft for dear life. The poem gives us the vision of a man in cold waters, deep in the night, drifting sightlessly into the distance amidst the silent and cold waters, succumbing to the elements at last. He disappears under the waters with a puff of his coat, as the air trapped under it balloons outwards and bubbles to the surface.
The same haunting vision of a solitary figure succumbing to the waves undergirded the haunting Lament (for Catherine, aged 9 “Lusitania” 1915) for string orchestra written by the English composer Frank Bridge. He wrote the Lament upon news that a family friend’s 9 year-old daughter had drowned in the wreckage after a German U-Boat sank the English cruise liner, which (unbeknownst to the passengers) was actually running armaments from America to England through a German submarine blockade. 128 Americans died in the sinking of the ship, many of them jumping overboard as the boat quickly plunged into the deeps. Investigations into the wreckage of the Lusitania revealed that the ship was carrying 750 tons of artillery and 1250 cases of shells, and it is suspected by some explorations of the wreckage off the coast of Ireland that the Lusitania’s unusually quick sinking was caused by a secondary explosion when the impact of the German torpedo ignited the munitions that the ship was carrying to England through the blockade. Bridge’s Lament (to which I have set the remainder of this podcast) is even more haunting when played upon the piano, and it recalls us to a conspiracy upon the high seas that set the stage for America’s late entry into World War I—one of the most futile and foreboding wars in human history, since the vindictive armistice signed with Germany, which thrust the West’s war debts upon the hapless enemy, set the stage for Germany’s woes, discontent, and eventual revolution under a nationalist socialist dictator amidst a currency crisis and unmanageable debts.
It was shortly after the Spanish-American war in February of 1900 that a twenty-six year-old Winston Churchill found himself introduced by none other than Mark Twain before Churchill was set to deliver a speech about his recent adventures as a journalist during the Boer War in South Africa, which was delivered at eth Waldorf-Astoria in New York City. The tireless old white-haired author, now 65 years-old, had been making the rounds as a public speaker to supplement his income in his later years in a lifelong struggle to pay his debts in full, simultaneously promulgating the cause of the Anti-Imperial League in the aftermath of the Philippine-American War.
Twain said of Churchill, pulling no punches, but with self-effacing humor (herewith abridged):
Mr. Churchill and I do not agree on the righteousness of the South African war…
For years I have been a self-appointed missionary, and have wrought zealously for my cause–the joining together of America and the motherland in bonds of friendship, esteem and affection–an alliance of the heart which should permanently and beneficently influence the political relations of the two countries. Wherever I have stood before a gathering of Americans or Englishmen, in England, India, Australia or elsewhere, I have urged my mission, and warmed it up with compliments to both countries and pointed out how nearly alike the two peoples are in character and spirit. They ought to be united…….yet I think England sinned in getting into a war in South Africa which she could have avoided without loss of credit or dignity–just as I think we have sinned in crowding ourselves into a war in the Philippines on the same terms.
Mr. Churchill will tell you about the war in South Africa, and he is competent–he fought and wrote through it himself. And he made a record there which would be a proud one for a man twice his age. By his father he is English, by his mother he is American–to my mind the blend which makes the perfect man. We are now on the friendliest terms with England. Mainly through my missionary efforts I suppose; and I am glad. We have always been kin: kin in blood, kin in religion, kin in representative government, kin in ideals, kin in just and lofty purposes; and now we are kin in sin, the harmony is complete, the blend is perfect, like Mr. Churchill himself, whom I now have the honor to present to you. 1
America had become “kin in sin” in its imperial endeavors, and Twain was right to treat the notion with contempt and ridicule in his characteristically disarming and gregarious way. Little could he know how that kinship in sin would affect his country 5 years after his death, where an older and savvier Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, would play with human lives at sea as if they were no different than the figurines upon his war room’s planning board.
The Lusitania was a British liner with regular passage between Liverpool and New York; the kind of ship that civilians did not question before boarding and heading into the jaws of a German U-Boat blockade in time of war because the ship was so powerful and fast that the U-Boats would have a hard time tracking it and pinning it down. The ship was a passenger liner, but as G. Edward Griffin points out, the ship was registered in the Admiralty fleet register as an armed auxiliary cruiser, its construction having been “specifically…drawn up by the British Admiralty so that she could be converted, if necessary, into a ship of war.” 2
Churchill had already issued orders for merchant ships to charge German U-boats and ram the submarines in order to destroy them—a kind of kamikaze Crazy Ivan maneuver that would discourage U-Boats from surfacing lest they be split in half by reinforced cruiser hulls. As a result, Germany waived its usual obeisance to the Cruiser Rules, which generally demanded that a ship in wartime would warn a civilian cruiser to take to the lifeboats before sinking the vessel in order to spare needless casualties. Furthermore, English merchant ships were advised to fly foreign flags, especially of neutral powers. As Churchill later spoke of his naval strategy:
The first British countermove, made on my responsibility,…was to deter the Germans from surface attack. The submerged U-boat had to rely increasingly on underwater attack and thus ran the greater risk of mistaking neutral for British ships and of drowning neutral crews and thus embroiling Germany with other Great Powers. 3
While many have lauded Churchill as a strategist, the story has more of the ring of conspiracy than savvy statesmanship. It was not unknown that the Lusitania had often carried arms of war between America and England. One German newspaperman, George Viereck, even submitted ads on behalf of the German embassy in the newspapers and warned the State Department that Germany would consider the Lusitania to be an arms-carrying vessel, and thus fair game for targeting. The ads were not printed, much to Viereck’s concern. Something seemed amiss, so he contacted the State Department to find out why they had not been printed, given that American lives were at risk.
Meanwhile, Churchill oversaw his end of the engagement:
When the Lusitania left New York Harbor on May 1, her orders were to rendezovous with a British destroyer, the Juno, just off the coast of Ireland so she would have naval protection as she entered hostile waters. When the Lusitania reached the rendezvous point, however, she was alone, and the captain assumed they had missed each other in the fog. In truth, the Juno had been called out of the area at the last minute and ordered to return to Queenstown. And this was done with the full knowledge that the Lusitania was on a direct course into an area where a German submarine was known to be operating. To make matters worse, the Lusitania had been ordered to cut back on the use of coal, not because of shortages, but because it would be less expensive. Slow targets, of course, are much easier to hit. Yet, she was required to shut down one of her four boilers and, consequently, was now entering submarine-infested waters at only 75% of her potential speed. 4
In essence, the Lusitania, carrying munitions for the British troops, was chugging at 75% of her speed towards a rendezvous in dangerous waters where it was known that a particular U-Boat, U-20, was cruising for targets, where the British Admiralty had already recalled the escort without informing the Lusitania’s captain.
The first torpedo struck the starboard side of the Lusitania, and a second explosion blew off the side of cargo hold number two. The ship sank below the surface in less that eighteen minutes. Panicked civilians dove over the side, having virtually no time to board the lifeboats in the ensuing chaos.
A level-headed William Jennings Bryan tried his best, as Secretary of State, to quiet the immediate calls for war when America learned that the Germans had killed 128 American passengers aboard the Lusitania.
Hitchens, latching onto disinformation spread by British Intelligence’s Room Forty, aptly summarizes the English reaction:
As with the Maine, the evidence of the cause of the disaster had to be rearranged. The Lusitania had broken up and sunk in an extremely short time, after being hit by only one torpedo. It therefore had to be found that more than one torpedo had struck her…It had then to be denied that the Lusitania was carrying any munitions of war. The denial was made repeatedly and strenuously by every organ of the British government. In fact, unknown to the civilians who had book passage on her, the ship had been carrying 1,248 cases of shells, six million rounds of ammunition, and eighteen cases of percussions fuses. These were part of J.P. Morgan’s contribution to the Western Front, financed discreetly by Morgan Grenfell. 5
It appears, after the passage of nearly 100 years as more documents become available to us, that Churchill conspired—or at least conspired to increase the likelihood—of an attack on the Lusitania. It was an attack not only upon a British cruise liner, but also an attack upon American civilians ignorant of the arms trading, and upon J.P. Morgan’s war supplies—one of the key movers in the establishment of the Federal Reserve (the 2nd plank of the Communist Manifesto) and the godfather of our military industrial complex, by which wealthy financiers make obscene profits in the funding of wars by indebting nations to private traders.
William Jennings Bryan reasoned with his President and the nation as a whole: “Why be so shocked at the drowning of a few people if there is to be no objection to starving a nation?” Britain’s naval blockade—as estimated by the German Board of Public Health—led to the starvation of over 763,000 civilians by 1918, although later studies have reduced that number by half. Still, Bryan was perhaps wiser in evaluating, with dispassionate calculation, the reciprocal horrors of war on both sides, where moral superiority was not to be found. And, indeed, had he known—and perhaps he did know—that the Lusitania was carrying a wealthy war financier’s contributions to the arms supply train, Britain and J.P. Morgan earned their share of a secondary blame in the damned, dirty affair. When Wilson ramped up the pursuit of war, Bryan resigned his position as Secretary of State in disgust out of personal conflict. With wisdom (though not typically the wisest of men) he predicted that, “It is not likely that either side will win so complete a victory as to be able to dictate terms, and if either side does win such a victory it will probably mean preparation for another war.
How true his foresight proved.
We end our readings today with Stephen Crane’s poem “The Battle Hymn,” where we see a kind of foreboding of the Twentieth Century; a nation, crying out for war; an empire guided by destiny, where the “seas shall not bar us; / The capped mountains shall not hold us back / We shall sweep and swarm through jungle and pool” Crane returns twice to a vision of the two-faced Eagle, an America looking forward towards its founding principles and backward to the inevitability of Empire—crushing decline and cultural destructionism. And we see new victims, slain soldiers, unmanacled slaves, and savages lying dead and pale as equals beneath the fields of smoking cane, listening to the chanting of a grammatical anomaly—a distingrate; a nation in disintegration, the forward-looking face of the eagle falling out of focus, as the eagle looking back towards the era of empire comes into full focus, emerging out of the smoke choking the native and foreign dead.
A people rebuked, accursed,
By him of the many lungs
And by him of the bruised weary war-drum
1. Twain, Mark.
2. Griffin, G. Edward. The Creature from Jekyll Island: 5th ed. 247.
3. ibid., 249.
5. Hitchens, Christopher. Blood, Class, and Empire: The Enduring Anglo-American Relationship. Nation Books: New York, 2004. 189.