Module One, Workshop Two.
From stowaway to a Seaman at War.
Tony’s introduction to our second workshop, covered a lot of ground, and the amount of discussion following his introduction and in the workshops went further and deeper into this area of Garrett’s life. George is back from his travels in South America and into the War in 1914 that Tony argued sees the world beginning to close down; opportunities for unimpeded travel become limited and for the first time the Merchant Marine, and its representatives in the Seamen’s Union, formed in the white heat of battle in 1911, are pulled back from radicalism towards nationalism. The development of the dreaded U-boats, which Hobsbawm argues are the only weapon to have a major effect upon the First World War, wreak havoc on the Merchant Fleet, which prior to the U-boat received little in the way of escorts from the Royal navy. Garrett, although not under threat from a U-boat but from a destroyer, has direct experience of dangers of war on his first ship, The Potaro, which is scuttled by the German seamenafter the crew of The Potaro are given just fifteen minutes to abandon the ship. The SS Potaro was a British Merchant Steamer of 4,419 tons. On the 10th January 1915 when 560 miles E by N ¼ N (true) from Pernambuco, off the coast of Brazil, she was captured by the German Auxiliary Cruiser SMS Kronprinz Wilhelm and scuttled. We believe that Garrett, who was taken aboard the Kronprinz Wilhelm and forced to sign a declaration against taking up arms again against the Germans, may have been transferred to an internment camp in Buenos Aires from which he later escaped. George would have felt as though he was on familiar ground, as only a few years before he had spent some time wandering and working across South America prior to sailing back to Liverpool to sign on for the war. The Kronzprinz captured many ships, and took, politely apparently, all the crew and passengers from each ship on board, and held them while searching for other ships to capture. Here is a link to an amazing account published in The New York Times in 1915 of the experience of the prisoners held on board the Kronprinz for six weeks. And look out at the end for a fascinating insight into why, in April 1918, George Garrett writes to The Royal Mail Steam Packet Company requesting confirmation that he was forced to sign the above mentioned declaration.
Ideas abounded as to why he sought confirmation of his status as a prisoner of war, with suggestions including: the development of the 1916 Easter Uprising in Ireland, and how the attempt to seek a non-aggression treaty there may have been used smear any radicals linked to that movement; a gap in his CV, or record of service that he needed to explain when applying for other jobs; his fear of being smeared as in the pay of the Germans after the war, possibly foreseeing the red scares that would develop as a result of the Russian revolution of 1917. Tony touched upon why Garrett was such a cosmopolitan figure, explaining how George’s involvement with the American Industrial Union known as The Wobblies (The IWW: Industrial Workers of the World), influenced him and gave him such a developed world view. The Wobblies grew in the years leading up to, and on the cusp of the rapid industrialisation of America, which led to a vast itinerant, relatively unskilled workforce, that moved in hordes across the USA in search of work in the grain fields and in the mining towns. The Wobblies believed in One Big Union for all workers, its heyday beginning to come to an end underrelentless repression and the development of the more organised union structures under the AFL-CIO (American federation of Labour-Congress of Industrial Organisations). We discussed in some detail one of George Garrett’s first published articles, Sons of the Sea in the All Power magazine in 1922, within which he describes the torrid conditions endured by seamen, Stokers and Firemen in particular, on the Merchant ships of the time, and within which we can find the seeds of a number of his short stories – Letter Unsigned, Fishmeal and The Maurie. It was an extract from The Maurie that we turned to in exploring further what life was like for the stoker in the hold, and how he likened it to ‘A subterranean theatre’, as the firemen and trimmers ‘swarmed below as one’ for their next watch. Garrett captures in The Maurie, and most importantly from the point of view of the Stoker, the potent mix amongst the fiery heat of the furnaces of the disdain for ‘glass-back duds’, and the spirit, strength of pride and camaraderie amongst the team who drive the ships engines to ever higher revs per minute. The pictures of Garrett as a young stoker show him at this stage in his life with an amused but pride look, a vest stained black with coal dust, a bandage on his right arm and the beginning of the end for any puppy fat he’s carrying from his youth and wanderings in south America, as the rigours of the stokehold begin to mould him into the ‘Stoker with Punch’ he is soon to become.