Saving our Seamen

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia

Saving our Seamen is a letter written by Arthur Conan Doyle published in The Daily Chronicle on 22 january 1915.

Saving our Seamen

The Use of Motor Boats

Sir, — No one can read Mr. Wells' article upon "Foresight in War" without feeling that there is indeed a lack of intellectual initiative in our activities.

As an illustration, I should like to quote a question to which I have devoted some attention and correspondence — that of providing life-saving apparatus for our seamen. In the merchant service there must be boat provision for every passenger. Is it not simple common sense, therefore, that in a warship, which is so much more likely to sink, and where the men are so invaluable to the country, the same law should hold good?

I do not write in any censorious spirit, for we must all admit the splendid work that the Admiralty have done, and the enormous demands upon them, but the nation would like to be taken into its confidence in this matter, and to be convinced that everything that can be done is really being done.

At the beginning of the war there was absolutely no provision at all. Now we have got as far as a swimming collar, which is useless in a rough or ice-cold sea. We have seen a certain nameless ship with 800 men upon her decks, all of whom owed their safety to the mere chance of a liner with boats being in the neighbourhood. If that object lesson is not enough to make us deal radically with the subject, what will?

Since I first wrote upon the pressing need for life-saving appliances some months ago, I have been flooded with all sorts of letters from inventors, with different devices. There is no lack of ingenuity and brain power in the country if it be encouraged. Most of these were of the swimming bladder, inflatable waistcoat, or canvas raft varieties. Personally, I am convinced, considering the weather and temperature of the North Sea, that nothing can really meet the case but boats — collapsible, no doubt, but still boats. Let us face the difficulties and see how they may be overcome.

The objections are three — they take up too much room in action, they get destroyed in action, and they are inflammable in action.

We have to remember that our losses in this war have not been in action, but by torpedo and mine, so that none of these objections have any validity at all in nine cases out of ten. With a provision of boats every man of the Hawke, Pathfinder, Cressy, Hogue, Aboukir and other ships might have been saved, and none of these ships would have suffered in action through having them. It is probable also that the loss of the Formidable would have been much less severe had boats been available.

But let us see whether we cannot meet even the tenth case — the case of the lives which are lost when a ship goes down, as Cradock's squadron did, in action. Is it really impossible to find a method by which all three objections can be met and yet the end attained? In answer I would quote the plan of one of my correspondents, a Mr. Cameron Walker, which seems entirely feasible.

It is that each ship should have at least two large motor boats — also enough collapsible boats for the whole crew, which would be stacked where they would be least in the way. Then if torpedoed we should no longer see the terrible sight of men waiting helplessly for death. But if the ship goes into action, what then? The motor boats would be dropped with two or three men in each, they would tow the line of empty collapsibles, and they would watch the fortunes of their ship from a safe distance ready to come up if needed. Here in a moment we get rid of all the three difficulties which have been such bogies. The motor boats should each have a bow gun to protect their collapsibles against a submarine on the surface. Other craft they must avoid. There are plenty of motor boats to be commandeered at every watering-place and the matter could with good will and energy be speedily put through.

Pray excuse the length of this letter, but the subject is the most pressing one before the public. What would we care for naval losses if we knew that the men were safe? We can spare the ships. We can't spare the men. I earnestly hope that something will be done.

Windlesham, Crowborough, Sussex.