‘A submarine engineer I knew him to be before’

Calling Böhme a German submarine engineer in 1903 is a bit like calling him a North Korean nuclear scientist or a Premiership football club owner today. Immediately, he has the whiff of corruption and danger.

Club member Adrian sums it up nicely in a recent comment:

“It might not be clear to us now, but Bohme’s choice of career would have told the Edwardian reader much about his character. A common view at that time was that because they were difficult to detect, these machines constituted an ungentlemanly and underhand way of doing battle and so were not suitable for civilised nations.

This idea had been doing the rounds since the American Civil War, but it appears that many British newspapers during the First World War, including relatively high-brow broadsheets such as The Times, often referred to German submarine crews as ‘pirates’ or ‘criminals’ and urged the country to deny them the protection afforded by the laws of war.

Interestingly, Duncan Retford’s book on the cultural history of the submarine (more compelling that it sounds) provides some of examples of how this opprobrium wasn’t just restricted to caricatures of the enemy, but was also applied to submariners on one’s own side. He cites an example from 1915, so still quite early in the war and before the sinking of the Lusitania, in which Player’s cigarettes (the Royal Navy brand) chose to withdraw an advertisement depicting a British submarine sinking two German warships because of the unpopular, unheroic (and thus it was thought, thoroughly unBritish) nature of the action.”

Certainly, the submarine business was a dodgy one around the time of ‘The Riddle of the Sands’ (as I’ve mentioned in a previous post). But I also wonder whether Erskine Childers (the author of the book) may have had a more personal reason to throw in submarine engineering as yet another shifty ‘unBritish’ pursuit.

The so-called father of marine engineering is a man called John Philip Holland, an Irish-American whose first submarine project – the Fenian Ram – was actually funded by Irish Republican money. Childers, we know, became more and more embroiled in Irish Republicanism from  about 1907 onwards.

The ‘Fenian Ram’ submarine, lying useless in a field. (image via Wikimedia)

In 1903/4, Childers was in Boston – the heartland of Irish-American politics – getting engaged and married to Molly Osgood. Just down the road  in Quincy, Massachussets, was one of the main yards for pumping out Holland-designed submarines – mainly for the Japanese Navy at this point in time.

Submarines being built just outside Boston, at the same time as Childers was getting married in that city. (Image via Wikimedia)

Is it too much to speculate that Childers must have known of Holland, perhaps even have met him? There seems little doubt that Childers would have known of Republican ambitions to use submarines against the British.

The naysayers amongst you will point out that ‘The Riddle of the Sands’ itself was written around 1900-1901, so the description of Böhme preceded Childers’s visit to the US and his public support  for Irish Home Rule. But, just as Childers is capable in this book of divining, in part, the terrors to come in World War One, perhaps, in this one reference to submarines, he’s divined something about his own tragic future too.

3 thoughts on “‘A submarine engineer I knew him to be before’

  1. One thing worries me about this sinister ‘submarine engineer’ label.
    What would a man who specialised in underwater structures, say for a civilian harbour, railway bridge foundations or indeed for wreck recovery have been called in 1901?
    I certainly wonder if we’re imputing a notoriety to this title that isn’t necessarily warranted.


    1. On reflection, John, I think you’re right. I’ve gone too far here. Childers could well be using ‘submarine’ to mean ‘under the water’ and not ‘the underwater vessel’. Club Member Brian contacted me on Twitter to say the same thing. I fear I’ve become so engrossed in the coming invasion that I see threat everywhere – just as Childers would have wanted it!

      This morning I’ve done a casual search to see what I can find about submarine engineers of the late 19th century, involved not in building submarines, but in diving, salvage, harbour-building etc. In many cases, it looks like this would have come under the more general label of marine engineering, a trade that was definitely on the up as more and more machinery and engines became used at sea. (although I note that in the Navy, engineers were treated as second-rate citizens largely, and it was only in 1903 – the date of ROTS publication – that the Selborne-Fisher scheme attempted to elevate their status somewhat – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Selborne-Fisher_scheme)

      What I did find was a *German* engineer working in London at this time making diving apparatus. The company was called Siebe Gorman and it did indeed described itself as ‘Submarine Engineers’. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siebe_Gorman

      So thank you John. Your admonishment is fully accepted. In fact, I feel like there’s a full post merited here to clarify and correct this idea of what a submarine engineer might be. I’ll write it soon.


  2. I think John makes a good point – and I had considered it. When the wreck was being discussed on the 19th of October von Bruning says “An engineer from Bremen was the principal mover, and a few men from Norderney and Emden subscribed the capital” and I had always taken this to be a civilian marine or submarine engineer in that sense – however in the case of Bohme I just couldn’t pass up an opportunity to think badly of a baddie. That’s the beauty of the book, it seems simple at first glance, but provides layer upon layer of interpretation.


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