The Trade

(notes by Alastair Wilson)

Publication

The second part of Sea Warfare consists of three articles about the activities of British submarines, published in The Times, between 21 and 28 June 1916.
The articles were based on the Reports of Proceedings, passed to Kipling by the Admiralty. As published later in book form, they are preceded by this piece of verse, entitled “The Trade”, slang for the submarine service.

Notes on the Text

Verse 1

[Lines 1 & 2] They bear, in place of classic names, / Letters and numbers on their skin submarines were built in classes, lettered from A, onwards: and each boat was numbered consecutively. At the outbreak of war, classes B, C, D and E were in service (though the Bs were really quite outdated, although a VC was won in one in December 1914). By the end of the war, classes F, G, H (but not I), J, K, L and M had been introduced (and R, for some unknown reason). Thereafter, names were used, again. in alphabetical order by class – eight boats whose name began with ‘O’, etc.

Verse 2

[Lines 6 & 7] No flag is flown, no fuss is made / More than the shearing of a pin it is the custom for British warships to go into battle flying several battle ensigns, to ensure that they can always be identified: submarines, for obvious reasons, do not. ‘The shearing of a pin’ refers to the act of firing a torpedo, when the discharge of the torpedo in its tube breaks a small pin, and this allows a valve to open to start the torpedo’s engine.

Verse 3

[Line 1] The Scout’s quadruple funnel flames a “scout” was a classification of a type of warship, something between a destroyer and a small cruiser, used for eight to ten years, 1908 onwards, which became a “destroyer leader”. They mostly had four funnels (an indication of the boiler power needed to give them high speed), and when burning coal, and under forced draught, there could be flames at the funnel tops, though this was frowned upon (bad engineering practice, in wasting all that heat, instead of boiling water with it; and bad tactically, as it gave away your position).

[Line 2] from Sweden to the Swin the Swin is one of the channels running from north-east to south-west off the coast of Essex in the Thames Estuary. Thus, the phrase encompasses the whole North Sea.

[Line 3] The Cruiser’s thunderous screw proclaims Although inaudible on the surface, the noise of a ship’s machinery, and in particular the beat of its screw, is audible to the ‘naked ear’ under water, to the extent that the number of revolutions per minute can be counted, and an estimate of speed obtained.

[Lines 5 & 6] But only whiffs of paraffin or creamy rings that fizz and fade indicating that a submarine has just dived: in those days submarines of the earlier classes were still powered by ‘petrol’ engines, and the “creamy rings” are from the last of the air in the ballast tanks being expelled through the vents in the tops of the tanks, as the submarine submerges.

[Line 7] one-eyed death the submarine’s monocular attack periscope. By this date, modern submarines had two periscopes, a binocular search periscope, and a very slim (to minimise the ‘feather’ of its wake) monocular attack periscope.

[A.J.W.]

©Alastair Wilson 2020 All rights reserved