1915: Dead in the Water is the second play in my Great War cycle, following on from 1914: Assassination Before Lunch. It tells the story of the sinking of the Lusitania.
In 1915, at the urging of Grand Admiral von Tirpitz, Germany declares unrestricted U-boat warfare and imposes a blockade of the British Isles. Any ship in British waters, neutral or not, is liable to be sunk without warning.
The British cruise liner Lusitania is crossing the Atlantic from New York, heading for Liverpool. Among its passengers are over a hundred Americans. Waiting for the ship just off the coast of Ireland is Walther Schwieger, captain of the U boat U-20, prepared to carry out his orders to sink any ship on sight – including unarmed passenger liners.
This play is about the tragedy that ensues from that German decision on strategy. It is also about the moral dilemmas that lie at the heart of modern warfare.
1915 – Dead in the Water had its premiere at the Mumford Theatre, Cambridge, 22-23 November 2016 and was reviewed by Mike Levy of Local Secrets here.
(Berlin. BETHMANN-HOLLWEG’s office.)
BETHMANN: And do you have a way of taking England out of the war?
TIRPITZ: I have. We hit hard at its weakest point. Its Achilles heel. The sea.
BETHMANN: I must bow to your superior knowledge, of course, but that is the first time I’ve heard the sea described as England’s weak point.
TIRPITZ: England depends on the sea for importing its food. And food is a weapon. Why do you think they are blockading us in the North Sea? Oh, we’re not feeling it yet, not fully, but we will, assuredly we will. When the shortages begin and the queues get longer, then we’ll discover what naval power can do.
BETHMANN: Blockade is dirty form of war. It hits civilians.
TIRPITZ: There are no civilians, Chancellor. Not in this war. We are all combatants. The English have understood that: so must we. Look, if a tommy fires a shell at our men, do we kill him? Of course we do. And the tommies who bring that shell to the Front: do we kill them? Of course. Or the ship that carried it to France – do we sink it? Yes! Or the man who makes that shell in the factory in London. Do we kill him? He wears no uniform, he has no regiment, he is what you would call a civilian, but he is an enemy combatant nonetheless. So yes, we kill him. By bombs or shells if we can; by other means if we can’t.
BETHMANN: My dear Tirpitz, we cannot blockade the British Isles. We can hardly leave our own ports in safety. You know that better than anyone.
TIRPITZ: No no, not with battleships. With submarines. U boats. We blockade the British Isles with U boats.
BETHMANN: Have we got that many U boats?
TIRPITZ: We don’t need many. We target the English shipping lanes and their main ports – Liverpool, Glasgow – and we sink anything that moves. Unrestricted U boat warfare.
JOHN: Did you see the lines of dead as they lay there side by side,
The eyes gouged out from where the seagulls fed?
MARY: An endless stream of death brought to shore on every tide
From that dreadful day below Old Kinsale Head.
JOHN: Did you see them, Mary dear, the men who dug the pit,
Who toiled all day and scarcely paused for breath?
A pit for those fine folk, with their servants and their maids,
The rich, the poor, no different now in death.
MARY: Yes, I saw them, Johnnie dear, as they dug that simple hole
And filled it with cheap coffins side by side.
And in each box a person, with a story and a soul,
And I stood there and I watched it and I cried.
BOTH: Yes, we saw them bring the bodies and we saw them dig the grave
And we saw them sort the living from the dead.
So no more will we go walking, to no ships will we now wave
As they sail the waters past Old Kinsale Head.