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.
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.
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.