There is a difference between looking at an old object and looking at an historical object. Especially if the object in question is associated with infamy. The first time I realised this, was in 1989 when I was standing inside the gas chamber at Auschwitz staring at a fake shower head. To say that I was touched with sadness would be an understatement. Auschwitz was indescribably dire and I shall never forget the sense of isolation it created within me.
Last week I caught an echo of that feeeing when I was at the St George Musuem and found myself standing in front of the conning tower of U-20, for U-20 was nothing less than the u-boat which sank the RMS Lusitania. See my previous post with regards to the museum.
The conning tower of U-20. The cycle beihnd it gives an indication of just how small the conning tower is.
Standing next to the conning tower of U-20 was the 105mm deck gun from U-59. According to the infomation plaque, this gun had spent eighty eight years in the sea. It was in a remarkable condition considering.
A copper plate on the side of the gun reads Nr 823. Fried. Krupp.
The last of these four images is from inside the U-20 conning tower and shows where the periscopes were.
Lusitania was an ocean liner belonging to the Cunard line, and she was launched in 1906. At the outbreak of the First World War she was commandeered by the British Admiralty to be used as an armed merchant ship. She was no good for this however so the Admiralty released her back to Cunard and she resumed her previous rolé as a trans-atlantic passenger ship. On 7 May 1914, as she returned from New York, she was torpedoed just 11 miles off the southern coast of Ireland. 1,198 innocent people were killed. It is said that this incident went a long way to convincing the citizenry of the USA to accept participation in the war, and as the poster image at the top of this post illustrates clearly, the authorities were not shy about using the tragedy to encourage men to sign up and fight.
Standing in front of the rusty old conning tower, on a sunny summers day in Denmark I caught an echo of that same feeling I'd had in Auschwitz so many years before. Here was an historical object, and an object of infamy to boot. I'd had no idea that the U-20 had beached itself at Vrist (where we'd been sleeping in a summer house) for there are no monuments out there and no wrecks to be seen, just the endless flat beach of west Jutland. Even if I'd known about the wreck, I didn't know the number of the u-boat which had sunk Lusitania. Reading the little descriptive plaque which stood in front of the conning tower then, I felt a cold surprise when I realised what I was looking at.
In a way it was a poignant feeling in more ways than one though. There was the empathic feeling for all those innocent people drowning in the cold, dark Atlantic, and a natural abhorence at what men will do to each other, and even to women and children. At the same time there was a weary resignation that when all is said and done, here was a rusty piece of historical flotsam, left to attest to the futility of all the conflict and suffering which we as a species must endure. I often feel the same way when I chance upon a sun bleached crab's carapace, lying on a beach. Once it was a creature that breathed and lived. Now it is just an empty reminder of our inevitable mortality. I am moved to suppose that our only salvation lies in the meaning we give to our lives as we live them, and there can't be much purpose in slaughtering innocent people. I am glad to be so fortunate to live in happier times!
As for the innocent passengers of Lusitania, and the many other victims of u-boat warfare, and even those poor submariners themselves, so many of whom paid a terrible price for their loyalty to their country. If we have souls, may they all find peace, where ever they are now.
Inside the museum was a scale model of a u-boat, done all in wood. Its worth adding to the post simply because it was so impressive.