Tuesday, 1 December 2015

1915 a scandal in Lusitania


exploding butter balls cried Sherlock Holmes
shaking out his gamp i'the vestibule
weather's filthy & thunder's hardly ceased
this seven days yet mingled with the sad
retort of guns from France there never raged
such dirty work abroad as here in port

good gracious man said I where have you been
to summon up that storm of metaphors

from supping with young Winston in The Strand
a Pinkerton to hand then all night long
perusing naval documents for proof
our famous commodore of Cunard line
deliberately sailed the Lusitania
across the sights of a German submarine

my flatmate’s beaten brows belied the truth
had stirred him more than Churchill's Sea-Lord wrath

good Captain Turner's no less loyal than
you I or any man of Blenheim mould
while butter has not melted in his mouth
it plain exploded i'the liner's hold


I should insert a portrait of the ship
now shallow bosomed on the ocean bed

conceived as microcosm of the Raj
her classes watering in strict compart
meant all aboard were sealed their letters marqued
for booty by the German High Command
though few who joined the liner at New York
believed the word she carried contraband
would make them fodder for the U-boats' jaws

still less would claim the Hun then justified
to sink our merchant navy's joy & pride
since Belgian massacres were of a kind
the question eating at the public's mind
not just what beasts they were to break such laws
but how so many passengers had died

when Sherlock Holmes was urged to take the case
I cried 'twas scarcely worth the candle wax
to answer queries scurrilously asked
since days when legions at a Caesar's word
would raze a city-state by torch & sword
had hunting leopards traded in their spots
to covet fleeces of escaping goats

but Churchill called in war and vainly Holmes
like Lusitania was easily lured


his pipe relit and legs stretched forth the sleuth
reprised the charges laid on Turner's head

commissioned commodore this mariner
is majesty's & merchant's man at once
serves Mammon & the Admiralty both
though neither master wears the cap aboard
supreme at sea our captain struts the bridge

his judgement overrules such orders as
endanger ship & cargo all who sail
make up his charge plus he must save the souls
of friend or foe imperilled by the waves

three times has Thomas Turner won awards
for daring rescues made in heaving storms

there's scarce a blemish on this common man
not fussed to grace a Captain's table though
as far as bravery and science go
the fellow's number one amongst his clan

I couldn't help from quipping at such praise
they like a skip who goes down with his ship

yet Holmes was ready for that heckler's jibe
they hate his guts because he dared survive


the fire glowed the tea was served we felt
secure in London town removed from storms
in France where shrapnel fell like rain on men
who ducked and died a thousand times each day

refreshed my friend resumed his peroration
what Winston told the chap from Pinkerton's
is not for me to say Americans
trust neither French nor Hun and Englishmen
they know too well tell fibs when it suits 'em

in Churchill's view the news is proof enough
to disobey commands jump overboard
with secret documents and save himself
the skipper breached his oath and shares the guilt
of those who launched torpedoes at the ship

court martial him he raged just find what grounds
you can old England's standing needs a quick
response pour encourager les autres
the sea lord quoth in schoolboy accent French


now Holmes is seldom one to dramatise
that's your department Watson he declares
the facts the facts and just the facts are all
we need to prosecute a criminal

but then he dropped his voice to whisper words
no living soul shall ever hear bar mine
this story mustn't go beyond these walls
a hundred years from now perhaps won't do
to hide the shame of Admiralty crime

I pledged to seal the truth from public gaze
post dating publication ten decades
so on he went his eyes with morphia glazed

the records show but one torpedo struck
yet two explosions tore the hull apart
in less than twenty minutes sank the ship
so loss of life was due to speed and list
as insufficient lifeboats could be launched

still phased I failed to see what Holmes had found
a-new and trotted out the party line
the U-Boat hit her coal a lucky shot

not so the nearest bunkers lay to aft
midships of where the sole torpedo struck

yet still I couldn't twig how it was rigged
so then what caused the death blow of the ship

some ninety tons of butter margarine
and lard in unrefrigerated store


his monogram upon tobacco ash
so often quoted in the monthly press
shows Holmes has played the alchemist from time
to time indeed i'the days of his youth
he studied under Faraday no less

but this idea that lactic acid turned
by force of sudden heat to acetone
which more inflammable than household gas
ignited by the same torpedo blast
at best struck me as crazed at worst as crass

oh Watson must you play the clever ass
cried Holmes what use is rancid butter eh

indeed and ninety tons of it you say

without so much as chilled for seven days
at sea what's more then bound for the Navy's
Experimental Weapons factory

search me I scratched my head complacently
while Holmes blew rings of smoke a-hemmed then droned

all cargoes bound for ordnance facilities
are coded butter dripping and margarine
for marge read cordite lard is TNT
while butter stands for nitroglycerin


oh no great Scott I groaned this cannot be
the Lusitania carried contraband
which Cruiser Rules specifically banned
impossible for British hearts to know

so royally played the Navy with the lives
of children nannies concubines & wives
and not forgetting sailors' widows their
faces twitching lace in basement windows
have we not had enough of broken homes

now we've sunk as rank and low as Kaiser
Bill a-smiling under his linden tree
outwitted in port and outcast at sea
accusing Captain Turner of treason
while he no doubt is sworn to secrecy
the scandal's as deep as any ocean

so Holmes and I now partners to the crime
the seven percent solution of which
is take each other arm in arm and shoot
ourselves into the next millennium

©Philip Lee 2015
1915 a scandal in Lusitania
Never Sink!

No comments:

Post a Comment

Readers' comments are welcome!