English Sailors, Peasants, and American Soldiers

Posted on September 10, 2021


I’ve just been reading a book Operation Pedestal, about the British defense of the island of Malta in World War II. It reminded me of the arrival of the first American soldiers in France during the First World War—I read about it; I’m not THAT old!—under the command of General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing, the charismatic leader of the American Expeditionary Force. As the American troopers paraded through Paris, the Parisians were amazed at how tall and big and obviously well fed they were. Maybe Parisian girls were equally impressed. Another story altogether, but since France had been at war and sacrificing for three years, the Americans sure stood out, literally and physically. They were after all Americans, a new World breed altogether from the exhausted soldiers and people of France.

Fast forward to 1942 and the beleaguered British garrison on the island of Malta in the Mediterranean. The only thing that stood between the Axis airmen, sailors and soldiers of the German war machine and their Italian allies was the small island of Malta just south of Sicily. The British Navy, its many ships of war, from battleships to aircraft carriers, was the only thorn Hitler’s forces had been unable to remove before a quick airborne drop on the island and so capturing all the momentum in the 1942 Mediterranean theater of the war.

          The officers and sailors manning the British ships are described in some detail and it is an arresting picture of a humdrum and drab existence broken occasionally by the terror of battle. I had no idea how dull and disciplined the average sailor was subject to in his life in port or, worse, at sea. You really have to read the book to appreciate the lifestyle and immense class differences between those who ruled, the officers, and those who served, the enlisted men. And during the war years for the British, from the summer of 1939 to the spring of 1945, the life for the sailors in the Merchant Marine was marked by lousy food, jammed sleeping quarters, little sleep when out at sea, hardly anything to distract you from a life that was truly mean. It was more of an existence than a life.

And now zip back with me to maybe five hundred, a thousand years ago, and the life of a peasant in Europe or Asia or Africa somewhere. The monarchs and lords of those worlds owned most of the good land as far as the peasant, or peon, could see and the serfs were crushed by the social and economic elites.  They lived in an immensely humility, no electricity, no running water, few medicines, and ravaged with death and sickness everywhen when an epidemic such as the Black Plague swept through Europe in the fourteenth century, devastating the villages, the huts on the great estates of the lords, leaving whole swaths of the land empty of living people.

Of course, it was the same for the Kings and the Dukes and Earls who lived in a land bereft of electricity, modern medicines, and hot rods to keep their children entertained, but life in the castles was a life of privilege and nobility. Life as a serf was a life of want and work.


HMS Indomitable, August 10-12 1942

The description by Max Hastings of life for seamen either at sea or in their humble homes in Great Britain left me marveling at their courage and devotion to duty, especially as the Navy prepared a large squadron of warships and merchantmen to steam for the relief of Malta in the summer of 1942.

By August when the fleet rendezvoused at Gibraltar and then steamed into the Mediterranean, the stage was set. The Americans had already set back the Japanese Navy at the Battle of Midway in early June and the Americans contributed to Operation Pedestal with the Ohio a state of the art tanker and a few merchant vessels.

Sacrifices being made by both the Americans and the British in defense of liberty are hardly believable by today’s Americans, blessed with so much from freedom to prosperity. I think having so much has spoiled us in fashions we simply don’t recognize. We got rid of the king and the nobles who governed us as a colony in the American Revolution and launched perhaps the greatest adventure in the history of man, a democratic republic governed not by King and Parliament, but by those we elected to govern us.

We are still doing that although strangely befuddled these days by who has the right to vote for example. The answer is simple: all citizens have the right.

Human ingenuity, freed from old traditions and laws, produced a prosperity the rest of the world envies. And I too wonder at it when caught in traffic jams of hundreds and thousands of automobiles that transformed the way we move and accommodate ourselves to the rapidly changing circumstances of life today. Life three hundred years ago hardly changed at all from that of your parents, grandparents and ancestors. Today it seems to change rapidly from day to day, almost from hour to hour if you take the breathless talking heads on television delivering the latest “breaking news.”

But with all the things we have, the mobility, the liberty to live freely, something seems wrong. We seem to have lost the collective will to succeed in war, as we had in World War II, perhaps the most cataclysmic war in the history of mankind. We obviously are not at war and don’t have to commit sacrifices to save our brothers and friends in battles on land and sea. But we think largely of ourselves, describing some as racial monsters and others as victims, rather than all of us still in a great experiment with self-rule, with liberty, with sacrifice, with a common acceptance of each other, no matter how much we may disagree.

In searching for answers I usually turn to Scripture, which many of you reject as a useless, irrational exercise in spiritual make believe rather than face the stark realities of life. But Scripture has not changed in two thousand years. The truths that Jesus taught and lived still inspire and lift us up from just thinking of ourselves into something nobler, kinder and filled with love. Perhaps we should continue the thread later, finding answers not in our politicians, ideologues, and know-it-alls, but in the principles laid down by Jesus and his disciples, especially the apostle Paul. More later.

[1] http://laclayton.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/ab7e8-pedestalimg_0523.jpg

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