Sailors in Early 20th Century Great Britain
Historian Jeffrey Charles' website about the Motor Launch Patrol of the British Royal Navy around WWI offers an extensive look into the world of sailing in the early 20th century. One account of Naval Officer Robert Jones describes the activities of sailors in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, particularly the men who occupied “Movies” or Motor Launches, nicknamed for their speed. These sailors were employed in patrol units along the coast of the British Isles, in the Mediterranean, the West Indies and the White Sea. A day in the life of a sailor might include scouting, anti-submarine work, inshore mine sweeping, smokescreen-laying, and hydrophone (underwater microphone) monitoring. Some were served as wireless telegraphists and were responsible for communicating through Morse code, with radio signaling reaching widespread use in the 1930s. During World War I, Morse lamps, flags and radio were still important means of naval communication.
In early 20th century Great Britain sailors were recruited extremely young: “boys” aged 15½ to 16¾ and “youths” ages 16¾ to 18 received months of naval training while still attending school part-time at special Training Establishments. Their education included “seamanship,” swimming, squad drill, gunnery and mechanics. Eventually, these young men advanced to their sea-training and joined the Second Fleet. Recruits had a choice of enrollment in the Advanced Class Courses (boat work and mechanical work), the Wireless Course, and the Signal Course. The Wireless and Signal Course “lads” were sent to sea as soon as possible to begin service.
During World War I, not all British sailors remained at sea: in Germany internment camps were established as war broke out and many sailors, especially fisherman and merchant seamen, docked in German harbors at the time were sent to internment camps. While these men certainly endured a hard life, suffering from physical and mental illness with limited outside communication and nourishment, it seems it wasn’t all miserable: one account of a prisoner I discovered describes how he competed in athletic games inside the camp and was awarded a metal as the tug-of-war champion.
Sailing Life Today
While technology has certainly changed things, perhaps for the better, about life in the navy since the early 20th century, it is clear that sailing remains a high-stress, isolating experience. In an online article published by the American Psychological Association about Naval Lt. Lisseth Calvio, a doctoral candidate at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences who is the first person to even finish their clerkship on board a deployed warship, Calvio describes experiencing “the constant strain the ship’s crew feels as they live and work in crowded conditions.” Calvio spent her days offering counseling and therapy to 5,000 sailors and officers on board, helping them cope with family issues, practice stress management techniques, and deal with issues like anger management, depression, anxiety, and conflicts with other men on board. While perhaps young men are a little older now when they enlist than they were in the 1910s and 20s, the article points out that many of these sailors are very young and experience significant stress leaving home for the first time to a totally new kind of life.
The article also gives a picture of the kinds of tasks performed by sailors in the Navy today. Calvio describes participating in daily exercise drills on deck. The article also describes the arduous physical labor done by the deck crews, who keep “the ship clean and running” with tasks like handling ropes at dock, bringing aboard fuel and provisions, launching and recovering amphibious landing craft, and fighting against rust.
In an online Guardian interview with British sailing prodigy Emma Richards, she describes not only the extreme physical conditions while racing, including severe cold and very little sleep, but also fighting the loneliness with technology. Richards not only listens to CDs with recordings of friends and family or her favorite music, but she has a weekly phone call home when she catches up with her friends while they hang out at the pub on Friday night. While technology may afford some comfort to a sailor today, the close quarters and general isolation at sea is still palpable.
One stress of sailing life I discovered in my research that is surprisingly relevant to Barbarous Nights is that many sailors struggle finding romantic companionship compatible with their nomadic lifestyle. Once again technology may be shifting that dynamic some today, as contemporary sailors can turn to an online dating site called LoveSail.com that helps connect sailing enthusiasts around the world. CNN published a sentimental article about a 52-year-old man who finally found his sailing sweetheart through LoveSail.com, experiencing a whirlwind romance ending in, what else, a honeymoon sailing tour. The director of LoveSail.com says that “people who sail tend to be extremely passionate about it” and that “it can be difficult for sailors because when they do find someone they often have to leave them.” The predicament faced by the Sailor and the Maiden in Barbarous Nights is then a familiar tale to anyone who spends their time at sea.
Maritime Law: AWOL vs. Desertion (Based on the About.com US Military Guide)
While looking into what happens if a sailor deserts his ship for our play, I discovered that there is in fact a difference between someone who is Absent Without Leave and someone who is a deserter. In the Navy or Marine Corps, AWOL is actually referred to as an “Unauthorized Absence (UA)” with the punishment depending on the circumstances. In general, AWOL is when someone fails to show up when they are supposed to, whether its on purpose or not. The only real defense is if you are physically unable to get there, and even then it cannot be through misconduct or neglect. The difference between AWOL and desertion is that a deserter has the “intent to remain away permanently” or to shirk an “important duty,” like going on a hazardous mission or being deployed to combat. The court-martial decides whether or not the duty that was avoided was important or hazardous, therefore determining the severity of the punishment. Basically, if a sailor is AWOL he or she means to return someday to “military control,” even if its years later. A deserter leaves for good.
Punishment for Desertion
In the case or desertion, it is highly unlikely that someone would receive the maximum punishment, being death. In most cases, the result is some form of discharge in Other Than Honorable Circumstances (OTHC). When a soldier or sailor is missing, the commanding officer decides how to proceed based on the circumstances. When a case of desertion goes to trial it is tried by the General Court-Martial, the most serious type there is.
The punishment for desertion varies in severity: if you desert and then later voluntarily return, you would most likely receive dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of all pay, reduction to the lowest rank, and two years in prison. For deserting to avoid important duty, you might suffer the former but with five years in prison. The most severe punishment for desertion is death or another punishment as the court-martial sees fit, such as life in prison. This punishment is generally only given out during a time of war.
Read more about Sailing Symbolism in Lorca's Poetry here.
 Charles, Jeffrey. “The Motor Launch Patrol in the Western Approaches and Irish Sea, 1917-1919.” The “Movies”: The Ships and Men of the Royal Navy Motor Launch Patrol 1914-1919. 2012. Web. http://www.motorlaunchpatrol.net/written_accounts/personal_accounts/personal_accounts/jones.php
 Hall, Sarah. “Interview with British Sailor Emma Richards.” The Guardian. 2012. Web. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2002/oct/07/gender.uk1
 McKenzie, Sheena. “Lonely Sailors Search Online for Love on the High Seas.” CNN.com. 2012. Web. http://www.cnn.com/2012/12/21/world/lovesail-sailors-online-dating
 Powers, Rod. “AWOL and Desertion.” About.com Guide. 2013. Web. http://usmilitary.about.com/od/justicelawlegislation/a/awoldesertion.htm
 Powers, Rod. “AWOL and Desertion—Maximum Possible Punishments.” About.com Guide. 2013. Web. http://usmilitary.about.com/od/justicelawlegislation/a/awol6.htm