hartlepool history logo

Stokers - by Kirsten Luckins

Kirsten writes: "This piece was originally written as part of the Heugh Battery project in 2014, to commemorate the centenary of the WW1 bombardment. It was not published in the resulting anthology To Cross the Wine Dark Sea, so I am delighted to find it a home here. It's form is inspired by Homers Iliad, which is an epic poem describing the attack on Troy from the sea – the parallels with the bombardment are clear. I use a hexametric (or six-beat) line, which is loosely Homeric, and also use long 'epic similes'. The story is told from the point of view of the German stokers, and I had intended it to show how much the men on both sides had in common, which to me makes the whole idea of the war so much more tragic."


Glory! they boasted, and Duty! and privately whispered Adventure!

Young men, fired up, fire-hardened, from foundries, from forges, from pitshafts

That coffined them daily in darkness to hack at the black band that fed

The dirty great heart of the nation.

                                                            Below, there was no way of knowing

The state of the sky, or the river that ran overhead, never pausing,

Bristling with staithes where it stretched out, bunching with factories panting

At the nape of each bend. The works bell pinched off hours of daylight,

And the seam of the river span onwards, a black thread knotted with barges,

Tugboats, indomitable steamers. Industry slept like an ogre,

Restlessly, dreaming of conquest, and grinding its teeth until morning.


Young men, what did they dream of?

                                                The sunny lark of France, and meadows,

Or the brave dream of sea and clean water, clean sky, clear horizon

And the enemy sighted like mallards seen through the scope of a rifle,

A table-top stall at a fairground, a coconut shy of destroyers,

Winning as easy as narrowing one eye, their girl smiling at them.


But some were sent to be stokers. Not for them starch and brass buttons.

Suited for boiler-room labour, they marched single-file through the airlocks

To bend at the waist, as a tree bends in hot winds that blow from a bomb-blast,

To twist from the waist in the pressure, the breath of the greedy furnace.

The coal-faced shovellers fed it, plying the arc from the coal pile,

Twist and lift, twist and lift, sweating in black stripes, skulling for swiftness,

Pulling their ships through water denied to them, blinded by bulkheads.


By their efforts, the convoy came slinking at daybreak, wearing a fog-hide,

Flat on their bellies like stalkers in long grass, creeping on warrens.

Above decks, eager, the gunners eyed up the range and the measure,

Triggered a straddling salvo, straightened and flew to the re-load,

Until shells fell to ground like a hard rain, like a hailstorm out of a clear sky

On a marketplace, that forces shoppers and mongers to rush under awnings,

Inadequate, buckling canvas that tears with the force of the downpour.


Hove to for attack, the stokers hung shovels a heartbeat and listened.

The muffled percussion of foot-clanks, invisible beasts in the stairwells,

And deep in the steel a faint booming. Like thunder claps, heard by a sleeper

Through bed-springs that wake him and set him to counting the beats between flashes,

The stokers sent out all their senses to follow the flow of the battle

And will on the storm to blow over without striking them.  Just one torpedo,

Ripping a hole in the right place will scald off their skin in the instant

Brine meets the heat and the pressure in which they are sealed, double-buffered

Silently waiting for orders.  

                                                            A trembling under their boot soles,

A groan in the bones, an avalanche of rivet-strain spilled through the steel hull,

The floor flung them, bounced them, ball bearings slithering over a drumskin,

And they knew they were hit. Almost running ahead of their orders

They bent to the mouth of the furnace, speeding the arc from the coal pile,

Built up a steam-head and, aching, hauled the ship eastwards to safety,

Its afterdeck severed and headless, burning and bloated with bodies.


Kaiser! they said, and Kultur! But bravado once bitten’s a bad coin.

They pinned silver on them, and patched them, and sent them again after six weeks

To defeat.

                        The deck listed slowly enough for the men, in formation,

To chorus their national anthem, then walk to the water and enter

The courteous ships of their enemies.  All hands, all but the stokers,

Locked in the hotbox and sinking, dumb muscles, forfeit and finished.

Related items :