Wakeful concerns a ‘hidden history’: a few days after the declaration of ‘peace’ at the November 11th Armistice in 1918, a small squadron of British ships were dispatched from Rosyth on the east coast of Scotland on what was later called the ‘Red Trek’ or ‘Baltic Cruise’ heading for the Gulf of Finland: an ‘undeclared’ war on Bolshevism. On ‘Red’ Clydeside in 1917, at John Brown’s yard where Wakeful was built, the workers were on strike. In two archived sailors’ journals in the RMG and IWM libraries and in cabinet war diaries at the PRO, I found accounts of Wakeful’s voyage through mine-infested waters, a handwritten programme for a concert on board Wakeful, the story of the capture and repatriation of Soviet ‘Admiral’ Raskolnikov (a leading Bolshevik) , and photographs of my father as a young man.
By December 1918, Wakeful was moored at Tallinn. One of the other ships in the convoy Cassandra had hit a mine and sunk some days earlier. The sailors were cold, tired, hungry and frightened, but on Christmas Day in Tallinn harbour, there was a concert on board Wakeful. In the freezing cold and threatened with bombardment, the ship’s crew played and sang. My father was there and in the programme, I found a particular tune that he sang to me decades later. He was silent about war, apart from the strange, fragmented memory of ‘Russian sailors in the ice’ but sang often. I hear that tune now.
The following day, two Soviet battleships sent by Trotsky to investigate the British presence, were captured, Raskolnikov taken prisoner and brought to London, whilst 40 young men of his crew were taken to Naissaar Island 20 miles off the coast and shot without trial. Within days, Wakeful was shelling the coast at Kunda Bay and one historian draws on a contemporary account of ‘human debris in the snow’…perhaps my father’s ‘Russian sailors in the ice’.
One hundred years on, the arms trade brings in cash and scatters human debris and the seas are still in conflict, as fluid borders move and move again.