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James Hanley: Hollow Sea

This is a straightforward but realistic – often brutally realistic – account of the journey of a military ship during World War I. The ship doesn’t even have a name but just a number – A10. The ship sets out carrying a large amount of troops to North Africa. While unloading the troops, the ship is attacked. While the main ship is relatively unscathed, some of the boats used to offload the troops are hit and there are many men killed and wounded, including some of the crew. The ship is ordered to immediately withdraw (carrying the wounded and dead troops that are still on board). They slowly make their way to Alexandria, carrying the corpses, which, of course, start to smell. When they finally get to Alexandria, they are refused entry, as there is plague in the city, and are instructed to return home. They make their slow way home, dumping the bodies en route. On the way home, one of the stewards hangs himself but the rest make it back safely to England.

The plot is simple but Hanley’s skill is to give us the full details of this story through the eyes of many of the key players. We see the story from the point of view of the ordinary seamen, who feel that they are being ill-treated, with the war as an excuse for exploitation but who do their job, while looking at a way of getting away with whatever they can. We see the steward, eager to get his cut by selling the ship’s food on shore, but determined not to let anyone else make money out of selling his food. We see the troubled captain, determined to do his duty even though he, like the men, finds the orders at times incomprehensible. In short, Hanley gives a detailed and realistic portrait of the men on a ship, from top to bottom, their hopes and fears and the daily problems they face.

Publishing history

First published 1938 by John Lane