Diary of the War: December 1916

The Quo Vadis

The conditions on the night of 18 December 1916 as the French schooner Quo Vadis prepared to cross the English Channel were too good to be true: a clear moonlit night and a flat calm. Some 20 miles south of the Lizard, the moon gave away her white sails to Ralph Wenninger in UC-17, one of the most prolific U-boat commanders of the First World War.

Quo Vadis was bound from Swansea for Mortagne-sur-Gironde with 160 tons of coal under Joseph Guegot of Lannion and his crew of five. They were hailed and ordered to leave their vessel, and scuttling charges placed aboard by a party from the U-boat. Twenty minutes later Quo Vadis was beneath the waves, while her erstwhile crew took to their boat and rowed for two miles before being picked up by a British destroyer.

It was impossible for small sailing vessels such as the Quo Vadis of 110 tons gross to outrun a submarine, and, being of timber construction, they were also very vulnerable to gunfire. Quo Vadis was just one of several sailing vessels of various nationalities stopped and scuttled during December 1916. At least the crews of these vessels had a chance to escape, all being ordered off their ships on capture and allowed to leave in their lifeboats. For the crew of the Quo Vadis, moreover, the conditions meant that they had neither heavy seas nor utter darkness to contend with before being rescued.

Incidents of this kind, so minor yet so common during the First World War, demonstrated that the sailing vessel faced a hazard greater than any political enemy: obsolescence.