World War One in Fantastic Fiction: The Polar Treasure

polar treasure

The Polar Treasure, Kenneth Robeson, 1933.

“The story goes back more than fifteen years,” he said. “It was during the World War. My wife, my infant daughter, and myself sailed from Africa on the liner Oceanic. We were bound for England.

“But an enemy sea raider chased the liner northward. The U-Boat could not overhaul us, but it pursued our craft for days. Indeed, the Oceanic sailed far within the Arctic ice pack before escaping.

” … A shell from the enemy raider had destroyed our wireless. We could not advise the outside world of our difficulty.”

And so we get the set up for The Polar Treasure, the fourth Doc Savage adventure.

The speaker is Victor Vail, blind and a master concert violinist. Shortly after the Oceanic is trapped, its crew mutinies. They divide into two murderous gangs and, unbeknownst to Vail, a treasure map, visible only under x-rays, is tattooed on his back.

A violent Doc Savage (he hasn’t totally adopted his no killing creed yet) adventure follows, ranging from New York City to the Arctic ice pack.

Note, by 1933, the Great War is already the “World War”.

Vail’s account was good enough to keep the plot going, but I suspect writer Lester Dent was drawing from half memories of the war from his youth.

“Sea raider” is a term normally associated with surface vessels. Usually, they were obsolete warships, converted merchant vessels, or, on one occasion, a zeppelin. U-Boats were just called “U-boats”, of course, or just “subs”.

The idea of U-boats operating in Arctic waters is realistic. U-28 and U-76 were lost, in fact, north of Finland in 1917.

Now, the Oceanic went on its final voyage in, seemingly, 1917 or 1918 given that Vail says it was about 15 years ago.

However, the U-boat’s activities as described are very improbable.

In the early days of the war, German U-boats tried the usual method of seizing enemy merchant vessels, the so-called “prize rules”. They surfaced, forced a ship to stop, and either took the crew aboard or made sure they got into lifeboats.

This, of course, had several problems. How to stop the ship? Where to put the captured crew? How to spare some of the U-Boat crew to take possession of the ship?

Thus, on February 4, 1915, Germany announced they were just going to sink enemy vessels around Britain and Ireland without warning and with no care about “the danger thereby threatened to the crew and passengers”.

So, it’s improbable a U-boat would simply fire on an ocean liner rather than just torpedoing it. It’s also unlikely a surfaced submarine could keep up, in a long, stern chase, with an ocean liner. Even if it could, why pursue for days?

When Doc Savage and his men find the Oceanic, they do find remnants of something often forgot about in World War One.

He reached the third-class dining room.

Another scene of butchery met his eyes there. Many of these were colored soldiers. Men going from Africa to fight in France!

Here Dent is firmly grounded in history. Starting in August 1914, France brought troops from its African possessions to serve on the Western Front.

The first troops were from French North Africa. They were followed by troops from Madagascar, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, and West Africa. In all, about 360,000 African troops served on the Western Front.

They were among the first troops gassed at the Second Battle of Ypres.

Like those soldiers on the Oceanic, about 30,000 Africans did not survive their war experience.

World War One Content

  • Living Memory: Yes.
  • On-Stage War: No.
  • Belligerent Area: No.
  • Home Front: No.
  • Veteran: No.

More World War One in Fantastic Fiction.

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