Diary of the War No.14
This month’s First World war wreck was a ship sunk en route to France on 16 September 1915.. The terms boat train and train ferry are familiar to many: the former a train service timetabled to connect with a scheduled ferry service, the latter a vessel transporting a train across a body of water. Less well known are ships carrying locomotives and rolling stock as cargo, in this case to the First World War battlefields of France, where they were needed to transport men and materials to the front, and as ambulance trains to bring back the wounded. (My own grandfather was among them, invalided out by trench fever in 1917.)
During the night of 15 September, UC-6, one of the new coastal minelaying submarines, slipped through the Straits of Dover to lay a minefield ‘across the passage abreast of the South Goodwin Light Vessel.’ (1) The first anyone on the British side knew of this new minefield was when the SS Africa struck one of these mines on the evening of the next day. The potential of the German minelaying submarine was not yet fully understood by the British (despite the activities of UC-11 as noted in Diary of the War 11 for June 1915) and at first the field was believed to have been laid by an enemy steamer under the colours of a neutral vessel.
The Africa did not sink immediately, and, in fact, it was noted that ‘these UC minefields [laid in late September 1915] in the thickly peopled Dover area brought about the total loss of very few ships: many of those mined were safely beached on the shelving shores of Kent, and after repair continued their voyages’. The Africa was among those beached near Deal, but became a total loss, unlike other vessels beached for recovery on what became known as the ‘Hospital Coast’ of stricken ships. In fact, the Africa was dispersed in 1917.
There is some irony in her final location on the ‘Hospital Coast’, because the railway carriages aboard the Africa were intended for use as ambulance trains and were built by the Great Western Railway (GWR) in Swindon. Elaine Arthurs from Swindon’s STEAM Museum adds to the story:
‘The Great Western Railway supplied and constructed 16 ambulance trains at Swindon Works during the First World War. This equated to 256 carriages. The trains were used on both the home front and abroad, transporting injured troops to military hospitals. The trains that were used abroad were transported from Britain to France by boat. A team of men from the GWR went with the carriages to see their safe transit to the continent. Whilst on one trip to France from Tilbury Docks the SS Africa, carrying both GWR ambulance carriages and employees, was mined off the coast of Kent. The ship and its contents were lost, along with two crew members, but the GWR employees survived.’
With many thanks to Elaine and to the STEAM Museum, Swindon. This wreck site marks the intersection of two significant strands of Britain’s industrial heritage in the age of steam, shipping and the railways: in a similar vein, it so happens that the STEAM Museum is also adjacent to the Historic England office in Swindon, where I have written this blog today! For more on wreck sites laden with First World War rolling stock, please see the St. Chamond, torpedoed in 1918.
6 thoughts on “No.91 The Africa”
While the GWR may have provided Ambulance Trains, these coaches are not GWR ones. They are Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway (LYR) ones.
The LYR Society can provide further information if required and can be seen in their “Focus” Publications 76 and 82.
Dear Mr Bulmer,
Thank you – have you or the LYR also contacted the STEAM Museum at Swindon as well, with whom we collaborated on this article?
Not as yet, only found this pic and article last night. If you could advise your poc at STEAM, happy to drop them a note.
I’ve contacted the museum’s curatorial team and they look forward to hearing from you, and I have asked to be kept informed.
They can be found on the Contact Us page at the museum here: https://www.steam-museum.org.uk/info/5/collections/4/collections/7
And on this topic, here’s a great picture of No.6000 King George V being craned at Cardiff Docks in 1927 tweeted by STEAM:
Thank you, I’ve written to Frances at STEAM, copying my LYRS colleagues who have extensively researched the Ambulance Trains and look forward to their response.