Diary of the War: January 1917

Henry Blogg and the Fernebo

On the stormy winter morning of 9 January 1917, a distress signal brought out the lifeboatmen of Cromer in their lifeboat Louisa Heartwell, which launched into heavy seas to reach the Greek steamer Pyrin, drifting two miles out at sea. Since all men of fighting age were away at war, the lifeboat crew were all either middle-aged or elderly men, and were led by coxswain Henry Blogg, who had joined the crew in 1894, and a relative youngster at the age of 40. It took a party of 40 men, including soldiers, to launch the lifeboat, and over two hours for the crew to reach the wreck and successfully rescue and land 18 survivors.

henry-blogg-modified-photo-1
Henry Blogg. RNLI

In the middle of this force 9 gale, another ship got into difficulties. The Swedish Fernebo, en route from Gavle for London with timber, was in distress, lurching in the sea with one crew member injured – and was even further out to sea, between 3 and 4 miles offshore.

The very wildness of the weather meant that none of the other local lifeboats could put out to the rescue the crew of the Fernebo in the stead of the Cromer lifeboat. The Louisa Heartwell was the nearest and the only suitable craft, being larger and heavier than other local lifeboats, but several attempts to launch her failed, even with all the willing helpers from the town.

A party of men aboard Fernebo saw their chances of rescue slipping away and took matters into their own hands, launching one of the ship’s boats. Almost at the shoreline the vessel capsized and it took a party of onlookers, led by Private Stewart Holmes, one of the soldiers stationed locally, to rescue them by forming a human chain at the risk of their own lives. By this means all six men were rescued from their little boat, which had somehow made it all the way to shore despite the storm.

In the meantime further disaster had literally struck the Fernebo, in the form of a mine laid by UC-19, which had been caught and depth-charged off the Isles of Scilly in the previous month, leaving behind a deadly legacy of sown mines. The explosion split the steamer in two, but her timber cargo kept both halves afloat: fortunately all the crew were in one half, rather than drifting apart on two different wrecks.

The storm drove the stricken Fernebo closer inshore, where, around 5pm, both parts struck Cromer beach, but in different locations. The aft section of the Fernebo came ashore near the groyne at the Doctor’s Steps, Cromer. Once more it was clear that only the Cromer lifeboat and her crew stood between the Swedish sailors and death: with the help of army searchlights trained on the beach and the wreck, further attempts were made to launch. Once launched, several oars were wrenched from the lifeboatmen’s hands and others broken by the violence of the sea, so the crew had to put back then, then return with fresh oars.

At last – success! The crew managed to reach the survivors, safely bringing off eleven men, eleven people who would have died had it not been for the ‘great intrepidity, splendid tenacity, and endurance’ quoted in the citation for the RNLI’s gallantry award to the Louisa Heartwell‘s crew. (1)  This was the occasion on which Henry Blogg, the ‘greatest lifeboatman of them all’, received his first RNLI gold medal, but the entire crew also received awards, with another being made to Pte. Holmes, leader of the shore party which rescued the six men from the boat.

Black and white photograph of two rows of en, seated in front, standing at the back, in front of the open doorway through which the bows of a lifeboat can be seen.
The crew of the Cromer lifeboat, wearing the medals awarded for this rescue. RNLI

But for the courage of the Cromer lifeboatmen, the Fernebo‘s crew would all have shared in the fate of their injured colleague, who was killed when they struck the mine. This was certainly a rescue against all the odds, when human endurance overcame the power of nature and the violence of war.

Colour photograph of ribs of wreck, partly covered in seaweed, in the foreground of the image, on a beach, which stretches to the background of the image. The top sixth of the image is taken up by a flat band of blue sky and sea.
The wreck of the Fernebo as she now lies at Cromer. RNLI

Over 5,000 lives were saved by the RNLI during the First World War: their work is showcased in an RNLI travelling exhibition Hope in the Great War, which is touring the country for the duration of the centenary. It features the Fernebo, and another rescue we have already featured in the War Diary, the Rohilla. Do go and see it – check for a venue near you.

(1) Widely reported in a nationwide press release, for example in the Newcastle Journal,  13 February 1917, No.22,371, p3

5. Our Four-Legged Friends

Dogs in Shipwrecks [Post updated August 2020]

Today’s records are in a slightly lighter vein . . . dogs associated with wrecks.

Dogs may not be able to talk, but sometimes they can bear witness to a wreck, as in this case when a dog arrived home at St. Ives, the first indication that anything was amiss with the Charles, lost off Portreath in November 1807, the sole survivor and the sole witness. If only they could talk . . .

For a dog to be a sole survivor of a wreck event was not uncommon. Unsurprisingly Newfoundlands featured quite regularly in such accounts, such as those who swam ashore from the wrecks of the Cameleon transport on the Manacles in 1811, while bringing home soldiers from the Peninsular War, or the Edouard in 1842 off Kimmeridge in Dorset.

Another dog also became the sole survivor of the steamer Prince, wrecked in 1876 off the Tyne.

Thomas Bewick, in his 1790 General History of Quadrupeds, illustrated the Newfoundland not only with one of his celebrated woodcuts but also with an anecdote which seems to relate to the story of the Shields collier brig John, lost in 1789 near Great Yarmouth. From that ship, lost with all hands, a log book came ashore. How it came ashore was evidently part of a tale circulating in Shields and Newcastle-upon-Tyne, where Bewick lived and worked and had his books published:

‘ . . . a Newfoundland dog alone escaped to shore, bringing in his mouth the captain’s pocket-book . . .’ According to Bewick, the ‘sagacious animal’ refused to drop his ‘charge, which in all probability was delivered to him by his perishing master’ until he saw a man whom he liked the look of, and he gave him the book before returning to the shore. He then ‘watched with great attention for everything that came from the wrecked vessel, seizing them, and endeavouring to bring them to land.’ (1)

Black and white engraving of a large dog against a rural landscape
‘The drawing for this dog was taken from a very fine one, at Eslington in the county of Northumberland’ Thomas Bewick, A General History of Quadrupeds (1790) Wikimedia Commons: public domain

Though several other records also report the sole survivor as being canine, more happily, there were other accounts where some or all of the members of the crew, human and canine, were rescued. In 1869 a two-year old Newfoundland was rescued from the Highland Chief barque on the Goodwin Sands, having stayed behind on the wreck with 12 humans, waiting for the Deal boatmen to come to them (the five men who trusted to the ship’s boat were never seen again).

The crew of the Reaper of Guernsey were taken off by breeches buoy in 1881, in another rescue off the Tyne, including a somewhat vocal animal: ‘Above the shouts of the men could be distinctly heard the yells of a fine terrier dog’ reported a local newspaper. When the Wandsworth  also struck off the Tyne in 1897 another dog, also rescued by breeches buoy, ‘gave token of being exceedingly thankful for its rescue’.

We wonder if the rescuers were licked to death!

In 1868 a ‘very fine retriever dog’ kept calm in an emergency and doggy-paddled off to save itself from a wreck. It knew where to go, and, ‘no doubt attracted by the brilliant Gull light’ swam up to the Gull lightvessel off the Goodwin Sands after the collision between the Lena and Superior, which sank the latter. The dog had swum for nearly a mile before reaching the lightvessel, and seems to have been made quite a fuss of, being called a ‘sagacious animal’ and ‘noble creature’.

In 1858, a ‘much exhausted’ black Newfoundland was picked up at sea ‘half a league from the pier head’ at Mullion the morning after two ships in harbour were driven out to sea and smashed onto the shore west of Mullion.

Somewhat more famous was Monte, the St. Bernard plucked to safety by the greatest lifeboatman of all time, Cox’n Henry Blogg, from the Monte Nevoso aground on Haisbro’ Sand in 1932. Monte is the star of the RNLI Henry Blogg museum where a photograph of Monte can be seen with his rescuer and owner (shown in the link). A pet dog also made the news when rescued from the wreck of the Terukuni Maru, mined in the Thames in 1939.

Dogs could also be the rescuer rather than the rescued and it is no surprise that a Newfoundland was involved in the following incident in 1815. The breed became famous for its lifesaving capabilities and instincts, a reputation which persists to this day.  The ‘sagacious canine perseverance’ of one Newfoundland who doggedly (sorry . . . ) swam ashore with a lead line resulted in a successful rescue operation from the Durham Packet off Cley-next-the-Sea, Norfolk.

From this we have learnt not only of the part that dogs, especially Newfoundlands, have played in our wreck heritage, but also that the word of choice was ‘sagacious’!

Oil painting of a dog lying on a quayside against an evening sky, with seagulls wheeling in the air to the right.
A Distinguished Member of the Humane Society, exhibited 1838, Sir Edwin Landseer, bequeathed by Newman Smith, 1887. Photo © Tate. In this painting another dog stood in for the elusive ‘Bob’, who was said to have survived a shipwreck off the east coast of England, and subsequently famous for his rescues, and an honorary member of the Humane Society. The tale may have grown in the telling but Landseer depicted several Newfoundlands associated with shipwreck and lifesaving, particularly black and white Newfoundlands, which have since become known as the ‘Landseer’ type.

Footnote:

(1) Bewick, T. 1790 A General History of Quadrupeds (Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Hodgson, Beilby & Bewick)