No.62 Diary of the War at Sea 1

Diary of the War at Sea: an Icelandic trawler, 1914

This week marks the first edition of the ‘Diary of the War at Sea’ element of Wreck of the Week, in which one post a month will be devoted to a wreck from 100 years ago, for the ‘duration’ of the First World War Centenary.

On the night of 26-27 August 1914 a series of explosions occurred off the Tyne as one by one six ships fell victim to a newly-laid minefield. The first victim was the Skúli Fógeti, an Icelandic trawler homeward-bound for Reykjavik from Grimsby.

The sowing of mines brought the war close to the English coast, but losses of neutral vessels caused consternation, with the press inveighing against ‘promiscuous mine-sowing’: ‘this callous and inhuman mode of warfare, if it can be called warfare . . . more likely to do harm to peaceful trading ships than to the fighting ships of a belligerent’. (1)

The Times published a list of the nine neutral vessels sunk in the North Sea since the outbreak of war: two Dutch, two Norwegians, and five Danish vessels. (2) Among the ‘Danish’ vessels was the Skúli Fógeti although she was correctly described elsewhere as Icelandic: the confusion probably arose because Iceland was yet to achieve full independence from Denmark (1918, with ties to the Danish crown being severed on the proclamation of the republic in 1944).

The New York Times republished an official British communiqué denying British involvement in minelaying: ‘The Government has learned that on or about Aug. 26 an Iceland trawler is reported to have struck a mine . . . At least one foreign newspaper has stated that the mine was English.’ (3) Inevitably it was front-page news in Iceland: it was reported that the vessel was insured for 155,000 kronur, but she had no war risk insurance (4), something that by 1915 was becoming the norm, certainly among Danish ships. (5)

In the first month of the war, therefore, we can see it is already a World War, with the consequences of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914 reaching further afield to touch more and more non-combatants.

Aerial view of Tynemouth Castle and Priory, looking out to the North Sea.  K920310 © Skyscan Balloon Photography. Source: English Heritage
Aerial view of Tynemouth Castle and Priory, looking out to the North Sea. K920310 © Skyscan Balloon Photography. Source: English Heritage

(1) Times, 28 August 1914, No.40,618, p6

(2) Times, 29 August 1914, No.40,619, p5

(3) New York Times, 30 August 1914, accessed via < > article and issue date citation only

(4) Morgunblaðið, 28 August 1914, No.293, p1,369

(5) Statistisk Oversigt over de i aaret 1915 for Danske Skibe i Danske og fremmede farvande samt for fremmede skibe i Danske farvande indtrufne Søulykker, Bianco Luno, Copenhagen, 1916

19. Pêcheur d’Islande (An Icelandic Fisherman)

To commemorate the centenary of the wreck of the Tadorne and the loss of the Bastiaise in 1940, both in north-eastern waters, the French frigate Primauguet recently called at Newcastle.

The Tadorne (which means “shelduck”) was a French trawler en route to the Icelandic fishing grounds which became embroiled in a storm off the Northumberland coast on March 29th, 1913 and eventually struck Howick Rocks to become a total loss. The local lifeboat succeeded in rescuing 25 out of the 30 crew.

The scene was one of steaming mugs of tea doled out amid scenes of mutual incomprehension between French fishermen and Northumbrian farmers. Eventually a French servant at nearby Howick Hall was sent for to act as an interpreter, through whom the master was able to convey his profuse thanks.

The five drowned men are commemorated at St. Michael’s, Longhoughton, a corner of an English field that is forever France:

According to the memorial, the Tadorne was lost below the Boat House at Howick, which can be identified on historic Ordnance Survey mapping, but is no longer extant. One of the names on the memorial is Pierre Archenoux of Cancale: though he is long dead, his story lives on through his trunk. It was washed up, and sent back with a personal note of condolence to his widow by Lady Grey at Howick Hall, thereafter passing down his family. It inspired a French children’s novel with beautiful silhouette illustrations telling the story of the wreck and pictures of life aboard a typical French trawler of that period.

There are bits and pieces of wreckage attributed to the Tadorne around Howick Haven, absolutely in the correct position below the Boat House, where a gap in the rocks forms something of a natural beaching area; presumably the reason for the siting of the Boat House itself, whence boats could be easily launched. I have just recorded this wreckage in a separate site record linked to the casualty record: though in all likelihood, this machinery and framing do indeed belong to the Tadorne, there’s a century’s worth of time elapsed between the event and the wreckage, so if anyone knows this wreck and can fill in the gaps, confirm the identification, and enable us to merge the two records, please let me know.

As an aside, Breton trawlers like the Tadorne, of Nantes, dominated the Icelandic cod fishery in the late 19th/early 20th centuries. A contemporary edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1911, vol.XXIV, p293) refers to the existence of a French-Icelandic pidgin; the even more specialised Breton-Icelandic pidgin has also been recorded, a minority language if ever there was one. The story of French trawling off Iceland is also told in the novel Pêcheur d’Islande by Pierre Loti, 1891 (one of my set books in those far-off days when you were expected to be able to write critical essays in French at A-level . . . )