Diary of the War: January 1918


This week we look at a wreck in the Bristol Channel which was first published in most British newspapers on 10 January 1918, six days after the ship was lost on 4 January.

Rewa was built as a liner in 1906 for the British India Steam Navigation Co., along with her 1905 sister, Rohilla, both vessels named after provinces of India. Their careers paralleled one another: both were converted from passenger service to troop transports, taking part together in the Coronation Fleet Review, 1911, and on exercises in 1913 off the Humber. (1) From transport service it was but a short step on the outbreak of war to conversion to hospital ships. Both would be lost in that service and Rohilla was featured in the War Diary of October 1914.

From 1915 onwards Rewa would become one of the familiar sights of the Gallipoli campaign, transporting men out from Suvla Bay to the depot at Mudros (Greek Moudros) to hospital at Alexandria or Malta, or back home. (2) On her final voyage she was bound from Mudros to Avonmouth via Gibraltar, where she had been inspected by a neutral Spanish observer to ensure her bona fides as a hospital ship. (3) There are some conflicts in the numbers on board, but the usual figures given are 207 crew, 80 medical personnel, and 279 wounded men (making a total of 566), although contemporary newspapers gave the rounded figures of 550 and 560. (4)

On his first patrol of the New Year was Kapitänleutnant Wilhelm Werner of the Kaiserliche Marine (Imperial German Navy) in U-55 off the coast of Cornwall. (5) For almost a year now, Germany had waged unrestricted submarine warfare, torpedoing ships without warning, but, by the terms of the Hague Convention, hospital ships were exempt from attack. They were distinctively painted with a white hull and the internationally recognised symbol of the Red Cross, and were to be lit in the dark for night recognition. The Rewa was accordingly proceeding up the Bristol Channel, ‘brilliantly lighted’ as demanded by the convention. (6) The Captain stated: ‘We had our Red Cross flag up and our lights had been lit at sunset – viz., steaming lights, navigation lights, and Convention lights, and they had remained and were alight at the time of the explosion. All the lights were electric. The ship was hit abreast of the funnel on the port side, as near amidships as possible.’ (7)

Thus when Werner fired the torpedo which caused the explosion off Hartland Point in the Bristol Channel, he must have known that he was contravening the Hague Convention. The captain had seen suspicious lights just before the torpedo struck, and ported his helm, but had not verified the identity of the vessel before the torpedo actually struck. (8)

The explosion is said to have extinguished the lights (many newspapers reported that a fortuitous find of a candle afforded some light, although, less dramatically, emergency candle lamps as a backup system were, in fact, lit) (9) and the ship began to settle. Fortunately for the evacuation, the vessel remained on an even keel before she finally sank, the sea remained calm, and there was time to send a distress call. Within 20 minutes everyone was on board the ship’s boats, even the ‘cot cases’ who were unable to fend for themselves. Given the dark and the imperative for haste, it was impossible for everyone to gather up sufficient clothing to keep warm while exposed to a cold night on the sea.

‘One of the nurses gave all her heavy garments to cover the men who were very ill, and remarking this an officer transferred to her his overcoat’, according to one account that was widely repeated across the press. (10) The number of nurses aboard was put at three, which seems a very small number amongst such a large medical staff with so many patients to look after. (11)

Even as they bobbed about on the sea, the little flotilla of lifeboats kept together on the captain’s orders and burned flares to attract attention – another factor in the survival of so many. (12)

Miraculously, only three men were initially reported missing, believed killed in the explosion in the engine-room, but, in fact, four lascars of the Indian Merchant Service were killed and are commemorated on the Bombay 1914-1918 Memorial, Mumbai: Usman Ghulam Qadir, trimmer, Ali and Said Ahmad Umar, both firemen, and Sultan Shah Azad, paniwallah (water-carrier). (13)

‘Another steamer and three trawlers were speedily on the scene’, although ‘speedy’ might have been a relative term since they were in the water for three hours before being picked up. (14)

The rescue vessels belonged to the Swansea Patrol and survivors were accordingly landed there. (15) The Western Daily Press described the ‘piteous’ sight as survivors came ashore,which moved onlookers to tears: ‘a procession of maimed and limping men, some on the backs of others and all without boots, wended its way under willing hands of helpers to the Coal Exchange . . . all business being suspended, while others were taken to leading hotels . . .’ (16) Some of the survivors were suffering from shock and wounds sustained in the explosion: one of the rescued lascars was reliving the fire in his mind, and another man went about all day without complaint until collapsing in the evening, when he was found to have several broken ribs. (17)

Eighteen survivors were taken to the Dan-y-Coed Red Cross Hospital (18) while others were despatched onwards to Southmead Hospital in Bristol. (19) It seems that Dan-y-Coed was a specialist in prosthetics made by a member of staff, so perhaps that was where some of the ‘maimed’ men ended up. A Dr Harrison was himself a hospital case with dysentery. Another medic, one Dr Lambert, had served since 1915 aboard Rewa at Gallipoli and had found romance and marriage in 1917 with one of her nurses, Alice Lockhart. He was with Rewa to the bitter end, receiving compensation for the medical instruments he had been forced to abandon on the sinking ship, but it is not yet known if his wife was also aboard at the time. (20)

The official German position cast doubt on the possibility of a submarine attack and suggested that a mine had been responsible for sinking the vessel, but the news triggered worldwide condemnation. As it was the Rewa would be cited as a war crime for which Wilhelm Werner was held responsible, although he would ultimately escape prosecution for this and other attacks on shipping.

The lights may have gone out on the Rewa as the torpedo struck, but, a century on, we are able to shine a light on some of those affected, whose stories are not always told in the accounts of shipping losses during the First World War: ordinary men and women, British and Indian, patients and crew, walking wounded and those severely ill and maimed.

Poster with text 'What a Red Rag is to a Bull - the Red Cross is to the Hun', with image of a U-boat and a torpedo track towards an illuminated red cross on a ship.
British propaganda poster of 1918. The striking of the Rewa amidships led to accusations that U-55 had fixed on her painted red cross as a target. © IWM (Art.IWM PST 13547)


(1) Online sources frequently state this as the Coronation Review of 1910, but 1910 was the year of George V’s accession, not his coronation. The review took place in June 1911; see, for example, The Times, 26 June 1911, p10. For the Humber exercises, see, for example, The Sphere, 2 August 1913, Vol.LIV, No.706, p11.

(2) Casale, F. 2008. “Dr John Lambert on HS Rewa at Gallipoli”, Proceedings of the History of Anaesthesia Society,  Vol.39, 2008, pp20-24

(3) i.e. that she was not being used for any military purpose. Spanish confirmation of their compliance, and of British compliance with the conditions of the Convention, was received from the observer who disembarked at Gibraltar. The Scotsman, 16 January 1918, No.23,284, p5

(4) New York Times, 10 January 1918, p1; The Times, 11 January 1918, No.41,684, p5; Western Daily Press, 10 January 1918, No.18,589, p6

(5) For the dates of U-55‘s patrol on this and other occasions, see https://uboat.net/wwi/boats/successes/u55.html

(6) Daily Telegraph, 10 January 1918, No.19,577, p5

(7) Birmingham Daily Post, 10 January 1918, No.18,602, p2

(8) ibid.

(9) Newcastle Journal, 14 January 1918, No.22,657, p5

(10) Western Daily Press, 10 January 1918, No.18,589, p6

(11) Daily Telegraph, 10 January 1918, No.19,577, p5

(12) Birmingham Daily Post, 10 January 1918, No.18,602, p2

(13) Commonwealth War Graves Commission

(14)  Western Daily Press, 10 January 1918, No.18,589, p6; Birmingham Daily Post, 10 January 1918, No.18,602, p2

(15) Crawford, J. 2014. GGAT 130: First World War Scoping Study: Glamorgan and Gwent: a report for Cadw pp99-100

(16) Western Daily Press, 10 January 1918, No.18,589, p6; Revd R G James, British and Foreign Sailors’ Society https://www.sailors-society.org/about-us/press-room/rewa/

(17) Daily Telegraph, 10 January 1918, No.19,577, p5

(18) Powell, C. nd. Caring within the Community: Mumbles Red Cross Hospitals

(19) Western Daily Press, 10 January 1918, No.18,589, p6

(20) Huddersfield Daily Examiner, 10 January 1918, No.15,682, p4; Casale, F. 2008. “Dr John Lambert on HS Rewa at Gallipoli”, Proceedings of the History of Anaesthesia Society,  Vol.39, 2008, pp20-24

Diary of the War: April 1917

A Mounting Toll: G42, G85, Ballarat, Medina, and HMT Arfon

In the first of this weekend’s double bill for 30 April and 1 May 1917 we look at the continuing attrition of British and foreign shipping. On 6 April 1917 the United States declared war on Germany, as unrestricted submarine warfare also began to take its toll on American ships. Within the extent of English territorial waters as currently defined, the figures demonstrate that 71 wrecks were recorded for this month, of which 32 represent sites, the majority positively identified.

At this point during the war, there were no U-boats reported sunk within English waters for the month of April 1917, appearing to underline the success of the continuing submarine campaign.

German warships were also active in the Channel, mounting a raid on the Dover Patrol on the night of 20-21 April and shelling Margate and Ramsgate on 27 April. In contrast to the lack of sinkings of U-boats, however, two German torpedo boats, G42 and G85, were sunk as the raid developed into the Battle of Dover Straits. G42 was rammed by HMS Broke, while HMS Swift despatched G85 with a torpedo, making these vessels the only two German warships sunk in English territorial waters during the war.

The closing week of April 1917 provides a cross-section of the war at sea:

On 25 April 1917 the Australian troopship Ballarat, was torpedoed, but fortunately without loss of life. Ironically, it was the war itself which was probably the major factor in saving the lives of all on board when she was torpedoed. On that day all were mustered at their stations for a deckside Anzac Day service, remembering their fallen compatriots at Gallipoli in 1915, which in turn allowed for an orderly evacuation.

On 28 April 1917 the P&O liner RMS Medina was sunk. Her history was intertwined with that of the contemporary British Empire and its liner routes which continued to ply during wartime. Her maiden voyage in 1911 was as a Royal Yacht taking King George V and Queen Mary to Delhi for the Durbar of 1911, after which she reverted to the commercial role for which she was built. On her final voyage she left India with passengers and cargo for Sydney, New South Wales, to take on Australian meat and thence for England via the Suez Canal. She was torpedoed off Start Point, the torpedo exploding in the starboard engine room, killing six men, five of them seamen from the Indian subcontinent, known as lascars, who had a long tradition of working aboard British ships, usually, as here, in the engine room. (See previous posts on the Mahratta I in 1909 and the Magdapur in 1939 for more on wrecks involving lascars.)

On 30 April 1917 HM trawler Arfon was mined while on minesweeping duty off the Dorset coast with the loss of ten lives. She lies virtually intact with her minesweeping equipment and deck gun in situ, a rare but representative example of an early 20th century steam trawler adapted for war purposes, and as such was designated under the 1973 Protection of Wrecks Act in 2016. A new interpretation board at St. Aldhelm’s Head commemorates the site, while an accessible fully-captioned video trail released for the centenary explores the site through 3D high-resolution images.

The last week of April was therefore a crucial week of a crucial month.

The statistics outlined in Lloyd’s War Losses for April 1917 make grim reading. Over the course of the month 220 British, 103 Allied and 135 neutral vessels had been sunk worldwide for 882,227 tons. (1) Statistics for recent shipping losses were published in the press, followed by a stark warning in Parliament which was widely reported.

‘One hears on many sides that people refuse to be rationed or to ration themselves, because they say the shortage is only newspaper talk.

‘The position is now plain, that if within the next six or eight weeks there is not a very substantial reduction “there will be no alternative but to apply compulsion.” (2) That meat aboard RMS Medina, for example, had not got through.

(1) Lloyd’s War Losses: The First World War: Casualties to Shipping through Enemy Causes 1914-18, facsimile reprint, Lloyd’s of London Press, 1990, p127

(2) Daily Telegraph, April 26 1917, No.19,356, p5

No.63 The Magdapur

75 years since the outbreak of the Second World War

[updated: 10.09.2019 for the 80th anniversary of the Second World War]

This week commemorates the first ships sunk in English waters following the declaration of war on 3 September 1939. The period between the declaration of war and the events of 1940 is often known as the ‘Phoney War’, in which nothing much happened militarily. Yet war at sea was already being waged on both sides.

The Goodwood and the Magdapur each foundered after striking a mine in different locations off the east coast, both on 10 September 1939.

They were not the first wartime losses at sea: that distinction belonged to the Athenia, sunk in the Atlantic by U-boat on 3 September. The toll of merchantmen lost on the Allied side worldwide would account for 808 pages of typescript in Lloyd’s War Losses for the Second World War, Volume I: British, Allied and Neutral Merchant Vessels Sunk or Destroyed by War Causes, with an average of five or six ships per page.

The first ship to go down in English waters on that day was the collier Goodwood, early in the morning off Flamborough Head. The Magdapur sank the same afternoon off Suffolk, calling out the RNLI for the first of their many wartime services over the ensuing six years as the Aldeburgh lifeboat sped to the scene. She was the victim of a minefield laid on 4 September, the day after the declaration of war, by U13. That same minefield would shortly afterwards claim the French ship Phryné, on 24 September. U13 would herself be lost off the same coastline at the end of May 1940 when she was depth-charged by HMS Weston, delineating a landscape of war linking attacker and victims, by which time the ‘Phoney War’ was well and truly over.

As her name implies, the Magdapur had strong connections with India. Her owners, the Brocklebank Line, had a long tradition of specialising in the India trade. She was thus one of many British ships who relied on lascars, or Indian seamen, many of whom traditionally worked below in the engine room. The Magdapur had a significant complement of 60 lascars among her 80-strong crew. Six men were lost, of whom four were lascars, commemorated on the dual rolls of honour kept at Bombay and Chittagong. (You can search for any casualty of the two World Wars or later through the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Advanced Search page by date of death and service, e.g. Merchant Navy.)

An interesting local history document shows photographs of the wreck event as the Magdapur sinks with her back broken, and some of the rescued lascars with locals: http://thebertonandeastbridge.onesuffolk.net/assets/History-Photos/S.S.-Magdapur-sunk-off-Sizewell.doc .

The number of lascars working aboard British ships means that their involvement in shipwreck events worldwide and in English waters is significant, particularly in the first half of the 20th century: both in peace (Mahratta I, 1909) and war (Sir Francis, June 1917; Medina, April 1917; Rewa, January 1918). Even in this early period of the ‘Phoney War’, the war was all too real and touched lives around the world.

No.40: Mahratta I

Jute, Jam and Journalism

Following my call in a recent edition for ‘challenges’ I was asked to investigate what wrecks we might have in the jute trade for Dundee. So here’s the answer: Dundee was famous not only for jute, but for jam (well, marmalade!) and journalism, including those august publications, the Beano and the Dandy. So here are some jute ships which got into a jam, and I shall quote some journalism!

We have seven wrecks that were bound from Calcutta to Dundee with a cargo explicitly described as jute, or including jute, exactly half of our jute wrecks, as other consignments were bound for London and Liverpool. Some may have discharged their other cargoes from the East Indies in London, before sailing on to Dundee with the jute, as the Mahratta was intended to do (I shall talk more about her in a minute). Our earliest jute wreck, the clipper James Baines, was being unloaded in the Huskisson Dock in Liverpool in 1858 when she caught fire, a fate echoed by our last known jute wreck, the Falcon, in 1926. There was a certain inevitability about it: her cargo was jute and matches, a combustible combination if ever there was one.

The time span of the wrecks bound for Dundee with jute parallels that of the heyday of the jute trade, from the late 19th century to the early 1920s, by which time the industry was already in decline. The earliest Dundee-bound wreck was in 1884 on the coast of Northumberland, followed by the Bay of Panama, driven ashore in a snowstorm in 1891 along with three other ships nearby.

The most famous was the Mahratta I, which struck the Goodwin Sands in 1909, her fame heightened by the fact that her namesake, the Mahratta II, struck a mile to the north-east in 1939. Mahratta I shows a wide range of human response to shipwreck: she had a number of passengers on board, some of whom were phlegmatic, and some not. One woman refused to leave the ship until she absolutely had to, when the ship was beginning to break up, objecting to the Customs intending to enforce the quarantining of her pet dog even under the circumstances.

Sadly, after going aground on the Goodwins, the chief engineer committed suicide in his cabin, the sole casualty of this wreck, in which a 90-strong crew, the majority lascar sailors from India, and all the passengers, were saved. Likewise all the salvors, about 100 local boatmen pressed into saving as much of the cargo as possible, were themselves saved. As the salvage proceeded, the ship began to break up, and only 289 bales of jute were taken out of the wreck, out of a cargo of 10,000 tons that also included tea, coffee, rice, iron, gum, and rubber. Much of the jute is said to remain on board what is now a well scattered wreck.

One of the engineers provided a rational but vivid description of the ship’s disintegration, as reported in the Times of 12 April 1909:

‘The vessel was in charge of a Trinity pilot when she struck. Efforts were made to get her off under her own steam, but these failed, and tug services were accepted. Within a short time of the stranding water entered the liner and the main shaft was badly bent. The ship strained severely, and there was a continual grinding and snapping as plates sheered and buckled and heavy iron rivets broke away by dozens. The crew were put to work assisting the boatmen in salving the tea and throwing the jute overboard in order to lighten the vessel, but only about 200 tons had been got out when the Mahratta broke in two. Before this we had been working over our knees in water in the engine room. The ship parted with great suddenness at about 8 o’clock. The noise was like a cannon shot, followed by rending and tearing. The liner broke amidships, across the bunkers and the saloon. There was a great rush for the boats immediately by the labourers who had been assisting to jettison the cargo. One man was so scared that he caught hold of me round the body, and I had a difficulty to get clear from him.’

I hope that’s a good answer to the question, and please do keep coming with more!