Monday, 24 April 2017

The Steam Ship “Ballarat” torpedoed on 25th April 1917.

Remembering on ANZAC Day 2017 all those who lost their lives when the SS. "Ballarat" was torpedoed on 25th April 1917.

The steamship S.S. “Ballarat” was a cargo and passenger liner built in 1911 by Caird & Company in Scotland for the P & O Company and sailed the route from Britain to Australia.

The “Ballarat” was one of the many passenger liners requisitioned by the British Admiralty and converted for war service during the First World War.   The ship initially served as an Indian transport vessel before becoming a troopship, carrying Australian troops to Britain.

In February 1917, the “Ballarat” left Melbourne in Australia en route for the port of Devonport in the UK, with 1,602 Australian troops who were reinforcements from Victoria for the 2nd and 4th Australian Brigades.  She also carried a general cargo which included copper and bullion. The voyage was the ship’s thirteenth, which caused concern amongst some of the troops on board.

On 25th April, as she reached the English Channel, the Australian officers arranged a memorial service to commemorate Anzac Day.  At 14.00 hrs, as preparations were underway, a massive explosion tore a hole in the starboard side of the ship and the “Ballarat” started taking water. Despite a number of lookouts and an escorting destroyer, nobody saw the U-boat UB-32 approach and fire a torpedo.

Vessels were summoned to take the Australian soldiers and crew off the sinking vessel and within an hour all of them had been safely rescued. The “Ballarat” was taken in tow but sank in the early hours of the following morning, approximately 9 miles south of Lizard Point, Cornwall, UK, where the wreck still lies.

The Captain of Ballarat, Commander G. W. Cockman, RNR, DSO, received the congratulations of the Admiralty and the Australian troops were congratulated by the King.


Monday, 17 April 2017

April 1917 was "the most disastrous month for British Merchant Shipping" due to Unrestricted Submarine Warfare

On 31st January 1917 the German Emperor, in a message to the Chief of the Naval Staff, issued an order that changed the course of the war by sea and land:  ‘I command that the unrestricted U-boat campaign shall begin on February 1st in full force’.

“The month of April 1917 was the most disastrous to British Merchant Shipping in the War.  No fewer than 997 lives were lost…  The torpedo attacks were in nearly every case without warning. (From Chapter 1, "History of the Great War The Merchant Navy Volume III", by Archibald Hurd, published by John Murray, London in 1929).

Hospital Ships sunk in April 1917 included the “Salta” (10th April), “Arcadian” (15th April), “Donegal” and “Lanfranc” (17th April).

The Steam Ship “Donegal” was a British passenger ferry.  She was built in 1904 by Caird & Co., Greenock, Scotland, for the Midland Railway Company and operated on the Heysham to Belfast route.  During WW1, the British Admiralty requisitioned several British passenger ferries for conversion into ambulance ships to carry wounded personnel from France back to hospitals in Britain.

Ambulance ships were classified as hospital ships under The Hague Convention of 1907, which dealt with the adaptation to Maritime Warfare of the principles of the Geneva Convention of July 1906. Ambulance Ships had to be clearly marked and lit to make them easy to identify. As the shipping losses grew, the UK Government announced that it would no longer give hospital ships special marking, alleging that German vessels had used their markings and lighting to target them. 
On 1st March 1917, a German U-boat attacked “Donegal” but she managed to outrun the submarine. On 17th April 1917, the “Donegal” was sunk by a German U-boat while taking 610 lightly wounded British soldiers across the English Channel from Le Havre to Southampton..  The ship sank with the loss of 29 soldiers and 12 crew members. The wreck of the SS “Donegal” is located off the coast of South-east England in the English Channel.

Lieutenant Harold Holehouse, a Royal Naval Reserve Lieutenant from the “Donegal” jumped into the sea to rescue a wounded soldier.  Unfortunately, the soldier did not recover, but the Royal Humane Society awarded Lieutenant Holehouse a Bronze Medal.

 Two of the crew members of the SS “Donegal”, Archie Jewell and John Priest, were seasoned shipwreck survivors, having served on the RMS “Titanic” and survived her sinking on 15th April 1912.  Archie Jewell had been one of Titanic's lookouts (although he was not on watch when she struck the iceberg) and John Priest was a stoker. John Priest had been on the liner RMS “Asturias” when she foundered on her maiden voyage in 1907, and on the RMS “Olympic” when she was damaged in a collision with HMS “Hawke” in 1911.

John Priest then served on the armed merchant cruiser “Alcantara” when she and the German armed merchant cruiser SMS “Greif” sank each other in February 1916. 

Jewell and Priest went on to serve on one of the sister ships of the “Titanic”- the White Star Liner  “Britannic”, which was requisitioned by the British Admiralty for conversion into a Hospital Ship.  They were both among the survivors when HMHS “Britannic” was sunk in November 1916.

John Priest survived the sinking of the “Donegal” but, sadly, Archie Jewell was killed.  John Priest was awarded the Mercantile Marine Ribbon for his service in WW1.

The S.S. “Lanfranc” was built as a passenger liner for the Booth Steamship Company of Liverpool by the Caledonian Ship and Engineering Co. in Dundee, UK.  She sailed regularly from Liverpool to Manaus in the north of Brazil.

Requisitioned and converted by the British Admiralty into a Hospital Ship during the First World War, “Lanfranc” (named after the Benedictine Monk Lanfranc of Canterbury) was ferrying wounded from Le Havre in France to Southampton in Britain on 17th April 1917 when she was torpedoed and sunk without warning.  22 British soldiers and 18 German soldiers lost their lives.

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

The Steam Ship “Mendi”  was built in 1905 and launched in the June of that year. She belonged to the British and African Steam Navigation Company which was managed by Elder Dempster Lines.  Requisitioned as a troop ship during WW1 by the British Admiralty she sank on 21st February 1917.
At 05.00 a.m. on 21st February 1917, the Steam Ship “Mendi” collided in thick fog in the English Channel with the Royal Mail Packet Company’s Cargo Ship “Darro”.   646 lives were lost when the “Mendi” sank rapidly, being the smaller vessel.  The dead were mostly South African Soldiers.   WW1 Poet Samuel Edward Krune Mqhayi wrote a poem about the disaster.  “We will remember them…”

Monday, 20 February 2017

Book Review: "Manchester Remembering 1914-18" by Andrew Simpson (The History Press, 2017)

I was very interested indeed in the book “Manchester Remembering 1914-18”, because I began my research for a series of commemorative exhibitions with female poets of the First World War and among the first I found was Winifred Mabel Letts, who was born in Salford.   Due to her service with the Almeric Paget Military Massage Corps team as a remedial masseuse in Manchester, Winifred also comes into the category Inspirational Women.  So I found the descriptions of the temporary hospitals set up in the Manchester area to cope with the huge influx of wounded soldiers extremely informative.

I enjoyed reading about, among other things, the descriptions in the chapter entitled Out on the Town on page 20 of the entertainment on offer in Manchester during the early part of the twentieth Century.  It is all too easy for us to forget that, back then, there were no television or radio broadcasts and not every home had a telephone.

I was also interested in the social aspects of Manchester’s WW1 history – the role of women and the workers’ strikes (p. 76) which resulted in acts of parliament preventing strikes during the war years.  And a conscientious objector’s opinion on the film “Battle of the Somme” which premiered in London in August 1916, went on general release in August of that year and was seen by 20 million people in the first six weeks.

“Manchester Remembering 1914-18” also has a detailed timeline of the war years, beautiful illustrations with contemporary photographs – I had never seen a Wound Badge (page 84) - copies of posters, cameos about individual women and about soldiers in the Manchester Regiments (soldier poet Wilfred Owen was in the 5th  and 2nd Manchester Regiments), private letters and postcards sent to soldiers and civilians, chapters on the Armistice and aftermath, the legacy of the war and a postscript, plus notes on sources and a bibliography.  The book, written by former school-teacher Andrew Simpson, has been extremely well researched and is full of information about England’s second city, the very heart of the Industrial Revolution.  

“Manchester Remembering 1914-18” by Andrew Simpson, published by The History Press, Stroud, Gloucester, 2017 is on sale at £12.99 and is available from all good bookshops and online at

To find out more about Andrew Simpson’s work, check out his weblog on

Thursday, 19 January 2017

January 2017 marks the Centenary of the Silvertown Munitions Factory explosion

When she was growing up, our Mother lived with her Mother and Brother in Eltham during The First World War.  Mother and Uncle often spoke about the Silvertown factory explosion in January 1917. They told me that the windows of houses were blown out - even as far as The Savoy Hotel in the centre of London - and the air was filled with burning paper.

The Silvertown Factory was built in Silvertown, West Ham, Essex in 1883 for the manufacture of soda crystals and caustic soda.  The ending of the production of caustic soda in 1912 left part of the factory idle.   In 1916, due to the shortage of shells in the British Army, the War Office took over the available part of the factory to purify the explosive TNT.

On Friday, 19th January 1917, a fire broke out at around 6 pm which, in spite of efforts to extinguish it, caused explosions the effect of which was felt for miles around. 73 people were killed, more than 400 injured and thousands left homeless.

Saturday, 31 December 2016

Lise Rischard, a housewife from Luxembourg, British Secret Agent in WW1

Among the inspirational women of the First World War on my list is Lise Rischard, an 'ordinary' housewife from Luxembourg.   Officially neutral in WW1, the people of Luxembourg had suffered greatly during the wars that ravaged Europe in the previous years.   Lise's son by her first marriage - Marcel Pelletier - was a member of the French Olympic Team send to the Olympic Games held Stockholm in 1912.

During a visit to her son who was in the French Army and in Paris before being sent to the Front, Lise was recruited to help the Allied cause. Her story is amazing as she travelled from the area  held by the Germans via Switzerland to Paris, which remained a free city during WW1 and then set up a network to provide vital information to the British.

I mention Lise in "No Woman's Land" but you can find out the whole amazing story in the book 'The Secrets of Rue St. Roch' by Janet Morgan (London: Allen Lane, 2004).

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Harry Lauder's son John was killed on 28th December 1916 in France

Harry Lauder, the Scottish comedian and singer, was in Australia on one of his tours when war broke out in 1914.  He returned home, began to raise money for the war effort and organised recruiting concert tours.  Harry also took his piano to the Western Front to entertain the troops.  He set up a charity called the Harry Lauder Million Pound Fund to raise money for seriously wounded Scottish servicemen.

On 28th December 1916, Harry's only son John Lauder, who was a Captain in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, was killed at Pozières.   Harry wrote the song "Keep Right on till the end of the Road" in memory of his son.   Captain Lauder was buried at Ovillers, France and his father had a memorial placed in his son's memory in Glenbranter, the Lauder family home in Scotland.

Photo:  Captain John Lauder