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

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The Acorn

It is my pleasure to introduce my guest blogger for today’s piece, Jordan Havell, who wrote an article  on the Acorn back in December 2014. He takes up the story again with recent observations on changes in his local beach environment and the impact it has had on the Acorn.

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Since writing my last blog in December 2014 my interest in shipwreck archaeology has continued. Just recently I have found lots and lots of stranded wood being brought in on the tide from small pieces to much larger pieces. They may be pieces from a ‘billyboy’ called the Swan but that’s another story for later.

Fan shaped fragment of brown wood with holes in it, on a background of lighter-coloured brown sand with shells and pebbles
Example of one of the small fragments of wood and other debris recently washed up on the Lincolnshire coast following winter storms and high spring tides, photographed 19 February 2017 © Jordan Havell

Now here is where it gets more exciting . . . the Acorn . . .

The Acorn wreck was covered by literally tons of sand by the subsequent beach replenishment work over the last 3 years [since I last wrote]. Just recently however with high spring tides and Storms Doris and Ewan, the wreck has started to reappear.

I went to visit the beach like I normally do, but on the 16th of February 2017 I was very surprised to see that the sands had shifted heavily and the wreck was beginning to show again. Over the following days I visited this area nearly every day and each day more seemed to show.

Photograph of horizontal ship's timber against a backdrop of lighter-coloured sand.
Timber from the Acorn revealed 1 March 2017. © Jordan Havell
Detail photograph of brown fragment of ship's timber in the foreground, with lighter-coloured sand in the background.
Detail of a timber from the Acorn, photographed 1 March 2017. © Jordan Havell

I am looking forward to the illustrated talk and workshop in April with Andy Sherman from the Museum of London Archaeology CITiZAN Project in my village. I am really keen to hear about this work and how we can be even more involved.

I hope this gives you a snapshot of what is going on my locality. Thanks for reading!

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Thank you very much to Jordan for writing this piece and illustrating it with his own photographs – citizen science in action! As he hints, we will be hearing more from him, since his research has uncovered the interesting story of the Swan billyboy, which was also lost locally.