Diary of the War: June 1917

The Sir Francis

At first glance the Sir Francis appears to be yet another British steam collier lost through enemy action in the North Sea, torpedoed 4 miles off Ravenscar, North Yorkshire, on a ballast run to the Tyne to pick up coal on 7 June 1917.

In that sense there is nothing remarkable about this particular wreck, which shares the characteristics of so many other ships of the same ilk, lost in the same sea area to war causes. not only during the First World War but also the Second. Even her tonnage of 1153 tons net, 1991 gross, was entirely characteristic of a steam collier of the early to mid 20th century, and she belonged to one of the big names in coal shipping, Cory Colliers Ltd.

Also fairly characteristic was the death toll: 10 men out of a crew of 22 lost their lives that day in June 1917. The Mercantile Marine Memorial at Tower Hill, London (listed Grade I) records their details so far as they were known. They were:

Wanless, A, master, whose place of birth, residence, and family is not recorded;

de Boer, J, seaman, born in Holland;

Jonsson, John, born in Iceland, resident in South Shields and married to an Englishwoman;

Kato, T, fireman, born in Japan;

Nishioka, B, fireman, also born in Japan;

Poulouch, N, fireman, born in Greece;

Sharp, Joseph, steward, of South Shields;

Talbot, Alfred, engineer’s steward, of Penarth;

Tippett, Albert, engineer, a Yorkshireman resident in Tyneside;

van der Pluym, Johannes Cornelis, seaman, a resident of Amsterdam.

Colour photograph of stone memorial inscription reading '1914-1918: To the Glory of God and to the honour of twelve thousand of the merchant navy and fishing fleets who have no grave but the sea'.
Detail of the Mercantile Marine Memorial, Tower Hill. By Katie Chan – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28279403

Seafaring has, of course, always been a mobile profession with a long heritage, stretching back centuries, of crew serving aboard ships not originating in their local ports or country of birth, ocean-going liners and tramp steamers being obvious examples. On the blog we have looked previously at lascars engaged as foreign labour and subsequently shipwrecked on board ships plying to and from south Asia during the period of British colonial rule: Mahratta I, 1909; the Magdapur, 1939; and the Medina, 1917. The Tangistan is a good example of this phenomenon earlier in the war: when she was lost in 1915 en route from Beni Saf, Algeria, for Middlesbrough, her crew included men from the Indian Merchant Service and Scandinavian sailors.

The international composition of crews working on domestic routes appears to become more marked as the war continued. A primary contributory factor was, of course, the shortage of labour in the merchant marine, as experienced sailors were recruited into the Royal Navy, and the high death and injury toll among the crews of ships lost to war causes.  There were other factors, including international agreements (which will be covered in a later post). Undoubtedly, further research among the histories of each individual crew member might well reveal other factors at play: for example, rates of pay and war displacement (shipwreck by war causes and internment of vessels).

In July 1917, another collier, the Empress, would also be sunk in the North Sea with a truly multinational crew on a wholly domestic route, this time delivering coal from the Tyne to Southend-on-Sea. Among the survivors on that occasion were 3 Norwegians; 2 Argentines; 2 Swedes; and one man each representing Denmark, the Netherlands, Portugal, Russia (although at this period crewmen from the Baltic Grand Duchies of Russia were lumped under the ‘catch-all’ label of ‘Russian’ in contemporary sources) and Spain. Among the dead were Swede Peter Anderson [sic], able seaman; Norwegian Olaf Husby, boatswain; and Dutchman Peter van Klanders, fireman.

There is a similar tally on board a larger collier, the Polesley, which lost all but one of her 43 crew when she was torpedoed in 1918. Half came from diverse national and ethnic backgrounds. Some originated from various corners of the contemporary British Empire: three men from Sierra Leone, one man from the Bahamas and another from Nevis; a South African; one man from India; and another from Hong Kong. Others came from countries unconnected to the Empire: there were five Japanese sailors on board, and from Europe two Danes and two Lithuanians, a Norwegian, a Russian, a Spaniard and a Swede lost their lives.

These three specific cases among British colliers, the Sir Francis, the Empress, and the Polesley, shine a light on a hidden, but significant, heritage of multinational and multi-ethnic crew composition on British ships during the First World War.

(All crew details from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website.)

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