Diary of the War: August 1917

The Azira

Many years ago, while working on ships of the First World War, I became intrigued by a large number of wrecks with names unusual for British ships, among them Eidsiva, Gefion, Herdis, Nordstrand, Reidar, Rinda, Slaattero,  and Sten. All appeared in British Vessels Lost at Sea 1914-1918 and 1939-45, and further research revealed that they were all managed by the Shipping Controller, the British ministry responsible for shipping from late 1916. (1)

I realised that here was a tale to be told.

The Azira is part of that tale, and is commemorated today, a century after she was lost. She is part of a thread that has woven itself into this summer’s War Diary commemorations. June 1917‘s post looked at the diverse composition of crews aboard British merchantmen sunk in that month and at other times, including many sailors from Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. July’s post concentrated on the loss of the Vanland and the problems that neutral vessels were facing in English waters. These two themes are brought together in this month’s post, for there was another way for seamen from Scandinavia to join the British mercantile marine . . .

As we have seen so often during the War Diary, the Azira was yet another example of the pressures faced by the collier lines, claimed by a U-boat in the North Sea. She was torpedoed on 4 August 1917, only five miles out from her departure port of Sunderland, bound for Cherbourg with coal.

During the course of the war, Britain negotiated separate “Tonnage Agreements” with the governments of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. These agreements fulfilled mutually pressing needs: Britain required the tonnage urgently – her ships were still being sunk faster than she could build replacements – while on the other side the ability to import vital supplies or to export goods in the face of blockade was of paramount importance. Each country had differing needs, on which the negotiations were based, and agreements reached at different dates, that with Sweden being the last, in 1918. (2)

As part of these Tonnage Agreements, ships were requisitioned by the British Shipping Controller, a specific ministry created for wartime needs. Where placed into collier roles, as many of these requisitioned ships were, they were managed by specialist collier fleet management firms based in the key coal ports such as Cardiff, Newcastle, Sunderland or Swansea. Generally these ships retained their own crews and skippers and were intended to revert back to their country of origin on the cessation of the war.

There were practical matters of ship preservation too – under the British flag they could be armed, with British gunners, and could join convoy, neither of which they could do as neutrals without compromising their position. Not that this necessarily saved them from loss to war causes: either way, as undefended neutrals without escort provision trading with or passing through the waters of a belligerent nation, or as ships armed and under the flag and the convoy of the same belligerent, they were very vulnerable.

Nevertheless, to all intents and purposes, these ships became temporary British merchantmen and their crews part of the British mercantile marine. They were hidden in plain sight and continue to be so today, as their story is little-known, so this post is part of redressing that balance.

The Azira was among them, a Norwegian ship under the British flag, and acknowledged as such in contemporary records. (3)  Many were ships belonging to companies still well-known today: the Norwegian Fred. Olsen (which then was a cargo carrier, not a cruise specialist) and the Danish DFDS, for example Fred. Olsen’s Bamse, torpedoed in the Channel in 1918. (4)

One man among the Azira‘s 18-strong crew was killed. He is commemorated on the Tower Hill memorial. He was Andrew Lehtman, carpenter, aged 28, born in Russia. (5) As discussed in previous posts, at this time a birthplace or homeport of one larger state current in the 19th or early 20th centuries may mask a diversity of nationalities associated with subsequent nation-states (indexing the former and current nationalities of a lost vessel is an excellent way to understand historical geopolitical changes).

So it proved in this instance. Andrew Lehtman was born in the then Russian ‘Governorate of Estonia’. Things were changing fast in 1917, a pivotal year for both Russia and Estonia. Following the February Revolution of 1917 in Russia, Estonia and Livonia were united to form an autonomous governorate. Full Estonian independence would not be achieved until 1920, for the October Revolution of 1917 intervened. Estonia then saw several years of struggle with Bolshevik usurpation, German occupation and Russian invasion.

So it is perhaps unsurprising that the lists of Estonian seamen who died in British waters or in British hospitals were not published until November 1920, presumably when the situation had become sufficiently politically stable to do so. Lehtman’s name appears in a list furnished by the British police which was published across several newspapers so that they could be traced by relatives. It is likely that his name is somewhat garbled: his first name looks as if it has been anglicised, and there are variant spellings of the name Lehtman. (6)

Labelled a ‘Russian’, an Estonian by nationality and probably by birth, his surname suggests a ‘Baltic German’ affiliation (in common with other seamen on the list), while he died as part of the crew of a Norwegian steamer taken into British service. Was he ever traced, I wonder?

This remains of this shipwreck near Sunderland are not only a tangible link to the Anglo-German conflict of the First World War, but also connect with Anglo-Norwegian diplomacy and the struggles of Estonia for self-determination.

(1)  Four separate HMSO publications collated and republished as facsimile reprints under the title of British Vessels Lost at Sea 1914-18 and 1939-45, Patrick Stephens Ltd., Cambridge, 1988, (BVLS). For the First World War the relevant publications were Navy Losses (1919) and Merchant Shipping (Losses) (1919), reprinted as Section I and Section II in BVLS.

(2) For a fuller overview of requisitioned wrecks from Denmark and Norway in English waters, please see Cant, Serena, England’s Shipwreck Heritage: from logboats to U-boats, Historic England, Swindon, 2013, pp 81-91. For the economic background, see also: Haug, Karl Erik, Norway , in: 1914-1918-online. International Encyclopedia of the First World War, ed. by Ute Daniel, Peter Gatrell, Oliver Janz, Heather Jones, Jennifer Keene, Alan Kramer, and Bill Nasson, Freie Universität Berlin; Riste, Olav, The Neutral Ally: Norway’s relations with belligerent powers in the First World War, Universitetsforlaget, Oslo, 1965; Salmon, Patrick, Scandinavia and the Great Powers 1890-1940, Cambridge, 1997

(3) BVLS, Section II, p62; Lloyd’s War Losses: Casualties to Shipping through Enemy Causes, 1914-1918, Lloyd’s of London, facsimile reprint, 1990, p161

(4) Cant 2013, based on research in the Fred. Olsen archives, expanding on information in Historic England’s shipwreck records of the National Record of the Historic Environment (NRHE) for both Fred. Olsen and DFDS. Brief company histories, including their wartime service, are available for both Fred. Olsen and DFDS.

(5) Commonwealth War Graves Commission record for Andrew Lehtman

(6) Sakala (in Estonian), 19 November 1920, No.134, p7