Diary of the War: September 1917

The Schooners’ Last Stand

It is easy to say with the benefit of hindsight that shipping losses could have been considerably reduced had coal been circulated at home by rail during the First World War, instead of being sent out into a North Sea full of minefields and lurking U-boats (although what would have been done with all the colliers lying idle in port is a moot point – doubtless sent to replace shipping on other routes – but this is all hypothetical.) The capacity for destruction from the air was less developed than in the Second World War, so, on paper, the railways appear an obvious route that was unaccountably not taken.

Matters were not quite that simple. Focusing on the seaward end for this blog (discussing the railway end would be a blog post or three in its own right), the infrastructure of coal supply was geared to despatch by sea, even for the internal market. It had traditionally been so before the coming of the railways and continued to be so thereafter, the Industrial Revolution making it easier to link coalfields to the ports, rather than make use of the new-fangled railways to circulate coal inland.

Steam trains thus ran the extracted coal from the large Durham coalfield the short distances to Blyth, Shields, Sunderland, and Hartlepool, whence the steam colliers took over and carried the coal to London and elsewhere, a seamless chain from mine to depot or power plant.

But this regular supply route was not only being disrupted by the war, it was being decimated, as steam collier after steam collier sank in the North Sea. Over the course of the war other measures were taken to spread the risk: output from other coalfields increased and shipping movements accordingly transferred to other ports on the other side of the country. For example, as production shifted towards the mines of north-west England and Wales, Liverpool and Barry in Wales saw a rise in collier traffic.

The sourcing of supplies from elsewhere and the re-routing of traffic through other ports had its parallel in the deployment of a more diverse collier fleet. Small sailing schooners already handled coal as ’round Britain’ coasters or shuttling between Great Britain and Ireland on an exchange cargo basis, but now they were deployed to supplement the steamers in ensuring coal reached France by the relatively less ‘exposed’ west coast route which was at least less heavily mined (but was still dangerous as the focus of considerable U-boat activity).

A diverse group of sailing vessels accordingly left various ports in Liverpool Bay for Cherbourg and Dieppe in September 1917. They were redolent of an era fifty years earlier: the Mary Seymour, schooner of Portsmouth, 150 tons gross, built 1865; Mary Orr, ketch of Glasgow, 91 tons gross, built 1868; the Jane Williamson, Irish schooner, also described as a brigantine, 197 tons, built 1870; the Water Lily, schooner of Barnstaple, 111 tons, built 1876, and the Moss Rose, schooner of Chester, 161 tons, built 1888. Such ages were not uncommon in the coasting trade, but nevertheless it was a fairly elderly set of small coasters that set out in the hope of a passage free of encounters with the enemy. All were outward-bound in company from the Mersey for Dieppe and Cherbourg with at least one other ship, carrying much-needed coal for the French market.

The Moss Rose was the first to be attacked and sunk by gunfire from UC-51 at 10.30am, 7 miles NNE of Pendeen Lighthouse. The master of the Mary Orr watched events unfold, and bowed to the inevitable without attempting to escape. He gave the order to abandon ship and the crew waited then watched the ensuing destruction of the Mary Seymour, around 11.15 to 11.30am. It is said that the crew of the Moss Rose and the Mary Seymour then rowed to, and were picked up by ‘the schooner Mary of Glasgow’, (1) and transferred to the Padstow lifeboat. This introduces some confusion, since the Mary Orr also belonged to Glasgow, but there¬†was probably yet another ship named Mary involved.

The abandoned Mary Orr was then literally next in the firing line: scuttling charges were placed aboard, and she sank 8 miles NE of Pendeen Lighthouse. The Mary Orr‘s boat was then used to carry more charges over to the Water Lily, which was likewise sunk 8 miles NE of Pendeen Lighthouse some time after noon. These crews, however, were both picked up by the Belgian SS Adour.

It seems unlikely, therefore, that the crews of the Moss Rose and Mary Seymour rowed over to a vessel which had been abandoned by her own crew, and much more likely that there was another Mary in the little convoy of sailing ships. It was common in attacks on small sailing vessels for one ship in the group to be spared, to enable survivors to escape. (2)

The last ship to be sunk that day was the Jane Williamson, 20 miles NNE of St. Ives, at around 4pm. The attacking submarine was also UC-51, and it was this particular sinking that attracted the attention of the press, because there was apparently no such care for the survival of the crew. It was widely reported that not only was she shelled on approach, but also the crew as they escaped in their open boat, with only two men being left alive to tell the tale.

The inquest upon the dead at Penzance returned a verdict of ‘wilful and diabolical murder’. At the funerals of two of the dead men, wreaths were donated by a grieving couple, each inscribed ‘in tenderest memory of a stranger from Capt. and Mrs Henry Row, who are sorrowing over their own two murdered boys.’ (3)

With the same hindsight with which I started this blog, it is also easy to say that pitting small schooners against U-boats was a forlorn hope. They were generally unarmed and unable to outrun a fast-moving submarine (hence the skipper of the Mary Orr giving up any hope of escape as a bad job), and, small and constructed of timber as they were, they stood little chance against shelling and were easily despatched by scuttling charges.

Such was the pressure on shipping, however, that it was imperative to try to spread the risk by any means possible, and perhaps it was easier to sacrifice small sailing vessels approaching the end of their careers, than the more modern and much larger steamers which took up huge resources in materials and manpower to build. Also, as prey, they were far less significant than the grand ocean liners and the everyday steamers, which were a more tempting prey, accounting for a higher tonnage and a greater commercial impact and disruption to trade when sunk. The personal cost to the schooner crews, though, must have been immense: death, injury and the destruction of their livelihoods.

Nevertheless, the experiment in circulating coal by ‘acting sail colliers’ would be abandoned by November 1917 after further losses: that same month the submarine responsible for sinking the little fleet (UC-51) would also meet her end in English waters.

Not all such vessels perished in the war, however: the Kathleen and May schooner, built in 1900 in Liverpool, gives a very good impression of what the schooners lost a century ago looked like, not least in her longevity. She survived the First World War (and the Second). Her wartime logbooks for 1915 also survive and reveal regular boat drills and testing of lifesaving appliances, given the risks she was running during the war. (4)

She is now part of the National Historic Fleet.

A ship in the centre of the image sits against a blue sky, the sea occupying the bottom third of the image. The ship has three masts, with three square red sails spread, and four triangular sails between the foremast and bowsprit, which faces to the right of the image.
The three-masted schooner Kathleen and May (1900) is a contemporary of the five sailing ships lost on 10 September 1917, most of which were also schooners. Like the Jane Williamson, she was originally built in north-west England and was in Irish ownership during the First World War. © and by kind permission of National Historic Ships UK

(1) Larn, R & Larn, B 1995. Shipwreck Index of the British Isles, Vol.1: Isles of Scilly, Cornwall, Devon, Dorset. London. Lloyd’s of London Press (based on ADM/137 reports, The National Archives)

(2) This modus operandi is attested, for example, in an incident off the East Anglian coast on 30 July 1915, when the survivors of eight fishing smacks sunk by the same U-boat, boarded a ninth which had been spared, and other similar incidents. Cant, S 2013. England’s Shipwreck Heritage: from logboats to U-boats. Swindon: Historic England (p166)

(3) See, for example, Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail, 17 September 1917, No.12,231, p3

(4) ‘Kathleen and May‘, entry in WW1: Britain’s surviving vessels, a microsite of National Historic Ships UK

 

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