1918

Terrible Disaster off the Tyne - Two trawlers mined - All hands missing!"

So reported the Shields Daily News on 2 December, 1918, telling of the loss of two locally-based trawlers, which had struck mines north east of the Tyne; going down with the presumed loss of all crewmen.

The Armistice of 11th November, 1918 did not bring an end to the sad toll of loss for local families.

The war did not end formally until July 1919, with the conclusion of the Treaty at Versailles; and incidents such as that recorded here were not uncommon. With our strong maritime connections many hundreds of local men from North Shields were in constant peril from the continuing danger posed by the many thousands of high-explosive mines in the North Sea and across the oceans of the world. These had been placed by both the enemy and the British military and it would be many years before the menace of random death caused by striking a loose mine would become a rare occurrence.

In the immediate aftermath of the war tragedy struck twice on the same day (1 December) and left 12 local families to mourn the loss of husbands and sons. Two vessels, the Steam Trawlers Ethelwulf and TW Mould were fishing with a number of others from the North Shields fleet when two loud explosions were heard at about 3.00am and two boats were seen to be enveloped in flames. The fleet was re-assembled and it was found that the Ethelwulf and TW Mould were missing. A search at first light revealed nothing and the fleet returned to port where news of the tragedy and loss amongst families, all well-known to each other, spread rapidly.

towerhillmemorialThe Tower Hill Memorial (left) records details of the 2,477 British merchant and fishing vessels lost in the conflict and includes the two local boats lost on 1st December, 1918 - see Casualty list in News Guardian.

In Church Street, the families at house numbers 116, 128, 140 and 145 would all have been plunged into grief and doubtless would have known each of the men killed. The 12 men lost had all lived within 500 yards of each other.

The Tynemouth Roll of Honour records these men as victims of the war. Although the vessels were engaged in their peacetime activity of fishing, many of the crews were recorded as members of the Royal Naval Reserve so their families clearly thought it was appropriate to note their naval associations. Indeed it may be that they had all served during the war and been released to pursue the equally vital task of providing food for the nation. Detailed research may reveal the exact history of these men who gave their lives in the perilous waters of the North Sea; no doubt fully aware of the constant danger in which they placed themselves.

Final casualties of fighting as Armistice was negotiated.

The First World War was marked by three distinct phases of fighting on the Western Front. From August to November, 1914, there was mobile conflict in open country before the establishment of the virtually unchanged trench complexes of the following three and-a-half years until the period of the final 100 days, from August 1918 (up to the signing of the Armistice on the 11th of November) when the fighting was again mobile.

The fighting in the two periods of mobile engagement, surprisingly, to most people, produced higher casualties than the stagnant slogging match of the intervening period of trench warfare. It was therefore particularly difficult for many families that their loved ones were killed in the intense fighting of the final phase of the war, when it seemed that the whole tragic drama was drawing finally to a close.

After the 8 August, known as the 'blackest day in the history of the German Army' Emperor (Kaiser) Wilhelm and his staffs knew that the war could not be won. The Spring Offensive by General Ludendorff had failed in its objectives.

Approaches from Germany to US President Wilson in October, it was hoped, might secure an 'honourable' disengagement for them. The allies in the west would entertain no such possibility. The process of negotiating a stop to the fighting was carried through in the early days of November. In the time before reliable radio service, telephone links and the other wonders of modern communications, the final terms were only finally agreed (imposed) on the German government representatives in the famous railway carriage at Compeigne near Paris in the early hours of 11 November.

Fighting on land, at sea, and all movement forward by Allied forces was to end at 11:00am (French time). The German armies were to await detailed instructions on the conduct of an orderly withdrawal not only to the pre-war frontiers but to east of the Rhine.

On the front line the end of the fighting was greeted not by jubilation but a sense of foreboding about the future. At home in Britain and elsewhere across the world there were scenes of wild celebration as people looked forward to the return of their men-folk and resuming their lives in peacetime conditions.

Sadly, for many, the joy and relief of the conclusion of the greatest conflict in the history of the world was punctured by the receipt of the dreaded telegram announcing the death of a loved one as the celebrations and euphoria was all around them.

The final death recorded in the Tynemouth Roll of Honour from action in the war was that of John Stainthorpe of Stephenson Street, who is shown as killed on the last day of the war, although in fact his ship HMS Britannia had been torpedoed near Gibraltar on the 9th of November and he was one of those who unfortunately were not saved. The toll from the war did not end abruptly with the end of the fighting. The Roll of Honour records many men whose death was due to the effects of war service in the following three years. A visit to the western edge of Preston cemetery reveals the many Official War Grave headstones accorded to those who died in the aftermath of the war up to August 31, 1921 — the last date for which a war grave headstone would be granted.

The world had changed forever and there would be no return to the rigid class structures and social conventions of the pre-war era. The 'land fit for heroes' was to be anything but, and men who had fought through the horrors of the war found themselves treated no better than anyone else in the hard times which lay ahead. For many, scarred physically and mentally, mere existence would be a struggle.

The peace settlement of the 'war to end all wars' would lay the foundations for an even greater conflict twenty years later. Nothing however, in the future, would equal the suffering and personal loss of the families and communities of Britain which arose from the failure of the governments of Europe to manage the consequences of the assassination of an Austrian Grand Duke by a Bosnian nationalist.

Tragedy for local families amidst disaster for US 'Doughboys'.

As the great allied advance of 1918, now known as the '100 days', continued to force back the German armies on the Western Front, the casualty rate amongst the British and Commonwealth forces was amongst the highest of the entire war. On land and at sea the losses were all the more cruel as the end of the war approached but of course at the time few if any had an idea just when the slaughter might finally come to and end.

At sea the dangers of the oceans and sheer errors of judgement could lead to terrible loss of life. In October 1918 the Armed Merchant Cruiser ss Otranto was in convoy from America with 667 US soldiers bound ultimately for France. Unfortunately many of them were never to see land or experience the horrors of the war. Off the west coast of Scotland, in the North Channel, on the 6th of October, 1918, through the early morning mist, the master of the Otranto took a fateful decision based on a misapprehension of exactly what the land in sight was. The PandO liner Kashmir, also in the convoy, had correctly identified the land mass as the island of Islay and took appropriate action — the Otranto unfortunately was steered to Starboard as the Kashmir turned to Port. In heavy seas the two vessels collided with terrible loss of life in the Otranto.

otrantoAs the ship grounded less than half a mile from shore and in danger of breaking up a Torpedo Boat Destroyer, HMS Mounsey came alongside the Otranto (left). As the two ships were tossed about on the heavy seas, with the Otranto towering over the much smaller Mounsey, the crew and American soldiers were forced to leap for their lives onto the deck of the little ship. Seriously overloaded she made for Belfast, in danger of sinking herself, in total taking 596 men to safety in three separate rescues from the stricken ship. When the Mounsey, seriously damaged in the three rescue missions could not make any further attempt, Captain Davidson of the Otranto ordered the remainder on board to abandon ship and swim for their lives. Only 16 made it to shore. 431 men were lost including two crew members from Tynemouth serving in the Mercantile Marine Reserve who had been enlisted into service on the vessel — see casualties list this week's News Guardian.

Three hundred US soldiers, part of the huge contingent of 10,000 in the convoy, were lost. 75 of the victims remain buried in a special ground in Machir Bay, overlooking the scene of the disaster. The bodies of identified US servicemen were returned after the war for re-interment in the United States. The two local men have no known grave and are remembered on the Plymouth Naval Memorial.

The master of the Mounsey, Lt. Francis Worthington was awarded the DSO for 'magnificent courage and seamanship' in the course of the rescue, his fellow officers, Lt. Raymond Benson Stewart and Sub. Lt. Wilfrid Edmund Warner, were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. Stewart ended the war in the rank of Lieut. Commander and retired but falling on hard times he joined the Royal Irish Constabulary Reserve (the notorious 'Black and Tans') during the time of the civil war, in the newly emerging Irish Free State. Despite cheating death as the officer who boarded the Otranto to supervise the rescues on three occasions his fate was to be shot and killed in an ambush at Clonfin in 1921.

In another twist of fate, it may be that the course of the infant US movie industry would have been somewhat different if one of the 'Doughboys' (as the US recruits were known in the States) who had sailed to Europe on the previous voyage of the Otranto had been on board on her fateful final voyage. Then perhaps Buster Keaton might not have survived to play a leading role in the American comedy motion pictures of the twenties and thirties.