Monday, 17 April 2017

April 1917 was "the most disastrous month for British Merchant Shipping" due to Unrestricted Submarine Warfare

On 31st January 1917 the German Emperor, in a message to the Chief of the Naval Staff, issued an order that changed the course of the war by sea and land:  ‘I command that the unrestricted U-boat campaign shall begin on February 1st in full force’.

“The month of April 1917 was the most disastrous to British Merchant Shipping in the War.  No fewer than 997 lives were lost…  The torpedo attacks were in nearly every case without warning. (From Chapter 1, "History of the Great War The Merchant Navy Volume III", by Archibald Hurd, published by John Murray, London in 1929).

Hospital Ships sunk in April 1917 included the “Salta” (10th April), “Arcadian” (15th April), “Donegal” and “Lanfranc” (17th April).

The Steam Ship “Donegal” was a British passenger ferry.  She was built in 1904 by Caird & Co., Greenock, Scotland, for the Midland Railway Company and operated on the Heysham to Belfast route.  During WW1, the British Admiralty requisitioned several British passenger ferries for conversion into ambulance ships to carry wounded personnel from France back to hospitals in Britain.

Ambulance ships were classified as hospital ships under The Hague Convention of 1907, which dealt with the adaptation to Maritime Warfare of the principles of the Geneva Convention of July 1906. Ambulance Ships had to be clearly marked and lit to make them easy to identify. As the shipping losses grew, the UK Government announced that it would no longer give hospital ships special marking, alleging that German vessels had used their markings and lighting to target them. 
                                                                                                                                                                         
On 1st March 1917, a German U-boat attacked “Donegal” but she managed to outrun the submarine. On 17th April 1917, the “Donegal” was sunk by a German U-boat while taking 610 lightly wounded British soldiers across the English Channel from Le Havre to Southampton..  The ship sank with the loss of 29 soldiers and 12 crew members. The wreck of the SS “Donegal” is located off the coast of South-east England in the English Channel.

Lieutenant Harold Holehouse, a Royal Naval Reserve Lieutenant from the “Donegal” jumped into the sea to rescue a wounded soldier.  Unfortunately, the soldier did not recover, but the Royal Humane Society awarded Lieutenant Holehouse a Bronze Medal.

 Two of the crew members of the SS “Donegal”, Archie Jewell and John Priest, were seasoned shipwreck survivors, having served on the RMS “Titanic” and survived her sinking on 15th April 1912.  Archie Jewell had been one of Titanic's lookouts (although he was not on watch when she struck the iceberg) and John Priest was a stoker. John Priest had been on the liner RMS “Asturias” when she foundered on her maiden voyage in 1907, and on the RMS “Olympic” when she was damaged in a collision with HMS “Hawke” in 1911.

John Priest then served on the armed merchant cruiser “Alcantara” when she and the German armed merchant cruiser SMS “Greif” sank each other in February 1916. 

Jewell and Priest went on to serve on one of the sister ships of the “Titanic”- the White Star Liner  “Britannic”, which was requisitioned by the British Admiralty for conversion into a Hospital Ship.  They were both among the survivors when HMHS “Britannic” was sunk in November 1916.

John Priest survived the sinking of the “Donegal” but, sadly, Archie Jewell was killed.  John Priest was awarded the Mercantile Marine Ribbon for his service in WW1.

The S.S. “Lanfranc” was built as a passenger liner for the Booth Steamship Company of Liverpool by the Caledonian Ship and Engineering Co. in Dundee, UK.  She sailed regularly from Liverpool to Manaus in the north of Brazil.

Requisitioned and converted by the British Admiralty into a Hospital Ship during the First World War, “Lanfranc” (named after the Benedictine Monk Lanfranc of Canterbury) was ferrying wounded from Le Havre in France to Southampton in Britain on 17th April 1917 when she was torpedoed and sunk without warning.  22 British soldiers and 18 German soldiers lost their lives.

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