100 Years Ago

On 4th August 1914 England declared war on Germany. It was the first ever world war and to most young men it was the chance of the adventure of a lifetime. For many thousands it was the only adventure they were to have as their young lives ended at that time. Great rallies were held to increase recruits. Boys lied about their ages so that they could join up. Friendly regiments were formed were everyone knew each other. Unfortunately no-one thought this through as when a regiment was lost the consequences in their home community was devastating. Whole families were lost; most of the men folk of villages gone never to return.

Some years ago I went to the newly opened National Memorial at Alrewas  in Staffordshire. This was a most moving place to be and I recommend it to everyone who can find the time and inclination to visit. There were memorials to many regiments and branches of the armed forces, prisoners of war, civilian services, and many others. For me the most moving was in one far corner of the site. It was here where there was a statue and behind it were several posts. The statue had two names “Shot at Dawn” and “Alone and Afraid” It depicts a blindfolded boy who looks about 16 years of age tied to a post, about to be shot!

 

Each post behind him bore the name and age of the person who was shot at dawn. Some were only 15 most under 20.

I asked why that memorial was so far away on the site and I was told that when dawn breaks that is the first place that the sun shines on.

To my knowledge only one of my relatives was lost in “The Great War” and that was my great uncle Lot. He survived the Battle of the Somme (in which 1,000,000 men died) only to be drowned on the way to Alexandra when the troopship was sunk.

Some years ago I went to the newly opened National Memorial at Alrewas  in Staffordshire. This was a most moving place to be and I recommend it to everyone who can find the time and inclination to visit. There were memorials to many regiments and branches of the armed forces, prisoners of war, civilian services, and many others. For me the most moving was in one far corner of the site. It was here where there was a statue and behind it were several posts. The statue had two names “Shot at Dawn” and “Alone and Afraid” It depicts a blindfolded boy who looks about 16 years of age tied to a post, about to be shot!

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Each post behind him bore the name and age of the person who was shot at dawn. Some were only 15 most under 20.

I asked why that memorial was so far away on the site and I was told that when dawn breaks that is the first place that the sun shines on.

To my knowledge only one of my relatives was lost in “The Great War” and that was my great uncle, Lot. He survived the Battle of the Somme (in which 1,000,000 men died) only to be drowned on the way to Alexandra when the troopship was sunk.

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Here are some facts about the Battle of the Somme (World War 1).

  • The Battle of the Somme was one of the largest and most well-known battles of World War I. It lasted from 1st July to 18th November 1916 on the banks of the Somme River, in France.
  • It was also one of the bloodiest battles of the war, or of any war before or since. An estimated 1,000,000 men were killed or wounded, including about 485,000 British and French troops.
  • The intent of the British was to attack and take control of a 24 km stretch of the River Somme. Most historians today agree that the plan was not well thought out.
  • Before the battle started, the British fired over 1,700,000 shells at the German soldiers, although many did not explode, or missed the targets completely. The German soldiers also sheltered underground.

The Battle of the Somme

  • Almost 60,000 British soldiers were killed, wounded or taken prisoner on the first day of fighting. The Germans killed many officers, having been trained to recognize how they dressed.
  • Trench warfare was common during this time. The conditions in the trenches were cramped and uncomfortable and the drinking water was sometimes collected from holes made by enemy shells.
  • The Battle of the Somme saw several different weapons being used, including mines, poisonous gas and machine guns. Some larger machine guns needed 12 men to operate them.
  • Tanks were first used during the Battle of the Somme. The first tank, known as Little Willie, was not able to drive across the trenches and could only reach speeds of about 3 km per hour.
  • When the battle had ended in mid-November, the British and French soldiers had only advanced about 8km. The battle ended partly because heavy rains made fighting too difficult.
  • Today there are dozens of cemeteries and memorials in the area around the Somme, including a memorial to all the pipers who died. Farmers still dig up pieces of barbed wire, which they call the iron harvest.

 

H.M.T. Aragon:

The HMT Aragon was originally a passenger liner built by Harland & Wolff, Ltd., Belfast, and was launched on 23 February, 1905. She was operated by the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company, Belfast, until requisitioned for use by the Royal Navy early in the war. The ship departed Marseilles, France for Malta in the company of an escort group and was carrying some 2500 bags of Christmas mail, 160 Nursing Sisters, 150 military officers, 2200 troops, plus ship’s officers and crew. The ship arrived safely in Malta and remained there for 4 days before proceeding on to Alexandria, Egypt. By all accounts the trip was uneventful and, upon arrival, the ship was allowed to enter the Port of Alexandria early on the morning of 30 December (a Sunday) but was ordered back out of the port due to either there being no berth available, or that the harbour was mined (the story varies). None-the-less, the Aragon departed the harbour and stood off approximately 10-miles from port when a submarine was sighted which then fired a torpedo. Efforts to avoid the torpedo were unsuccessful and the Aragon was hit on the after port side of the ship and immediately began sinking.

HMS Attack, which was also in the convoy, immediately came alongside the ship and took on as many personnel as was possible before being forced away from the sinking ship. As the HMS Attack stood off rescuing men in the water, she was also struck by a torpedo and sank as well.

The Aragon and the Attack were both torpedoed and sunk by the German submarine UC-34 commanded by Horst Obermuller. Total lives lost: 610 (including 6 of the nurses, 19 ships company and the Master). The ship now lies at Lat: 31.18.0X N Long: 29.48.0XE just outside of the entrance to the Alexandria Harbor in approximately 40-meters of water.

aragon

Among the 2500 others aboard, was a detachment of V.A.D. nurses, one of whom wrote an account of the sinking of the Aragon by the German coastal submarine “UC.34” in her diary (quoted from The Roses of No Mans Land, Lyn Macdonald. Macmillan. p 230-1)

Gales raged in the Mediterranean and it was days before the Aragon was able to leave her sheltered anchorage for the last short lap of the voyage to Alexandria. On the third day they sighted the coast of Egypt. The ship’s engines had stopped and she lay rocking gently ten miles offshore, waiting for the ship that would escort her to Alexandria harbour, while the rest of the convoy raced on towards Port Said………………

Suddenly there was a terrific crash and a lot of dust and bits of wood were blown up into the air over the aft well-deck…….

The V.A.D. nurses took to the lifeboats and transferred to a nearby trawler, from where they watched the tragic scene unfold.

The destroyer HMS Attack had pulled up right alongside the ship and she was taking men off as fast as she could. But the Aragon was sinking fast and as she finally started to go down, the front of the ship was right up out of the water and there were men pouring down the side into the sea; it was simply a swarm of khaki all down the side and it seemed as if it would never clear before she went altogether. We felt that all our friends were drowning before our eyes.

Just before she went down she was hit by another torpedo and then immediately afterwards the destroyer was hit. It was bad enough seeing the Aragon go, but when that happened it filled us with an even greater horror because all the survivors from Aragon were aboard. The torpedo hit her in the oil bunkers, so all the men who were thrown into the sea were swimming in a pool of oil. The tragic thing was that those who were wet, had had time to strip off their clothes on board the Destroyer and so they were naked when thrown into the sea. When they got into the oil it sickened them with the fumes and made them unconscious and it covered their bodies so that it was impossible to pull them out of the water. It was terrible to see where the ships had been, and now where there was nothing but a little floating wreckage and hundreds of swimming figures. The submarine was obviously still around and the captain of our trawler decided that it was too dangerous to risk staying there any longer. So we started back for the shore.

Of the 2,500 on board 610 died,


After “The War to End All Wars” it was only 21 years to the next World War. and since then there have been countless wars throughout the world. Will we never learn?