Lest we forget? The Merchant Navy in the First World War


Dr Chris Ware


What do we remember in this year which marks the centennial of the outbreak of the First World War, a lost generation struggling in the mud of the Western Front?

Perhaps the battle of Jutland 1916, more deadly to reputations of the commanders than the enemy; however, how many think of the comings and goings of trade, and the merchant service in general; it will be remember albeit by a few specialist historians, yet without it, the Western Front would have crumbled, not just because of the lack of men from around the Colonies and Dominions, but because arms, ammunition and food, circulated the globe by sea.

Only in 1915, and then again 1917, when Germany used the U-boats to attack merchant shipping would it come out from hiding in plain sight.  No one diminishes the toll that war on land, took, wherever in the world it might be, yet without the silent and omnipresent merchant marine many if not most of those who served in far off lands, or the Western Front, would not even have got there let alone been equipped to fight or feed and watered, they were reliant on the true expression of British sea power, the Merchant Navy.



6th June 1944 remembered by Dr Chris Ware



With all of the statistics quoted, 6th June 1944 was a personal journey for each soldier, sailor and airman involved.  The 50th Division (Northumbrian) was tasked with assaulting Gold Beach. The center of the sector was named jig, itself split into two between jig Green and jig Red sectors.

At 07:26 as the tide was at the flood the first wave came ashore, with the infantry and Royal Marine Commandoes there were three Field Companies of Royal Engineers and amongst them a 21 old Sapper who had been called up in 1942, he had been stationed at Catterick and then Woodbridge. As his landing craft neared the shore he stepped off the ramp and disappeared into the swell up to his neck. Carrying his rifle above his head he waded ashore to be greeted by the German static defences. Once ashore he, and his comrades had to wait whilst Naval gunfire cleared the way, including part of Gold Beach HMS Warspite going into rapid fire with her 15 inch guns over open sights.

He would take part in assault on Caen and the Falaise gap, and be present at Nijmegen and the withdrawal from Arnhem. In all the years that I knew him my father spoke perhaps twice about these experiences, it was matter of fact; he got cold and wet, he never spoke of fear and of whether he might not have survived, death was only mentioned once, having witnessed the onslaught at Falaise, and this shortly before he died.

Having studied history for the last thirty some years as an historian I still find it hard to comprehend what he did and how over time he simply put it behind him, a distant memory, almost as if it were another person, of such is history made.