We probably all have visions of First Wold War soldiers ‘going over the top’ to meet almost certain death as they become target practice for enemy snipers, a futility brought home poignantly in the final episode of Blackadder Goes Forth. Perhaps, few of us, though, are aware of a similar sacrifice made by naval ratings taking to the seas in Q-Ships, but such was the fate of another of the men remembered on our war memorial, William Charles White.
Few traces of William’s civilian life remain, but his association with our village appears to have been quite brief. He had been given birth by Elizabeth, a single woman, in Wells Union Workhouse in Somerset on 27th February 1896, and was baptised there by the chaplain two months later. What then became of either of them is unknown, but it is understood that William was later brought up by the Poor Law Authorities in Newton Abbot. This would suggest a connection with the area as Unions would rarely take on the financial responsibility of an outside parish, but the nature of the link remains a mystery, the only hint being the mention of his next of kin as a Mrs Hatherleigh of Brookfield and later Wreyland: did she foster him perhaps?
By the age of 15, he had found employment at Rudge where he helped farmer, Edwin May, with the cattle, working alongside the farmer’s son, another casualty of WW1, Edwin Wilfred Wrayford May. Whatever may have been his early experiences, they were perhaps not strong enough to give him a sense of belonging or at least made him sufficiently restless to consider a life on the open seas: so, at 16, this diminutive (5’ 1’’) fresh-faced youth became a Boy 2nd class at Devonport.
Following a natural progression path, he was elevated to Boy 1st class six months later and on his 18th birthday he officially signed to the Royal Navy ranks as Ordinary Seamen: he had enlisted for a minimum of 12 years, but had barely recorded a quarter of that time when he met his fate.
His first taste of active service was aboard cruisers and battleships, and when war broke out, William was aboard HMS Cumberland, a 10,000-ton Monmouth-class armoured cruiser with fourteen 100-pounder guns, ten 12-pounders, three 3-pounder guns and two torpedo tubes. Initially, she served in West Africa where she captured ten German merchant ships in September 1914 before moving on to convoy escort duties and patrolling for German commerce raiders, or Handelskrieg as it is known in the native tongue.
However, a different kind of war was destined for William, when in the spring of 1917, already by now elevated to Able Seaman, he joined the crew of HMS Vala. This was not a conventional naval warship, rather what was known as a Q-ship, a merchant vessel, in this case an ex-collier, with the express raison d’être to attract the attention of German U-boats targeting allied shipping. The theory was that a lone merchant ship would draw the U-boat to the surface, opting to use its cannon and so saving their expensive torpedoes for greater prizes, at which point the Q-ship would drop its sides and open fire with hitherto concealed guns.
A cunning plan, as Baldrick would have put it, but one which owes a significant degree of its success to the element of surprise. The deceit seems to have worked initially, but as war wore on and U-boat commanders became wise to the subterfuge, the efficacy wore off. In 1915, six U-boats were sunk without any loss of Q-ships; the following year, the ratio was three to two; in 1917 six U-boats were sunk but so too were 18 Q-ships, including five in August alone. It was clearly a tactic that had run its course.
During the first half of 1917, HMS Vala had been involved in gun fights with five different U-boats, so not only was the Q-ship tactic becoming better known to the enemy, so too was HMS Vala’s appearance.
On 20th August 1917, she was cruising in the Atlantic approaches to the English Channel around the northern fringes of the Bay of Biscay some 120 miles south west of the Scilly Isles. There, she was spotted by UB.54 under the experienced command of Captain Egon von Werner who, on spotting six look-outs aboard HMS Vala saw through the disguise and, without surfacing, launched two torpedoes, the first striking a forward hold, the second an aft hold.
The precise sequence of subsequent events is unclear. Some reports seem to imply that most of the 43 crew went down with their ship, while other accounts record that many of the men took to lifeboats which were launched in two waves, firstly with around a dozen or so men and another with as many as 20. With the admiralty recording William’s official date of death as August 21st, they clearly believe that the men perished in their lifeboats during the ensuing hours in a worsening sea state.
It would have taken some time for news to reach Lustleigh, it always does take longer when a fate is unclear, and in November’s parish magazine that year, villagers were prepared to expect the worse when it was announced that “we fear that there can be no doubt that he has gone down with his ship”.
Who exactly, though, would have been the first to know? According to Rector Herbert Johnson, William’s next of kin known to the admiralty was the aforesaid Mrs Hatherleigh, although other naval records indicate that the relative to be notified was a sister, Mrs S.A. Sewell of Harrogate while the Commonwealth War Graves Commission record him as the brother of Mrs. Mary Rowe of Southampton. All may be true, but we are unlikely to ever know.
As well as the various memorials in the village, William is remembered alongside comrades on the Plymouth Naval Memorial which was erected specifically to commemorate those members of the Royal Navy who had no known grave, the majority having lost their lives at sea where no permanent memorial could be provided. Perhaps another memorial should be considered to acknowledge the sacrifice of the crews of the more than forty Q-ships sunk by their prey in WW1. Knowingly becoming cannon fodder takes a different sort of bravery.
William Charles White will be remembered on Monday 21st August when the Bell Ringers will sound a half-muffled peel in his honour.
Sources used include:
- Commonwealth War Graces Commission
- Great War Forum
- Ancestry & FindMyPast
- Britain’s Small Forgotten Wars
- The University of Edinburgh