A son of England

Louis Raemakers - Burial of Private Walker 1915The Burial of Private Walker, by Louis Raemakers, 1916

In the wake of the terrible events in Paris on 13th November, and with all the other tragedies in the modern world, it may seem self-indulgent, to say to least, to write about another terrible event from a century ago.   In this case, however, I think there may be a wider point to be made about war, loss and memory.

At around 12.30 pm on Wednesday, 17th November, HM Hospital Ship Anglia was sunk by a mine off Folkestone in Kent. The ship was carrying 385 wounded servicemen, besides medical and nursing staff and the crew. At least one hundred and thirty-four people died, many of them wounded from the battlefields in France and Belgium, but also including one of the nurses.

The Anglia was one of 13 British hospital ships lost in the First World War. It was a former Holyhead ferry that had been taken into government service and converted to serve as a hospital ship.   The mine that the Anglia hit had been laid shortly before by a German submarine, UC-5.

In a War full of horrors, there is something especially awful at the thought of a shipload of wounded men being sunk.   The details of the sinking, the courage shown by the nurses who struggled to get the wounded men into lifebelts, the bravery of the rescuers – one of the rescue ships was itself sunk by a mine – have been retold by others elsewhere, and do not need to be repeated here (1). However, what really brought the tragedy of the Anglia home to me was the story of one of its victims, Joseph Walker.

Joe Walker was a few weeks short of his 25th birthday when he died. He was the youngest of four brothers, and was born at Pirton in North Hertfordshire in 1890. Joe enlisted in the army in early September 1914, a few weeks after the outbreak of war. He joined the 8th Battalion of the Bedfordshire Regiment, but did not go overseas for almost a year (2).

In the autumn of 1915 his unit was pitched into a great battle at Loos in Belgium, but Joe caught trench foot. Trench foot is a hideous condition caused by the prolonged exposure of the feet to damp or wet conditions. Left untreated, it can lead to gangrene. This obviously happened to Joe, as both his legs had to be amputated at a military hospital in France.   This is why he was aboard the Anglia, on his way home to England.

One of the nurses must have got a lifebelt on Joe as the ship sank. Sadly, it did not save his life, but it ensured that his body stayed afloat for nearly two months. On 11 January 1916 his remains were washed up on the shore at West Kapelle in the Netherlands.

The Netherlands was neutral during the War, and the discovery of his body attracted some attention in the press. He was interred in the churchyard at West Kapelle shortly afterwards, and the Amsterdam newspaper De Telegraaf gave the following account of the burial (English translation):

THE BURIAL OF PRIVATE WALKER

 ON September 9, 1914, Joseph Walker enlisted for the duration of the war; on January 11, 1916, the sea bore his dead body to the dyke at West Kapelle. This afternoon, at 1 p. m., while the northwest wind whistled over Walcheren, the English soldier was buried in the churchyard of West Kapelle.

First the vice-consul, in the name of England, spread the British flag over him who for England had sacrificed his young life. Four men of West Kapelle carried the coffin outside and placed it at the foot of the tower, that old gray giant, which has witnessed so much world’s woe, here opposite the sea. It was a simple, but touching ceremony.

“Man that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live. . . . He cometh forth like a flower and is cut down.” Thus spoke the voice of the minister and the wind carried his words, and the wind played with the flag of England, the flag that flies over all seas, in Flanders, in France, in the Balkans, in Egypt, as the symbol of threatened freedom the flag whose folds here covered a fallen warrior.

And in the roaring storm we went our way. There was he carried, the soldier come to rest, and the flag fluttered in the wind and wrapped itself round that son of England. Then the coffin sank into the ground and the hearts of us, the departing witnesses, were sore. Earth fell on it, and the preacher said: “Earth to earth, dust to dust.”

As the newspaper piece suggests, there was sympathy for the Allied cause in Holland.   One of those present at West Kapelle church was the internationally-famous Dutch cartoonist Louis Raemakers.   Appalled by effects of the German invasion of Belgium, Raemakers became fervently anti-German, producing hundred of cartoons that scathingly satirised German militarism and the nature of the war itself. He drew a sketch of the scene as Joe Walker was buried (above).

Joseph Walker was my great-uncle. He died decades before I was born, but what makes his death so poignant to me is that his three brothers, including my grandfather, all lived into the 1960s. I knew them as a child. My grandfather had also been a soldier on the Western Front.  He would never talk about the Great War, and this was probably one reason why Joe was seldom mentioned at home.

I learned the basic details of Joe’s death and the loss of the Anglia many years ago, but it was not until 2008 that I read some detailed research on the events surrounding the wreck and the sufferings of those on board.  The fact that I could connect Joe with people I had known, made his terrible death much more personal. It left me shaken to think that a close relative had endured such agonies. The long lives of my grandfather and his other brothers are also measures of just how much this young man lost on 17th November 1915.

The loss of lives in war, particularly young lives, can cast a long shadow.  What shadows will stretch into the future from Syria, Paris and all the other atrocities of modern times?

Je suis Paris

(1)      S McGreal, The War on Hospital Ships 1914-1918, Barnsley 2008.

(2)      I owe the details of Joe’s service and the recovery of his body to the researches and kindness of Mr Steve Fuller and his colleagues, who have built up the remarkable website www.bedfordregiment.org.uk, devoted to the story of the regiment’s soldiers during the First World War.

(3)      Raemakers’ Cartoons, Vol. 2, London 1916, pp. 212-13.

Notes: Joe was later reburied in the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery at Vlissingen, in the Netherlands.

The UK Ministry of Defence is currently being lobbied to list the wreck of the Anglia as a war grave under the Protection of Military Remains Act. The remains of the ship were revealed by a sidescan sonar survey in 2014: details can be seen at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-kent-29690020

There is also a piece about the Anglia on Historic England’s Wreck of the Week site:

https://thewreckoftheweek.wordpress.com/2015/11/17/no-94-hmhs-anglia/

Text (C) Ian Friel 2015