Following the tragic sinking of trawlers Reaper and Rambler within days of each other in late February, with the loss of local men, came the torpedoing of the hospital ship Glenart Castle in the Bristol Channel, an event as controversial today as it was on February 26, 1918.
At this stage in the Great War the German government had committed itself to a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare that had brought America into the war, tipping the balance in favour of the Allies.
The ship, with nearly 200 mainly medical staff on board, set sail in the small hours from Newport for Brest in France to pick up wounded soldiers. Witnesses reported seeing her with full lights on as befits a hospital ship.
John Hill, a local fisherman, remembered: “I saw the hospital ship with green lights all around her, around the saloon. She had her red side lights showing and mast-head light, and also another red light, which I suppose was the Red Cross light.”
At 4am, just west of Lundy Island and despite being lit up, clearly indicating a hospital ship, German U-boat UC-56, commanded by Wilhelm Kiesewetter, fired a torpedo, which struck No.3 hold. The explosion wrecked many of the lifeboats and the Glenart Castle sank, stern first, in eight minutes.
Only 32 people survived, with 162 losing their lives. On board were doctors, nurses, members of the Royal Army Medical Corps and the crew. The eight nurses perished, as did the ship’s captain.
Twenty-year-old Able Seaman George Stephenson, from North Shields, also died. George was from Bedford Terrace, eldest son of Hudson and Catherine Stephenson, and is on the Northumbria World War One database, one of nearly 4,000 casualties from the North Tyneside area. He is also commemorated on the Tower Hill Memorial in London.
The German viewpoint about the sinking of hospital ships was that they often carried fit combat soldiers to the front so were a legitimate target. The British Admiralty vehemently denied this and regarded the sinking of the Glenart Castle as a war crime.
At the end of the war Kiesewetter was arrested on his voyage back to Germany from Spain, where the UC-56 had been interned, and was imprisoned in the Tower of London. He was later released and went on to command a U-boat in the early years of the next war, at 62 the oldest to do so.
Talking of the Reaper, I had the honour last week to be invited to the wreath laying ceremony at sea by John Hastie, grandson of the Reaper’s skipper Alex Hastie, on the 100th anniversary of the sinking. It was a poignant ceremony amid the swell of the sea, two miles off the coast.
On board were relatives of some of those who foundered.
The Northumbria World War One project welcomes anyone with information on any of the casualties of the Great War from the North Tyneside area or anyone who wishes to become involved in research.
Our website is northumbriaworldwarone.co.uk or call into our office at B9 in the Linskill Centre in North Shields. It is open from 10am to 4pm, Monday to Friday, or you can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org