The seven days commencing May 15, 1917, were marked by a number of significant events, not least the need to take action to protect merchant shipping from the depredations of the enemy’s submarine fleet, which was sinking or severely damaging an unsustainable tonnage of British and neutral shipping on the approaches to the UK – or any other destination if the vessel was deemed to be assisting the Allied war effort.
Losses that week – 20 ships with a total of more than 80,000 gross registered tons – among them was the SS Mordenwood (Middlesbrough) with 21 men lost.
Mordenwood’s crew included Frank Axel Rodman, 48, of Eldson Street, North Shields. He was an Able Seaman with a family at home. Married in 1902, he had four children aged six to 14. Born in Hammarland, Ahvenanmaa, Finnland, on October 11, 1869, he had married in North Shields. Like many Europeans he settled here in North Shields, taking British citizenship. He was lost when SS Mordenwood was torpedoed and sunk by the Austrian submarine KUK U29, 90 miles SE of Cape Matapan, Greece.
The Austrian Navy posed a significant threat in the Adriatic Sea and the wider Mediterranean. That week 14 British minesweepers – HM Drifters – were sunk in a single action. These requisitioned civilian fishing vessels were crewed by volunteers many of whom were fishermen, who found themselves miles from home ports, fishing for mines rather than their usual catch.
Those shipping losses threatened the very continuation of the war and were a contributory argument supporting the decision to launch the Third Battle of Ypres in July, 1917 – the savage and bloody campaign that came to be known as Passchendaele.
However, that benighted Belgian village was only an objective for the first 24 hours of the 120 days’ campaign, which aimed to sweep through the German lines, swing west and seize the enemy u-boat facilities on the Belgium coast at Zeebrugge.
The campaign would fail and end only a few miles forward of its starting point at a huge cost in casualties.
In May, 1917, the introduction of a convoy system to protect the movement of merchant shipping was decided on with the formation of an Admiralty Convoy Committee.
Our new ally, the United States, sent a flotilla of Torpedo Boat Destroyers across the Atlantic to aid in protecting shipping in the Western Approaches off Ireland and they would contribute significant naval forces to the Allied effort until the end of the war.
The losses of ships would be stemmed by the introduction of the convoy system and it is a mystery why this method of protecting unarmed shipping was ignored for so long. Convoys had been used in previous conflicts – the Spanish Armada for instance.
New volunteers are welcome to join the project – the commitment of time is entirely at your discretion. To find out more contact: email@example.com or call into the workroom at Linskill. The project workroom (Room B9) at Linskill Community Centre, North Shields, is open from 10am to 4pm each weekday for enquiries and information about relatives lost in the war. The Memorial Garden is open for public visits during the opening hours of the centre, 8am to 5pm daily.