The young boys lost at sea

Ephraim Stanley Cooper is commemorated on the Merchant Navy Memorial at Tower Hill, London.
Ephraim Stanley Cooper is commemorated on the Merchant Navy Memorial at Tower Hill, London.

Most of the casualties making up the toll of nearly 4,000 men and women of the modern borough of North Tyneside lost to the Great War served on land.

But there were times when the greatest losses were suffered by the crews of the merchant ships and fishing vessels who carried on sailing, despite the severe threat from enemy u-boats, mines and surface ships.

February 1918 is typical, when the armies were inactive as the winter wore on and the German forces prepared for the spring offensive. At sea, the toll was relentless and, of the 42 local men recorded as dying in the month, no less than 31 were serving in the merchant service and fishing fleets.

In the space of five days the steam trawlers Reaper and Rambler were lost, with 14 men from North Shields killed or drowned. Only two bodies were ever recovered and were buried in Preston cemetery. The remainder are remembered on the Merchant Navy Memorial at Tower Hill in London.

The age of some of these casualties may surprise readers when, by 1918, the scandal of young boy soldiers had been dealt with by the system of organised conscription. Boys would still go to sea in the merchant navy from the age of 14, on leaving school, and so it was with Ephraim Stanley Cooper, 14, who was lost when the SS Barrowmore was sunk en-route from Huelva to Port Talbot, South Wales, with a cargo of copper ore.

A former Wellesley boy, he had gone straight into the merchant navy on release from compulsory detention at that nautical training school following residence in the Union workhouse at Sunderland. Born in 1903, his short life must have had few bright spots.

SS Barrowmore was torpedoed and sunk with the loss of 25 lives, including her master, by the U-94, commanded by Kapitanleutnant Alfred Saalwachter, who would pay with his life for later alleged crimes in the Second World War.

Saalwachter’s success as a u-boat commander was honoured with the Iron Cross First Class and the Knight’s Cross of the Royal House Order of Hohenzollern with swords. He finished the war in 1918 as staff officer to the Commander of Submarines, Commodore Andreas Michaelsen.

During the Second World War he attained admiral rank, but was shot as a war criminal by the Soviet government in 1945. Following the break-up of the Soviet Union he was exonerated by a Russian court in 1994.

New volunteers are welcome to join the project. To find out more contact tommy@northumbriaworldwarone.co.uk or call into the project workroom (B9) at the Linskill Community Centre, North Shields. It is open from

10am to 4pm each weekday for enquiries and for anyone to bring information.