March 31, 1916

Ashbourne had its own hero lauded this week in March 1915 – Captain Thomas Erskine Wardle – officer in charge of the converted cruise ship RMS Alcantara.

“The whole country – the whole of the British Empire are loud in their praise of Captain T E Wardle, RN, who, with his gallant men of the armed merchantman the Alcantara, sank the Greif a well-equipped and well-provisioned German raider,” trumpeted the Ashbourne Telegraph.

As the paper pointed out, although the Alcantara was lost too, it had sunk a dangerous foreign vessel. Captain Wardle, son of Mrs Wardle of Mayfield Hall, Ashbourne, the paper said should be ‘justly proud’.

Captain Wardle was reported to have been among the last to leave the ship and watched it sink while in the water. He sought safety on a raft before being picked up by one of the Alcantara’s boats and then a light cruiser.

On return to England he had been received by the King.

In what the Telegraph describes as the most accurate description of the sinking of the Greif and loss of the Alcantara, the Scotsman’s special correspondent wrote: “Both ships fought to a finish and both are now on the sea floor, shattered utterly. But the honours are decidedly with the British Navy. To Germany there remains neither ship nor crew. To the British Navy there remains the greater part of the crew which fought out the grim struggle and to our total of German naval prisoners of war there has been added a contingent of about 120 men, mercifully drawn from the water of the North Sea whilst a large number may have drowned.”

The detail of the engagement on February 29 is lengthy, but employs the, detailed, colourful language of the journalist, the war reporter, famously employed by the Times’ correspondent William Howard Russell’s in his account of the Charge of the Light Brigade 60 years earlier

“A rousing cheer went up as the first shot went smashing into the hull and the crew of the auxiliary cruiser appear to have entered into the fight with that wild delight that was recorded of the crews in the battle of the Long Forties.”

The raider, which had been disguised as a merchant ship under the flag of a neutral country, was shattered in many places by the bombardment from the Alcantara with the upper decks reduced to a tangle of distorted ironworks and smoke.

“Fore and aft the decks were torn, and gaping holes were showing in the hull,” continued the report.

The writer detailed how the German wireless operator was jamming signals so the Alcantara was unable call for assistance. Eventually the wireless room took a direct hit.

“It seemed as if she would never sink,” said an eyewitness. “We didn’t miss her with anything, Shot after shot went smashing into her but sink she wouldn’t, we were knocking her and her crew into little bits.”

In the end both ships sank below the waves, but the British Auxilliary ships arrived just in time: “From the sea, British and Germans were gathered, wounded, scathless, drowning and dead, they were gleaned without thought of nationality.”

Captain Wardle’s brother, Major Russell Wardle, had been killed in action on January 2.

There was an Ashbourne link in a scandalous court case reported on the back page of the Telegraph this week in 1916.

A report of a court hearing in Shrewsbury involved a ‘fashionable lady’ whose name was listed on the charge sheet as Vera Irene Wyeham Newte and whose address was given as the New Inn Hotel, Tissington, Ashbourne, Derbyshire.

The case, brought under the Aliens Restriction Order, charged her with giving false information when she checked into a hotel as ‘Mrs Keane’.

She denied she was a German baroness, but admitted that, as a journalist and novelist she had written under the name ‘Baroness’. It was suggested by the prosecution that her powerful car could be fitted with a wireless installation to transmit signals to the enemy.

Her solicitor said: “It was unfortunate that her maiden name was Rasch as it might lead people to assume that she was of German origin.” He said, however, that the family had lived in England for 60 or 70 years and had married into English families and been educated in England.

The accused had run away from home at the age of 18 and married Wyeham-Newte, a well-known author and playwright, but they had separated.

“The lady was a person of considerable private means and was able to keep her own motor car. She came to Shrewsbury with a man named Keane, and registered in his name not because she wanted to spy, but because otherwise she would not have been allowed to stay with him at the hotel,” the court was told. The magistrate imposed a fine of £20.

Private George Hill, who had been killed at Gallipoli while serving with the 6th Lincolnshire Regiment was featured among six servicemen in the Ashbourne Telegraph’s weekly Portrait Gallery. The son of Mr and Mrs John Hill of Derby Old Road, Ashbourne, was drafted out to Gallipoli in June of 1915. He had been reported missing in August, although confirmation of his death did not reach his parents until February 1916. The others were:

  • Sergeant Henry Maitland Webster of the 1st Grenadier Guards, son of Mr and Mrs Webster of Sturston Dairy, who served with the regiment from 1904 to 1911 rejoined at the outbreak of war and had been serving in France since February 1915.
  • Trooper Thomas Folwell of the Derbyshire Imperial Yeomanry, whose parents lived in Mayfield Road, Ashbourne, was said to be serving in Egypt, one of four brothers serving ‘with the colours’.
  • Lance Corporal HG Holbrook, whose parents lived in Station Street, was serving in Motor Transport, having gone to France with the 78th Convoy in December 1914.
  • Private TJ Swindell of the 8th Canadian regiment had been wounded in fighting at Festubert, but had recovered.
  • Also injured was Private Bert Mee, who had been close to the explosion which killed nine members of the Ashbourne Territorials in 1915.

Alfred Hill, an Ashbourne man who lived in Compton appeared in court under the Military Service Act as an absentee. The court heard that when challenged by police Hill had said: “I’m not going, the King has done nothing for me.”

A nasty accident at Mayfield Mill was reported. Cotton Spinner William Harrison had become entangled in the machinery.

“Before he could be extricated he was so badly crushed that he received severe internal injuries,” the paper stated.

“He was conveyed home on a stretcher and attended by Dr Hollick, who on examination found no bones were broken.”

There was no mention of Harrison – who was said to be “well advanced in years” and had worked at the mill all his life – receiving any treatment for his injuries, although the report commented: “It is to be hoped he will soon recover from the very severe injuries which he has received.”

The severely damaged ferry Sussex Image: Wikipedia

The severely damaged ferry Sussex
Image: Wikipedia

Unusually the Ashbourne Telegraph carried several columns of national news including the sinking of the British mail boat Sussex, which had been torpedoed in the English Channel with more than 300 on board.

“Unfortunately the explosion and slight panic resulted in some lives being lost, ” read the report which had clearly been updated in chronological order, later estimating the death toll at 100.

Passengers were rescued by destroyers and patrol boats who took the majority of passengers to Boulogne, with others taken to safety in England. Only a small proportion of the people on board were said to be British nationals, others, included two prominent American journalists and buyers for American drapers en route to Paris.

Many lives were lost as passengers abandoned the ship in a lifeboat which capsized.

There was an eyewitness account from Edward Marshall of the New York Sun: “The boat seemed to make a good deal of water, which must have been due to the bad condition of the boat as I saw no sea break over her. She was very low in the water as there were so many people in her, and there seemed a good deal of excitement, people constantly changing places.

“The boat suddenly went over, throwing everyone into the sea. I shall never forget the moan that came from those people as they realised that that boat was capsizing …. I have never heard so painful a sound before.”

  • My fellow researcher and De Montfort University colleague John Dilley is conducting a similar real-time project with the Market Harborough Advertiser. Check out his Newspapers and the Great Warblog
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One Response to March 31, 1916

  1. Gerald says:

    Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.


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