On the 13th August 1915, the troop transport “Royal Edward” was steaming towards Mudros, carrying men and supplies for the Gallipoli campaign, when she was torpedoed by a German Submarine, the U-14 and became the first troopship to be sunk in the First World War. The sinking also had a big effect on Raunds, as she was carrying three men from the town, two of whom lost their lives.
Originally named the “Cairo”, the 11,117 ton vessel was built in 1890, at Govan, Scotland for the Egyptian Mail Steamship Co. In 1910 she was purchased, along with her sister ship, the “Heliopolis”, by Canadian Northern Steamships Ltd and they were renamed “Royal Edward” and “Royal George” respectively. The Company employed her on the Avonmouth – Quebec – Montreal route in the summer and Halifax in the winter. On the 8th April 1912 she encountered and reported an ice field in the vicinity of the area in which the RMS “Titanic” sank four days later.
With the start of the War in 1914, both ships were pressed into service as Troop Transports, initially the “Royal Edward” brought Canadian troops over to Britain. She was then anchored in Southend and used for some months to hold enemy aliens, after which she was again put into use as a troopship.
Meanwhile in early 1915 four lads from Raunds enlisted in the RAMC, Frank Spicer, Percy Watson, Sam Brayfield and Harry Hall, all were members of the St Johns Ambulance and had received their training under Dr MacKenzie of Raunds. They then went to the Wellingborough centre of the RAMC and then on to Ipswich and also Cambridge Military Hospital, before finally returning to Ipswich where they joined the East Anglian Casualty Clearing Station, and from here they were to be sent to the Dardanelles. Fate now played its part for Frank Spicer, who sprained his knee and was kept back at home for it to recover. At the time he was very unhappy at not going with his friends and according to an article, in the Kettering Leader of 17th September 1915, he considered it very bad luck.
According to Sam Brayfield’s service record they embarked on HMT “Royal Edward” at Devonport on the 30th July 1915, other sources say that it left Avonmouth on the 28th July, although it is possible that it left Avonmouth and stopped in Devonport. Commanded by Commander P. M. Watton, RNR, she was mainly carrying reinforcements for the 29th Division and numbers of RAMC personnel. It was a rough trip down to Gibraltar, but once in the Mediterranean conditions improved, with the troops getting involved in playing games. They arrived in Alexandria on the 11th of August and sailed for Gallipoli the next day. The “Royal George” was sailing a day ahead of the “Royal Edward” with men of the 4th Battalion Northamptonshire Regiment on board also bound for Gallipoli.
On the 13th of August the U14 left Bodrum and headed out to the known shipping route that troopships sailing between Alexandria and the Dardanelles used. It had a crew of 14 Commanded by Oberleutnant zur See Heino von Heimburg and was around 90 feet long and a little under 10 feet wide. The submarine had been transported over land from Bremen in Germany. Their first sighting was the “Soudan”, a British Hospital ship which they did not attack. She then spotted the “Royal Edward” which was steaming unescorted towards Mudros and closed to within a mile and at 0915 fired one torpedo, which struck the “Royal Edward” in the stern. She sank, bow up, within six minutes leaving the surface of the sea covered in wreckage and men. Just prior to the attack a lifeboat drill had been carried out and it was whilst the men were below decks restowing their kit that the attack was made, a fact that probably contributed to the high loss of life.
The survivors were picked up by the “Soudan”, two French destroyers and some trawlers. The U14 did not stay on to harass the rescue effort, but headed back to Bodrum with some technical problems.
In a letter to his mother, Mrs Hall, posted in Port Said and printed in the Kettering leader of 17th September 1915, Pte Hall described the sinking and his rescue. “I had a terrible experience, she sank in four minutes. I stayed on the ship till the water came up to the second deck and then I jumped into the sea. When she finally sank we were all drawn under by the suction and I thought I was never coming up again. But at last I did and saw a sight that I shall never forget. All sign of the ship was gone, but the sea was covered with wreckage and men yelling like mad. As soon as I came up I grabbed hold of a door that came floating by. I lay on this for about half an hour, when I was picked up by one of the ships collapseable boats that had got off somehow. We were in this boat about 3 ½ hours, when we were picked up by a Hospital Ship. Poor old Sam and Percy (Pte’s Brayfield and Watson) are missing. I didn’t see a sign of either of them after the ship was torpedoed.” He was especially close to Pte Brayfield, as they had been friends for a long time and he said that he felt “like he had lost a brother”.
He went on to say that the Hospital Ship, which was possibly the “Soudan”, landed them at Alexandria on the 15th August, where they were put in tents and waited around. From there the Medics were sent to Port Said where they were put to work in a convalescent hospital, the men had been told that they had done their bit and would not be sent on to the Dardanelles.
In a later issue of the paper on the 9th of September there is a photograph of a group of RAMC men, including Pte Hall, saying that they were part of the staff of a convalescent hospital and that all were survivors of the ‘Royal Edward’ and “had quite recovered from the unnerving experiences through which they had passed”.
The sinking of the “Royal Edward” highlighted the fact that troopships and merchantmen were operating unprotected and were vulnerable to attack. Of the 1,586 troops and crew on board there were less than 500 survivors. The Times, in an article reporting the sinking, says that the Admiralty has around one-fifth of the total British mercantile tonnage under charter and that considering the number of ships that this involves, ‘all who grasp the magnitude of our transport operations may well marvel that we have hitherto been spared such a disaster.’ The sinking of the “Royal Edward” highlighted this vulnerability and measures were taken to afford more protection to the Mercantile fleet.
Harry Hall survived the war and in 1918 was an acting Corporal still in the RAMC. Pte Spicer also survived the war.
Pte Brayfield and Pte Watson are remembered on the Helles Memorial in Turkey, along with the other men who went down with the “Royal Edward”. The Memorial stands 30 metres tall and is located on the tip of the Gallipoli Peninsular and can be seen by ships passing through the Dardanelles.
Pte Brayfield’s mother died in 1916 and on her grave in St Peters Churchyard Raunds, there is a short Memorial to her son.