SS Arcadian sinks in the Southern Aegean in 1917 - a World War One journey
The War to end all Wars
2014 marks the centenary of World War One, with commemoration activities around the globe continuing until 2018.
It was known as the war to end all wars but nothing could have been further from the truth - we all know that now.
Millions of people from both sides lost their lives - almost a generation of youth wiped out.
George Barker - RAMC
An Ordinary Man
My grandfather, George Barker, lived a quiet life, tucked away in a small village in the north of England with his wife and son.
Times were tough. The village revolved around the cotton mills where most of the inhabitants worked. Sunday was reserved for church or chapel. The chapel for George and his family. A visit to a local town was rare and seen as an occasion.
And then the war beckoned.
April,1917 found George on board the troopship, the SS Arcadian, en-route to Alexandria, Egypt, from Salonika in Greece. The ship was escorted by a Japanese, Navy Destroyer.
26 miles north east of the Greek island of Milos, the ship was hit by a torpedo fired from a German submarine.
The Arcadian in 1915
Just a scrap of paper
A Scrap of Paper.
I can’t say I was immediately impressed with the gift – the Pocket Gospel of St John. It had belonged to my late father’s family.
I almost discarded the faded piece of yellow paper that fluttered out. I looked closer and was stunned.
Scrawled in pencil on a telegram was a chilling message –
Regret to inform you that No 104836 Pte George Barker, RAMC, is reported missing, believed drowned April 15th 1917
This was how my grandmother discovered she was a widow.
All those years later, holding the scrap of paper, the past connected with the present. Suddenly, I could sense all the anguish and despair of that time.
The telegram boy would have been a familiar figure as he delivered important news in the small Lancashire village.
I know the village well. Many years later I grew up there. I was born in the same terraced house where my grandparents once lived.
I can clearly picture the rooms, the small hallway, where my grandmother would have walked to answer the door that fateful day.
There would have been no advance warning for her. The ship was torpedoed in the southern Aegean sea. News did not travel fast in war torn 1917.
It was April, springtime, warmth in the sun, daffodils, bluebells, the fragrance of blossom, traditionally a time of hope and renewal.
I’m also reminded of T S Elliot in his poem The Waste Land – ‘April is the cruellest month, breeding Lilacs out of the dead land…’
April 1917 was certainly a cruel month.
I never knew my grandmother – I share her anguish.
All these years later, I feel my grandmother’s despair on that day, the day the boy with the telegram stopped and knocked on her door.
I try to imagine her reaction.
Did she rip open the telegram or did she procrastinate?
Maybe she wedged it on the mantelpiece, looked at it, too frightened to open it.
Did she scream in anguish?
Did she weep or was she strong and stoic?
Was she alone? Did she rush to the neighbours for support?
I’ll never know.
I do know immediately she read the words her life changed forever. A small son to support, little money, little hope for the future.
Far Away from Home
As the Arcadian sank in the southern Aegean I wonder also what my grandfather’s last thoughts were.
There's an old adage that your life flashes before you in those final moments. Did that happen to him?
Or did he ponder on the rules of war and duty and regret his role in it?
Did he join in with his comrades in the singing of hymns as he accepted his fate?
I like to imagine his last thoughts were with his family, particularly his young son who he would never see again.
Without doubt in those few precious moments he would have known the telegram was sealed
Trooper Reginald C Huggins who survived the ordeal describes the scene -
‘For a moment or two the Arcadian partly righted on her keel and then with much hissing of escaping steam and explosions from the boiler rooms, she slid for ever out of sight of human eyes, carrying with her hundreds of troops and her own crew caught like rats on the lower decks.’
The Final Moments of the Arcadian
The Imperial War Museum, London, put many of my queries into perspective.
In a photo of the Arcadian sinking, if you look closely, it’s possible to see men clambering down rope ladders into lifeboats or into the swirling sea.
I can’t help thinking, where was George when this photo was taken?
Perhaps he is one of the figures portrayed escaping into the sea. Hoping for a lifeboat and not finding one.
Was he on the deck unable to find a way to hurtle in the depths?
Or was he trapped below the decks, doomed, with no way to escape?
Wherever he was, he would have known he was breathing his last breath.
There were many survivors, from the 1,335 troops and crew, 279 lost their lives.
But George Barker was gone forever.
The Last Message
In his last correspondence home, George sent this fun postcard and a message to his small son - my father.
My Dear Little Jack,
I did not think you was an officer till I saw
this photo of you. Now little man you
must be a good boy to your mother till
dada comes again.
Love from dada to both of you. Xxxxxxxx
Regret to Inform You
(sinking of the troopship Arcadian 1917)
They say it took
six minutes to sink
tick - tick - tick - tick - tick - tick
They said she was invincible,
British flag flying,
Cannon-fodder troops en-route,
For another chance at dying.
tick - tick - tick - tick - tick.
They say some men cursed and cried,
Scrambling down rope ladders,
into an ashen, grasping, sea
tick - tick - tick - tick.
They say some soldiers stood and sang,
Abide with me...
Abide with me,
Fast falls the eventide,
Too fast, too soon...
The darkness deepens.
tick - tick - tick.
They didn’t say if you showed
courage or despair,
doomed so young, no future now,
your wife, a widow, with one son.
one final breath,
to greet your death.
tick - tick
They say that silence ruled the sea,
that took all of you and
a part of me.
No help for the helpless now,
all has failed, and comforts flee.
Just a whispering, haunting, echo.
Abide with me…
I never knew my grandmother but she left an impression on those who did. A sad lady, they said. Never got over it.
Her son, my father was suffocated within her loneliness.
Indirectly, she set the scene for my life, for the future generations.
I wonder what my grandfather would think about being googled. He’s there.
His memorial is in the Mikra cemetery in Greece and in his home village.
Lest We Forget
The Great War took over 16 million lives, military and civilian. Around 20 million were wounded.
George Barker was just one ordinary family man caught up in the horror of it all.
So many regrets.