“De­spite the in­ten­sity and reach of the war, many of its sto­ries have been largely for­got­ten”

The Mar­itime Ar­chae­ol­ogy Trust has launched a new on­line data­base shar­ing the sto­ries of more than 1,100 First World War ship­wrecks. Julie Satchell (left), head of re­search at the trust, ex­plains more

BBC History Magazine - - History Now / News - Julie Satchell is head of re­search at the Mar­itime Ar­chae­ol­ogy Trust. For more on the For­got­ten Wrecks of the First World War project, and to ac­cess the data­base, visit for­got­ten­wrecks.mar­itimearchae­ol­o­gytrust.org

What was the aim of the project?

Our key aim was to pro­vide more di­verse sto­ries about the First World War, be­yond the dom­i­nant nar­ra­tives of the western front or naval bat­tles like Jut­land. The project ex­plored the war at sea and other no less ex­tra­or­di­nary sto­ries of the war: of the ships, their crews, their com­mu­ni­ties and the vi­tal strug­gle that took place on a daily ba­sis off the south coast of Bri­tain. In or­der to do this, we in­ves­ti­gated the ar­chae­o­log­i­cal re­mains of that strug­gle – the ship­wrecks, hulks, ports, sea­plane sta­tions and jet­ties, etc.

Why is it im­por­tant to record these re­mains?

Be­tween 1914 and 1918 ship­wrecks were ‘ev­ery­day’ events. Ships were sunk by mines, tor­pe­does, shelling, ac­ci­dents and even scut­tling. We stud­ied just un­der 1,200 known sites in the project alone – these in­cluded 1,130 wrecks (610 known wrecks, 490 recorded losses and 30 post­war, re­lated losses), as well as 39 coastal sites in­clud­ing har­bours, sea­plane bases, jet­ties and piers. In­ves­ti­gat­ing these re­mains high­lights the scale of the war at sea, the in­volve­ment and ef­fect on coastal, fish­ing and mar­itime com­mu­ni­ties, and how far it im­pacted on ev­ery­one.

De­spite the in­ten­sity and reach of the war, many of its sto­ries have been largely for­got­ten. That means these ship­wrecks and ar­chae­o­log­i­cal sites are not gen­er­ally well un­der­stood by re­searchers or the pub­lic. The re­mains are a fragile ar­chae­o­log­i­cal re­source and they are of­ten grave sites, as well as her­itage and dive sites. Record­ing and re­search­ing these wrecks raises aware­ness, en­hances our un­der­stand­ing of their ar­chae­ol­ogy and helps

to pro­tect them.

What can these sites tell us about the war at sea?

The scale and va­ri­ety of First World War mar­itime ar­chae­ol­ogy re­flects the sin­gu­lar im­por­tance of the war at sea. In 1914, nearly two-thirds of the food and drink con­sumed by the Bri­tish pop­u­la­tion ar­rived by ship. Bri­tain’s mer­chant fleet kept the coun­try run­ning dur­ing the war, and ev­ery­thing nec­es­sary for that war, from troops and mu­ni­tions to ma­te­ri­als and in­tel­li­gence, moved by sea. Our study area cov­ered a large part of the Chan­nel, run­ning from Kent round to the Isles of Scilly. But it didn’t reach French wa­ters – so you can imag­ine how many more wreck­sites there would be if it were ex­tended up to the French coast or even through­out the North Sea.

What sto­ries af­fected you the most?

The sink­ing of the Mendi in 1917 – a pas­sen­ger ship with a Euro­pean and west African crew, which sank while car­ry­ing 802 men from the South African Na­tive Labour Corps (non-com­bat­ant troops) to France – is a par­tic­u­larly poignant story. Some 650 men died, of whom 607 were black South Africans. It’s one of the most im­por­tant mar­itime dis­as­ters in South African his­tory but was largely for­got­ten in Bri­tain un­til re­cently.

A 10-ru­pee note from the wreck of SS Cam­ber­well, which sank in May 1917

Div­ing on SS Alau­nia, a req­ui­si­tioned pas­sen­ger liner turned troop­ship that struck a mine in Oc­to­ber 1916

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