“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
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