The War Memorial at Clevedon outside Auckland, New Zealand records a forgotten event overlooked in all the official war histories recording New Zealand’s participation in WW1. Like the memorials in nearly every town in NZ, the names of local men and sometimes women who were killed in action, died of wounds or disease overseas and after returning home, or died whilst training in the armed forces in NZ are proudly remembered.
To the casual observer, the Clevedon WW1 memorial is no different however at the bottom of the list of remembered is an entry that stands out:
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) database provides little help with confirming the identity of this person. This is consistent with the historical treatment of New Zealanders who served in the Mercantile Marine during WW1. My experience with the CWGC database, as it relates to Merchant Navy casualties, is that the detail of nearly every New Zealander recorded is either incorrect or incomplete. NZ did not have many casualties when compared to the NZEF for instance. There were at least 38 casualties in total with about half of these being from the Aparima.
The CWGC database returns 16 entries for “W Williams” with one of UK Nationality being a cadet from the Aparima. The Auckland Weekly News also confirms that there was an Auckland cadet named W. Williams who drowned aboard Aparima. Cadet W H Williams R.N.T.S. name on the Clevedon War Memorial and the cadet listed on the CWGC database (as below) are one and the same:
Nationality: United Kingdom
Regiment: Mercantile Marine
Unit Text: “Aparima” (London)
Date of Death: 19/11/1917
Casualty type: Commonwealth War Dead
Cemetery: Tower Hill Memorial
References relating to Clevedon confirm that W H Williams was a local lad. He is listed on the Clevedon School Roll of Honour and his name is recorded on a memorial plaque inside All Souls Anglican Church, Clevedon. A search of the index of the Clevedon School Roll revealed only one person with the initials “W.H.” namely William Harry Williams (born 16/06/1898 and son of Mrs Phyllis Hannah Williams who was the postmistress at Clevedon Post Office).
19 November 1917
The 5704 gross ton steel twin-screw steamer Aparima was built by William Denny & Bros, Dumarton and launched in 1902. During WW1 she was under charter to the Admiralty from its owners Union Steam Ship Company Limited (U.S.S.) as a troopship. Under the command of Captain J.E. Macdonald she made four voyages with New Zealand troops to Suez and two to the United Kingdom between February 1915 and May 1917. Following the death of Captain Macdonald in October 1916, Captain Gerald F Doorly took command of the Aparima. She was carrying some thirty cadets under the U.S.S.’s officer training scheme at the time. Captain Doorly had a notable career being awarded the Polar Medal (bronze, no bar) as an officer aboard “Morning” when she was a relief ship for Scott’s first expedition to the Antarctic. As a Master, he had served on a number of U.S.S. ships including the Navua which was also used as a WW1 troopship.
After completing the northbound voyage as HMNZT 76 transporting the 22nd Reinforcements of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force, the Aparima was requisitioned by the British Ministry of Transport to load a cargo of wool at New Zealand ports for London. After discharging this cargo in London, she proceeded to a Welsh port for coaling.
During the voyage the Radio Officer picked up warning of a reported sighting of an enemy submarine on the French Coast. Doorly figured that having been sighted, the submarine would get across the English Channel as quickly as possible and he therefore needed to clear the area without delay. Aparima had a top speed of 12 knots – not that quick and in fact too slow to keep in touch with a normal troopship convoy which is why it was finally requisitioned for cargo duties . With zig zagging (a defensive manoeuvre) Aparima was not able to distance itself much from the English Channel and in fact would only reach the Isle of Wight by midnight of that day. Doorly was quite anxious. His instructions were to sail as close to land as possible but the area in question was littered with wrecks and the zig zag course didn’t enable accurate reckoning of position. The recollections of the voyage from this point are provided by Captain Doorly.
It was 12.52 am on November 19, 1917 and as Doorly was examining the chart “a terrific crash hurled me against the chart room door … The ship had been shaken violently from stem to stern and the derrick lift blocks clattered aloft against the steel masts. ‘Torpedo, sir!’ shouted the Second, as he dashed across the bridge and swung the engine-room telegraph handles to ‘Stop’. ‘Aft, there – the stern’s blown off, sir!’ ‘Oh Lord – the poor boys’ (a comment relating to the cadets whose sleeping quarters were located in the stern of the vessel). Up went the bows and down went the stern amidst a roar of rushing water.”
The crew abandoned ship with many taking to the boats and others jumping over the side – Doorly jumped. After floating for some time he was eventually picked up by one of the boats. There were 26 aboard one lifeboat and 17 aboard a gig. They rowed around looking for remaining members of the crew of 110 when they saw a bright blue flare. They moved quickly towards it. On reaching the flare location they discovered a raft with the figure of a naked boy gleaming. It was Tommy Bevan (Thomas Ewart Bevan) the youngest of the 30 officer cadets on board. He told his story which is recalled here to provide some understanding of the event.
“I was asleep,” he said, “and something hurled me out of my bunk into the sea, I thought. But in a moment I knew I was still in what was left of our cabin, because as I swirled round and round in water I bumped against bunks and bulkhead. My head was under water all the time, but I didn’t become unconscious. Then I felt the deck overhead pressing me down, and the water dragging me up. All of a sudden I was sucked up that ten-foot ventilator in the centre of our cabin deck-head, and shot clean out of the cowl. I landed on something hard. It seems a wonderful thing, but it was on that raft; it must have slid off the boat deck and hit against the ventilator just as the stern began to sink. I lost my cloths coming up through the narrow shaft – they were striped off me. After the ship went down under me I managed to unscrew the brass cap of the provision tank, grabbed a signal light, and set it off.”
It became apparent that the other after lifeboats had been lowered into the water fully manned. The suction caused by the rapidly sinking ship kept them pinned against the ship’s side and they were capsized by their own davits which came down on their inner gunwale and turned them over.
The loss of life was tragic. Fifty-six of a total compliment of 110 were lost. The most pathetic feature of the tragedy was the loss of seventeen of the cadets. Being neither officers nor seaman they received no pay, yet they willingly ran the same risks.
Officer Cadet William Harry Williams was a New Zealand WW1 casualty. His WW1 medal entitlement was British War Medal and Mercantile Marine Medal and they were sent to his next of kin as was the bronze Memorial Plaque and scroll. He is correctly remembered on the Clevedon War Memorial and hopefully CWGC will follow suit and accurately record his name and details, as well as those of his shipmates.
- All Souls Anglican Church Cemetery transcription by Mrs Shona Earnest, NZGS. April 1975.
- Atchison, Muriel K. Clevedon District Schools Centenary 1859 – 1959, Clevedon School, 1960.
- Auckland Weekly News.
- British Vessels Lost at Sea 1914 – 1918, HMSO reprinted 1979.
- Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Memorial Register 39 – Mercantile Marine Memorial Tower Hill, London (Parts 1 – 8), 1928.
- Doorly, Gerald S. In The Wake. Robertson & Mullens, Melbourne, 1936.
- National Archives of New Zealand M13/428.
- New Zealand Herald.
- Poulsom, Neville W. The White Ribbon – a medallic record of British Polar Exploration, Poulsom, England, 1968.
- The Daily Telegraph, Napier.
- Waters, Sydney D. Union Line – A short history of the Union Steam Ship Company of New Zealand Limited 1875-1951, Coulls Somerville Wilkie Limited, Wellington.
© 2018 P.R.Lascelles