Ever wondered what life was like for merchant seamen during World War One? September’s Item of the Month is the diary of G.W. Smith.
G.W. Smith was a steward aboard the RMS vessel Avon, which was requisitioned during World War One and renamed HMS Avoca. Smith’s diary begins by giving the details of the vessel he was serving aboard along with a meticulous listing of the ship’s officers and engineers. We can see from this that the Captain was Charles Handy, of the Royal Navy and that the Commander was named Miles, of the Royal Naval Reserve. Most of the listed crew appear to have come from the Royal Naval Reserve but Assistant Surgeon Weaver was a member of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, which was formed in 1903 and comprised of volunteer non-seamen.
The diary begins on 5 April 1916, whilst HMS Avoca is leaving Liverpool.
The very first entry mentions 'sighted submarine (supposed German) also British Warships' and notes an 'unknown ship torpedoed at 10pm' and so begins his experience of life at sea during the First World War. As you would expect, the war dominates many of the entries, with Smith writing at Montevideo on 21 May 1916 that 'several sailing yachts came sailing around us flying the German flag with German officers and women on board, and as they came by, they all started shouting Damn England.'
Smith frequently mentions German Submarine activity. For example, whilst off Valparaiso in October 1916 he records that, 'Captain tells crew, that the German submarines are on this route, and everyone on deck to keep sharp look-out'. On 2 December, after arriving in Chimbote, Smith writes that 'every precaution being taken' as 'a Submarine has been sighted along the coast'.
However, it was not all doom and gloom during the war years and Smith’s diary also gives us a sense of the social aspects to life at sea. The entry for 20 April 1916 mentions that 'crossing the line celebrated nearly all hands ducked, including the captain'. On 16 June 1916, Smith writes that 'Several nurses from the shore hospital came to dinner leaving around midnight'. The crew engaged in various forms of recreational activity but football appears to have been especially popular. On 21 August 1916 he writes, 'Arrived at Valparaiso 11am football party went ashore at 2pm. Match between 2 ships teams played at Via del mar Racecourse. Party returning to ship at 7.30pm. Concert on board at 8.30pm finished midnight.' They would go ashore again in November to play a match in Callao, Peru. Many other light-hearted anecdotes are recorded such as 'Captain brings a wild cat aboard' on 3 October whilst in Malta and other curious ones such as 'Left Valparaiso with British Secret Service agent aboard' on 27 October 1916.
Smith also encountered Sir Ernest Shackleton, shortly after his voyage in the James Caird. Whilst coaling off the Falkland Islands, Smith writes on 31 May 1916 that 'Sir Ernest Shackleton arrived with a few followers by whaler from St Georgia land' and on 1 June 1916 'Sir E Shackleton came aboard for meals & fresh clothes'. Smith even writes on 3 June 3 1916 that they are 'Expected to sail any minute to the rescue of Shackleton’s men left stranded on Elephant Island', though from the following entries this does not appear to have happened.
It is later mentioned in an entry for 16 September 1916 of 'news received that Shackleton had been successful in rescuing his men' and that the Captain had 'sent Telegram to Shackleton congratulating him from HMS Avoca'.
Other interesting entries include those on the challenge of coaling at sea. Smith frequently mentions the difficulty encountered, writing on 5 May 1916, 'Sea still too choppy for coaling' and 11 June 1916 'commenced at 7.30am but finished at 9am owing to rough weather causing both ships to bump into each other'.
The year of 1916 ends with Smith writing on 30 December that they leaving port after a sailing ship that 'had left a Chilean port with a German crew'. Smith’s fascinating diary continues on for another three years within which the declaration of peace is recorded, as too is Smith’s demobilisation, and there is also a mention of the ship picking up White Russian refugees in 1918.
It’s a good read!
Tara, Archives Assistant