The Merchant Navy and Fishing Fleets of World War I

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Commodore Malcolm Williams, Chief Executive of the Shipwrecked Mariners’ Society, draws attention to the contribution of the fishing fleet to WW1.

On Tower Hill lies a well-kept secret. A monument listing the names of the 11,900 fishermen and merchant seafarers who lost their lives during WW1 and have no known grave but the sea. Yet the memorial has never been featured on Remembrance Sunday by the BBC, and won’t even be found in an A-Z of London.

By the end of the war nearly 1,500 trawlers and 1,400 steam drifters had been requisitioned for various tasks, particularly minesweeping and anti-submarine work. A total of 675 fishing vessels were lost. They also continued to fish!

On 15 August 1917, Her Majesty’s armed smack Nelson was hauling her nets during the morning before going to sweep for submarines. The skipper, Thomas Crisp, caught sight of a surfaced U-boat, 6,000 yards away. The U-boat began firing scoring several hits. The Nelson was holed and Crisp lost both his legs. Regardless, Crisp called for the confidential papers to be thrown overboard, and dictated a message to be sent by the ship’s four carrier pigeons. Nelson instructed his crew to abandon ship. The crew spent two days adrift but one pigeon made it to Lowestoft and they were rescued. Thomas Crisp received a posthumous VC.

From 1914-19 (mines are no respecters of dates) , the Shipwrecked Mariners’ Society supported some 51,000 sailors, Fishermen and Merchant Navy sailors and also provided assistance to widows, orphans, and aged parents for whom the loss of the only breadwinner could be devastating. We continue to provide financial support to those in need in the changed circumstance of today.

As a charity supporting fisherman and merchant seafarers, we have marked the 100th anniversary of the Royal Navy’s largest and bloodiest naval engagement of WW1, the Battle of Jutland, by producing a video drawing attention to the contribution made by merchant seafarers and fishermen to the 1914-18 conflict.

You can watch the video below. Follow us on Twitter @ShipwreckedSoc.