A Persia Mystery – Help Needed

One of the mysteries I have not yet resolved during my research into the sinking of SS Persia on 30th December 1915, is how it happened in the position reported, off the coast of Crete.

Let me explain –

SS Persia departed Valletta ‘on Tuesday 10 p.m, 27th December, bound for Bombay, taking the course from that Port suggested by the Naval Authorities’ according to a statement made later by her Chief Officer Gerald Clark. At 15 knots, she should have arrived in Port Said at about noon on 30th December. However, she was torpedoed at 1300 on that day,  only about 70 miles south east of Crete, some 400 nautical miles from the entrance to the Suez Canal. Why was she so far short of her destination at this time? Where had she been? Had she been travelling much more slowly then her capable top speed? Why? Am I missing something?

Anyone who can cast any light on this, perhaps written in a letter or diary of a survivor of the sinking, please contact me and hopefully share this important information. I hope to hear from someone soon! Please contact –

ss.persia@yahoo.com

Meanwhile, my writing has continued and at one stage reached 95,000 words. The publisher I had been working with then suggested a ‘potboiler’ version – fewer words (about 50,000) and hopefully earlier publication. It was painful work, like removing my own teeth, but after 3 months I got down to 65,000 and could cut no more. At this stage I received information about how much I would need to pay to produce the book and, once over this shock, realised  it was beyond me. I am currently looking at optional ways of publishing, but printed books cost a lot, so I may be compelled to produce e-book / kindle versions at least initially. Time will tell. Apologies to all who have helped me to get this far and may now wonder if it will ever appear. I am pressing on!

 

 

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Update

Since the Remembrance Day for SS Persia took place, pictured above, I have been continuing to collect information from many who have become like friends during the writing process and there seems still more to come.

Thanks to all the valuable input from grandchildren and great-nieces and nephews of those aboard SS Persia, I have written about 95,000 words describing their experiences during the attack by U38 that killed so many and the desperate days that followed for those who survived.

I have been in ongoing communications with a mainstream publishing company and recently enjoyed a fascinating discussion with their Chairman about the publishing year and its main events  such as international book fairs where ‘next years’ titles are sold, or not! We chatted about illustrations, copyright law and of course, my (even your!) text. He suggested that I consider two versions of the work and initially create a ‘potboiler’ (Publisher-speak for a work of modest length and page-turner style and content) versus the ‘legacy’ edition, something that researchers might turn to in future years.

I agreed to go away and look at the former version first, which will mean editing down from 95,000 to 50,000 words and keeping close to my central hypothesis describing cause and effect in earlier events that ultimately led to the sinking. This is likely to need to squeeze out much of the ‘people’ information, which would be retained for the later, larger version. I am still in decision-making mode, but see some logic in the suggestion. I am currently re-writing – first attempts at the pot-boiler style, in pursuit of a version that needs to be dramatic, but which needs people stories too.

I will let you know how I get on, but rest assured that this is my almost full-time job and I am still enjoying the challenge(s)!

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The Persia Story

Progress Report

As I have written on earlier occasions, research begets research, sometimes uncovering treasure, but often leading down blind alleys. Almost a year has passed and I am still not quite there to tell the story, or my findings on the story, in order to shine some light into a dark corner of World War 1 history. Was SS Persia a legitimate target for an attack without warning from a submerged U-boat? Below you can read a draft of author’s notes on my opening page, though it is premature to call myself an author. These are those notes –

I was first drawn to the story of the sinking of SS Persia after a visit to the Maritime Museum at Buckler’s Hard, a pleasant stroll down the bank of Beaulieu River from the world-famous National Motor Museum in England;s New Forest National Park. Both museums have been, and still are, famously hosted by succeeding Lords Montagu and their families, whose motoring heritage over the last century is easy to understand. History tells how the Honourable John Walter Edward Douglas-Scott-Montagu, when a Member of Parliament, campaigned on behalf of motoring and motorists and worked to promote the passing of the 1903 Motor Car Act, which laid the foundations of British motoring law. He also pursued his pioneering interest through a magazine he founded, “The Car Illustrated, A Journal of Travel by Land, Sea and Air”. On the death of his father in 1905, he entered the House of Lords and became 2nd Baron Montagu of Beaulieu.

John Montagu’s connection with the torpedo attack that sank SS Persia is less obvious to those who have not heard or read the story, or visited the Maritime Museum, where it quickly becomes clear from the display outlining the story of the ship and Lord Montagu. In 1915, John Montagu was a passenger on the Persia, heading for Bombay to deliver a report to the Viceroy of India, Lord Hardinge, with recommendations for modernising Indian army transport across the country, replacing mules, horses, camels and elephants with motor vehicles, encouraging and enabling the army and India’s roads to move into the twentieth century. Montagu was accompanied on the voyage by Eleanor Thornton, his personal assistant, typing the report so that it would be finished before she disembarked at Aden and returned home, while John continued to Bombay. John and Eleanor were also in a long and loving but unmarried relationship and they shared a daughter Joan, born on 5th April 1903, who had been carefully placed into adoption near her father’s estate, where he could discretely ensure that she wanted for nothing.

At the end of my first visit to the museum, I was left with many questions, most beyond the scope and remit of the excellent display. Why this ship? Why this U-boat? Why this place? Why no thought to allow passengers and crew to escape into lifeboats? Was the U-boat commander, Kapitanleutnant Max Valentiner, who would end WW1 as the third most successful U-boat commander, under pressure to sink anything and everything, enemy or neutral, that crossed his path? Was he mainly concerned with his position in the U-boat commanders’ league table of tonnage sunk? Was he aware of his government’s order to give warnings to passenger ships and if so, why did he not surface, warn the ship to stop and allow the passengers and crew to escape? Did people know enough about the growing U-boat menace to make sensible decisions on travelling or avoiding travelling by ship through the Mediterranean? Were passengers bold, blasé or did they simply have no choice? Where were the Royal Navy and the French Navy and what were they doing when SS Persia and about forty other ships were sunk in the eastern Mediterranean in December 1915? Should P&O have stopped advertising its sailing times and routes, or should it have re-routed via South Africa? Could some attacks have been prevented? Could lives have been saved? If the sinking of SS Persia was a war crime as originally claimed, why was the case never put in front of an international or any other appropriate court?

The scope of the story is far wider than John and Eleanor’s romance, embracing 500 people aboard the ship plus countless families, friends, employers and employees, and colleagues and making many widows, widowers and orphans. Why? What purpose was served?

My aims with this book are first to tell the story of SS Persia’s final voyage to a much wider audience than it has previously reached. The second is to share what I have come to believe about the causes of this tragic event and that will have to await publication!

Political decisions drove the world’s first major arms race, while complacency allowed flawed and outdated naval strategies, ignored the attack potential of submarines and undermined attempts to modernise international law. Pan-European war lust was fanned by jingoistic newspapers, generating hatred and creating circumstances in which war became inevitable. Once hostilities started, war crimes went unreported in the countries of one alliance, while being exaggerated and inflamed by the other side. Military murderers were decorated and honoured. As death tolls mounted and misinformation prospered, soldiers, sailors, and later airmen, must have found it increasingly difficult to hang on to the moral values they had learned and grown with and to avoid descent into dark acts of retribution and inhumanity. Concepts such as chivalry faded in the face of mass slaughter. Q-ship and U-boat captains were not immune from this, but on many occasions, evidence of their misdeeds remained hidden in dark, unreachable depths. Explore some of these depths with me soon.

The most shocking fact about war is that its victims and its instruments are individual human beings, and that these individual human beings are condemned by the monstrous conventions of politics to murder or be murdered in quarrels not their own, to inflict upon the innocent, and innocent themselves of any crime against their enemies, to suffer cruelties of every kind.

Aldous Huxley

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SS Persia – Centenary Remembrance

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On Wednesday 15th June 2016, almost fifty descendants and 
relations of people who died when SS Persia was torpedoed 
by U38 on 30th December 1915, gathered at Buckler's Hard 
on the bank of Beaulieu River to commemorate all those 
who died and those whose lives were irreversibly 
changed on that terrible day.

The service was conducted by Reverend John White, Parish 
Priest of Beaulieu Abbey and Saint Mary's Chapel at Buckler's 
Hard. Ralph, 4th Lord Montagu read an extract from a letter 
written from Valletta by his Grandfather, Colonel Lord 
John Montagu, telling of the sinking and the fight for 
survival in a badly damaged lifeboat which lost contact 
with the only four other lifeboats to escape the sinking.

Serving P&O Captain Alistair Clark then read Eileen Mahoney's 
poem, 'In Waters Deep' which includes the words 
'stars a constant vigil keep, for them who lie beneath the deep.'
Everyone stood to sing 'The Navy Hymn' - 'For Those in Peril on 
the Sea', accompanied by the Beaulieu Band.

The sundial memorial pictured above, made by Harriet James, was 
then unveiled by Mr Paul Ludlow, representing P&O Cruises 
and blessed by John Attenborough, Chaplain of the Port of 
Southampton, who then led prayers. After the Last Post,
and a two minute silence, Reveille was followed by wreath 
laying, led by Lord Montagu.

The words of Agnes Lees, a trainee missionary who survived 
the sinking were movingly read by a Sister of Daughters of 
the Cross, some of whom died on SS Persia.

After a final Hymn and closing prayers, those who attended 
were able to mingle and exchange information about those 
they had lost. New friendships were formed and many handshakes, 
hugs, smiles and tears.

SS Persia and all of those aboard her may be long gone, 
but they have certainly not been forgotten. 

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Centenary Commemoration – The Battle of Jutland

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Please excuse this brief diversion from the SS Persia story, but it is in a very worthy cause.

On Tuesday 31st May 2016, the Centenary of the Battle of Jutland, I was privileged to attend

a commemoration which included Frederick William Watts, my wife’s Great Uncle.

He was born on 25th July 1892 in Portsmouth and naturally enough joined the Royal Navy.

At the time of the battle he was serving on board HMS Malaya.

HMS_Malaya_jutland

She was hit eight times, taking major damage and heavy casualties. A total of 65 men died

during the battle while  others died later of their injuries. Frederick succumbed to his wounds

on 1st June 1916, exactly 100 years from the date I am writing this piece.

He left a young widow, Alice.

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Frederick is buried in Lyness Royal Navy Cemetery on the island of Hoy in the Orkneys.

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Remembrance

There will be a Remembrance service at Buckler’s Hard on 15th June 2016 and the unveiling of a permanent memorial. This will be a great opportunity for families of people who were on the SS Persia on 30th December 1915 to get together and share their memories, anecdotes, photographs, letters and documents.

I am looking forward to meeting people who are participating in my work to publish the Persia story in book form and to meeting more families on this occasion. I hope that I will be able to make the book a work of Remembrance too and see that stories about people will be the key to this. I hope to see you there.

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Finding Captain William Henry Selby Hall

Tilbury Docks

 

William Henry Selby Hall was born 13.9.1858 in Greenhithe, Kent, just across the Thames

from Tilbury Docks, from where he would later sail regularly as a P&O Captain.

He was the son of Walter Rowland Hall, RN Captain (Coastguard). He married Mary

(maiden name as yet unknown) and they had a son Charles Ottley Hall in 1891,

who died aged 21 in 1912 and was buried in Portslade, East Sussex, presumably where

Captain Hall then lived.

 

He was the Master of SS Persia taking mail and passengers on a voyage to Bombay

when it was sunk by U38 without warning on 30th December 2015. The attack was made

south east of Crete as Persia sailed from Valletta to Port Said. Over 340 people lost their lives

that day, including 45 of 63 women and 14 of 16 children aboard.  The women included

Doctors, Nurses, Missionaries, Nannies, Fiancées and Mothers.

 

U38s torpedo exploded close to the forward port furnace and boiler resulting in a second

explosion. Persia sank in five minutes.  U38’s Captain Max Valentiner became the third

most successful U-boat commander of WW1 (Tonnage sunk) and was celebrated as an ace,

winning prestigious decorations for his missions. Captain William Henry Selby Hall, like

many merchant seamen and captains, sank with his ship and into relative

obscurity. With input from everyone who knows even a little about him, his family,

homes, Merchant Navy Training Ship and subsequent career, I hope to go some way

towards rectifying this. Snippets of information are like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle –

little pictures that turn into a big picture. If you know anything about this man, please

let me know so that my book about the sinking of SS Persia will do him long-overdue justice.

 

I also believe that the family name Wheeler may be connected to him in some way, so,

among others, I hope to hear from anyone with that name who may be related to

Captain Hall.

 

I can be contacted at    ss.persia@yahoo.com and hope to hear from some of you soon!

 

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