This week my great-grandfather’s story was featured in The Times. He was an able bodied seaman in the Merchant Navy, and during WWI his ship was torpedoed by a German U-boat at sea. An excerpt from a letter to his wife describes the immediate aftermath of the attack and the scramble to account for all the men aboard.
Myles Octavius Francis Toale
My great-grandfather chronicled the many years he spent at sea (between 1899 and the late-1930s). His first voyage took him to Australia to pick up troops for the Boer War. He subsequently sailed to the Americas, around the Mediterranean, through the Black Sea to Odessa and up into the northern reaches of Russia in the White Sea. He left behind journals, letters, short stories, poems, hymns and drawings about his time on board – all of which reveal detail about the places he saw, the people he met and how he felt about being so far from home.
I was particularly touched by The Times’s coverage because little is known of the Merchant Navy’s contribution to the war effort. The term itself was coined only after the war by King George V in recognition of civilian merchant sailors’ contributions. My great-grandfather’s letters from this period were apologetically vague. The sailors rarely knew where they were heading, nor for what reason, until they docked in a port. But they put their lives on the line for King and country ferrying troops and supplies to and from Britain.
‘Mariners Tale’ & our collective responsibility
The 100th anniversary of the end of WWI has renewed my vigour for sharing my great-grandfather’s story. (I attempted to do this a few years ago here.) Not only is this an important personal project, but his writings give us an invaluable insight into the social history of a time which experienced rapid political, social and technological change – not unlike what we are experiencing today.
By understanding our history are we better equipped to understand the society and people we are today – and better able to contextualise the decisions we make about our future. This is both personal and collective. In saying ‘Lest we forget’ we honour those that have gone before us and make a collective commitment to learning from our past.