by Richard Taylor
THE silver British War Medals
and bronze Victory Medals were the everyday awards of the First World War.
Both were issued in almost countless numbers n
nearly seven million of the silver war medal alone n
but lack of rarity does not always mean lack of a story behind these
earned by Royal Naval Reserve deckhand Alexander James Innes, who died
when his trawler struck a mine off Boulogne on 17 June 1917, prove the point. Behind them lies a tale of
hazardous minesweeping operations in the Channel and a gallant rescue bid.
Twenty-one-year-old Innes, who
hailed from the small fishing village of
Portknockie in Banffshire, served under a spirited skipper, Alexander
Geddes, another Scot who had dashed back from his new home in New Zealand
to volunteer his services as soon as war broke out in 1914. In his
fifties, he was too old, he was told, for a commission, but he was quickly
given command of a minesweeper with the warrant officer’s rank of skipper.
As skipper of the 310-ton
former Hull trawler, the seven-year-old
Fraser, he soon carved a name for himself but he, too, lost his
life when his ship went down. Capt Taprell Dorling, in his 1935 book Swept Channels, quotes Capt
Vansittart Howard, captain of the trawler patrol at Dover: “He was a bold
and fearless sweeper. He had done such good work I recommended him for
promotion to Chief Skipper.”
held a master’s Foreign Going certificate and documents at Public Record
Office show that Capt Howard had in fact applied for a commission for
him. Only if this failed would the captain have pressed for Geddes to
have been made chief skipper.
All that, however, was brought
to an end by events on 17 June 1917. At
about 4am the Fraser, then
in a position Lat 50.45' N, Long 1.31.30 E, was mined while in company
with another minesweeping trawler, the Ben Gulvain, commanded by
Skipper Alexander McLeod. The two vessels had already swept the entrances
at Boulogne, the main route for all troop movements from England, and were
on their way to sweep what was known as the Ridge when a mine was
sighted. The Fraser,
however, was destroyed by another mine which had been lurking unseen below
the surface. Four of her crew were saved by the Ben Gulvain, but 13 officers
and ratings were killed by the explosion.
A Court of Enquiry was held on
21 June, when survivors were fit to give evidence. Skpr McLeod, from the Ben Gulvain, said that when
the first mine was spotted on the surface, both his vessel and the Fraser slipped sweeps and
prepared to open fire.
“The Fraser started firing when
there was a great explosion. When we saw it was the Fraser which was blown up, we
at once put out our boat for rescue work, which we carried out to the best
of our ability, rescuing four of the men that was all we could see
afloat. We handed the survivors over to the French vessel Marguarete to be landed at
In his report written
immediately after the sinking, he recorded: “We afterwards found the
skipper’s body among the wreckage and took it ashore. We did not see any
sign of the mine which we had seen at first after saving the men, although
we looked around everywhere, so we dropped a dann buoy as near as we could
to westward of where the ship was blown up.”
of the Fraser’s mast was
still showing above water, but it was covered by the tide before McLeod
and his men could mark it properly.
“Everything possible has been
done that we could do,” he added. The four men he rescued would no doubt
say “Amen” to that.
Among them was Ordinary
Telegraphist Jack Oswald Lea, serving in the Royal Naval Volunteer
Reserve. He told the Court of Enquiry that he had been watch-keeping in
the silent cabinet when disaster struck, so he saw little of what
happened. Alexander Innes had no chance to tell his story, nor did the
Fraser’s second-in-command Alexander Colvin, from Levenwick in the
Shetlands, or Engineman James Weedon, from Byker, Newcastle, both of whom died in the explosion.
the 27-year-old son of Gilbert and Ann Colvin, had married Ann Mouat on 28 January 1915. Forty-year-old Weedon
was the eldest in a family of three, the children of a bespoke tailor who
had had a small gentlemen's outfitters business in Aberdeen. His mother
was a music teacher and the children were all born in Aberdeen, although
sadly they were orphaned before Weedon was 14 years old. Both Colvin’s
and Weedon’s names are recorded on the Scottish National War Memorial at
Edinburgh Castle, together with Innes.
The minesweeping work on which
they had been engaged was one of the most difficult and dangerous duties
performed by British seaman n
and their work was vital. Boulogne, where the Fraser came to grief, had
become a bustling British base with huge supply and depot camps. Adm Sir
Reginald Bacon recalled in his two-volume The Dover Patrol 1915-17
that two trawlers were stationed there for sweeping the entrances at
daylight each morning. In 1916 alone, German submarines laid an estimated
60 mines off Boulogne, as well as 212 off Dover and hundreds elsewhere.
But, wrote Sir Reginald, who commanded the Dover Patrol, over 5,600,000
troops crossed the Channel “without an incident to a single man”.
Unrestricted submarine warfare
reached its height in 1917. Taprell Dorling had this to say of the
minesweepers in the period in which the Fraser was sunk: “Probably no
section of the Navy... had a greater strain placed on her personnel than
had the minesweepers during April and the months which immediately
After the Fraser was blown up,
and in the midst of a minefield and in dangerously shallow water, Skipper
McLeod sent away his mate and four hands in one of the Ben Gulvain’s boats no fewer
than three times in a bid to rescue men from the water and to mark the
site of the disaster. As a result of this determined action, McLeod was
awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. It was, however, typical of the
spirit shown by the men of the trawler service.
Of all war duties at sea,
minesweeping in an unprotected trawler was without doubt the most
harrowing and dangerous. Many fishermen, drafted into the Navy’s trawler
reserve, paid for this valuable work with their lives in two world wars.
They deserve to be remembered.