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Friday, 28 October 2016

World War One - Messages in Bottles

A Bottled History of the First World War

For more on books by Ruth A Symes

To help trace the origin of a bottled message today it is possible to trace ships’ names, journeys, ports of destination and arrival, naval disasters and shipwrecks in archives and the press. Names and addresses of military personnel or civilians can be searched in military records, censuses, electoral rolls, trade and telephone directories.

(Wikimedia Commons)

Many of us have ancestors who fought in the First World War and, over the next few months and years, we will no doubt seek out their stories using official military records (available online for a small fee at all the major commercial genealogy sites); as well as personal records such as war diaries, letters and postcards sent home from the front. We are unlikely to come across anything as thrilling as a message in a bottle thrown into the sea by a young soldier or civilian in the grips of war! But many such items have in fact been found over the years and they give a dramatic and chilling insight into the desperation of the times.

The First World War involved a great deal of troop movement on water, especially across the English Channel but also in the North Sea, the Meditteranean, the Atlantic, The Black Sea, and the Baltic Sea. There was also some action in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific.  At the same time, in a world before large scale-scale commercial aviation, many ordinary civilians continued to travel by sea for business and leisure purposes between 1914 and 1918. For some servicemen and civilians, messages in bottles were a last resort, a futile cry for help when ships, or other vessels were sinking. For many others the gesture of throwing bottle into the ocean would have been a jest, a last flippant acknowledgement of the folks back home as a new adventure unfolded. Few of these depositors believed, perhaps, that such a missive would ever reach its intended recipient. Such cheery bottled messages when found many years later are a sad testimony to the youthful naivety of those that threw them into the water.

For yet other message writers, however, there was definitely an undercurrent of recognition of the painful reality of their circumstances and a desperate attempt to leave something for posterity. Some soldiers and sailors would have been unsure whether an ordinary postal service would be uncensored, available, or at all efficient when they were serving overseas. Others were all too aware of the dangers they were facing. Many hoped that, if found, their messages would be sent on to wives and girlfriends, or transcribed into local newspapers and seen by their intended recipients, even if they, the senders, were no longer around.

British Soldiers off to France

26 year old Private Thomas Hughes of the Second Durham Light Infantry. Third Army Corp Expeditionary Force, wrote a letter to his wife on the 9th September 1914 as he crossed the English Channel on his way to serve in Northern France.  Hughes put his message in a green ginger beer bottle sealed with a screw-on rubber stopper. It read:

Dear Wife, I am writing this note on this boat and dropping it into the sea just to see if it will reach you. If it does, sign this envelope on the right hand bottom corner where it says ‘receipt’. Put the date and hour of receipt and your name where it says signature and look after it well. Ta ta sweet, for the present. Your Hubby."

A covering note asked the finder to send the note on to Hughes’ wife, ‘Sir or madam, youth or maid, Would you kindly forward the enclosed letter and earn the blessing of a poor British soldier on his way to the front.’ Unfortunately by the time the bottle and message were found some 86 years later off the Essex coast by Thames fisherman, Steve Gowan, Hughes’s wife Elizabeth was long dead. And it was discovered that Hughes himself had been killed just two days after he had bestowed his bottle to the waves.

Australian Soldiers Heading for Gallipoli

During World War One, as many as 313, 814 Australian soldiers embarked for service overseas. The first of these were aboard ship as early as October 1914 and included recruits from Tasmania, Adelaide and Perth on route for Gallipoli. Some bottles deposited in the sea by these men were washed up on the shore within days and their messages posted in local newspapers and then nationwide. Since the soldiers had generally not reached the battlefield, their messages tended to be reasonably cheery accounts of life on board ship and they remained uncensored in newspapers.   

Private Thomas Brown’s message in March 1916 to his mother at Killarney, Victoria was found just a few days later on the beach at Narrawong, Victoria:

Dear Mother,
I am now writing you these few lines, and hope you get them all right. I am putting this note in this bottle, and going to throw it overboard.
We are about 50 miles from shore. We know when we get somewhere near Warrnambool. We are having pretty good weather so far. If it keeps like this the whole of the voyage we will enjoy it.
You can tell father that I am sorry I did not write to him, but I had not time for the last two or three days. It was nothing but running about everywhere getting things ready for inspection.
Well, Mother, I will close my short letter, hoping you get it all right. Remember me to father, sisters and brothers.
son Tom,
At Sea.”

(Source: Tom Brown’s letter, Portland Guardian, 20 Mar. 1916,TROVE,NLA)

Thomas Brown’s message might not have been so upbeat had he written it after his war experiences. His military record, held in the National Archives of Australia and in newspaper accounts held at the National Library of Australia, shows that he served and was wounded in France before being sent once more to the front and wounded again on 11th April 1917. He was then taken prisoner-of-war at Remicourt, interred in a German war camp at Munster Lager, expatriated to England, returned finally to Australia on the 2nd March 1919.

Passengers on the Lusitania 7th May 1915

The Lusitania was a cruise ship owned by the Cunard Steamship Line which made regular monthly trips from Liverpool to New York. It was on a return journey from New York on May 7th 1915 that the ship was torpedoed without warning off the coast of Ireland by the German submarine U-20 ostensibly because it was believed to be carrying supplies and munitions provided by America to the British. The ship reportedly sank within 18 minutes of being struck and the loss of life was devastating: 1198 died, only 760 were rescued.

Various apocryphal stories circulated about messages that had supposedly been thrown from the Lusitania just before it sank, but then in the 1930s came two more certain pieces of evidence that such desperate action had in fact indeed been taken. In 1931, a shell-encrusted bottle turned up on the beach at Husum Scheleswig, Germany, and was reported in the Aberdeen Journal of 3rd January 1931. The message was signed with the names and cabin numbers of ten passengers and recorded chillingly that the ‘Lusitania [would] sink in 10 minutes.’ The second bottle was washed up on the shore of Viareggio, Italy, two years later and was reported in the Hull Daily Mail of 28th June 1933. It contained a faint message which appeared to include the words   ‘S.O.S.’ and ‘Lusit.’

Stranded German Aviators 1916

On 31st January 1916, German aviators in Zeppelin L 19 (LZ 54) of the Kaiserliche Marine (German Imperial Navy) left an airbase in Denmark to make a bombing raid on English cities. After attacking Burton-on-Trent, Tipton, Walsall and Birchills near Birmingham, the Zeppelin tried to return to Denmark but suffered engine and radio difficulties. She eventually drifted over Holland and was brought down into the North Sea during the night of 1st-2nd February by Dutch rifle fire. The 16 airmen managed to cling to the wreckage but their cries for help went unanswered by a British steam fishing trawler The King Stephen supposedly because the captain believed that he and the nine unarmed members of his crew be overpowered by the Germans if he attempted to rescue them. Now abandoned and realising that they were probably doomed, the German airmen and their captain Odo Lowe wrote messages to their families and placed them in bottles which they released into the sea.

The remains of the Zeppelin sank within hours: there were no survivors. Lowe’s bottle of messages to his family was found by a yacht near Gothenburg, Sweden a few weeks later. Another bottle with messages from the other airmen and a last report from Lowe was discovered six months later by Swedish fishermen at Marstrand: Its final line (here translated into English) made dramatic reading: ‘2nd February 1916, towards one o'clock, will apparently be our last hour.’

British sailors recovering a failed torpedo 1916
(Wikimedia Commons Popular Science Monthly, Volume 88.)

Nautical messages from the past - preserved in glass, or even plastic, like flies in amber - are likely to keep on turning up. Since few so far have managed to survive the seas for longer than a hundred years, we can’t expect many more to emerge from our ancestors who were involved in the First World War. However, a recent collector of bottled messages in the Thames Estuary has suggested that for every 200 bottles she sees on her gathering expeditions, at least one will contain a message! They were dropped into the sea sometime by someone’s ancestors. So do keep looking.

Click here for more on books by Ruth A Symes

Extra Reading

Bullivant, Richard, Message in a Bottle: Messages of Hope, Laughter, Despair and Intrigue (Real Life Stories) Kindle Edition, Nov. 2013.

Greg King and Penny Wilson, Lusitania: Triumph, Tragedy and the End of The Edwardian Age, St Martin’s Press, 2015. fascinating blog about the messages of Australian soldiers thrown overboard in bottles in the First World War.

Hart, Peter, Gallipoli, Profile Books, 2013.

Hayward, James, Myths and Legends of the First World War, The History Press, 2005.

Parker, Nigel J. Gott Strafe England: The German Air Assault Against Great Britain 1914-1918, Helion and Company, Volume 1, 2015
This article was first published in Family Tree Magazine UK in 2016.

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