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The four Ulster sailors who were first to die the Great War


HMS Amphion

HMS Amphion

Lost hero: an old newspaper cutting about the death of Able Seaman Charles George McConaghy

Lost hero: an old newspaper cutting about the death of Able Seaman Charles George McConaghy

History Hub Ulster organiser Karen O'Rawe at the Queen's University, Belfast, war memorial

History Hub Ulster organiser Karen O'Rawe at the Queen's University, Belfast, war memorial


HMS Amphion

Belfast historian Karen O'Rawe tells Ivan Little how she pieced together the stories of the first to die in 1914, and of plans to remember them next month.

The names are almost part of the Ulster psyche, especially in the unionist community – the Somme, Ypres and Messines are among the Great War landmarks forever ingrained in the annals of almost unfathomable tragedy but at the same time entwined in memories of sacrifice and heroism from a hundred years ago.

HMS Amphion doesn't ring quite so many bells of recognition among students of the First World War or descendants of servicemen who gave their lives in their hundreds of thousands during the catastrophic 1914-18 conflict.

But as the centenary of the outbreak of the war approaches on Monday week, the Amphion certainly merits more than its footnote on the fringes of history.

For the Royal Navy scout cruiser and its crew were the first British casualties of the war and it's now known that four Ulstermen were among the 151 personnel who died as the vessel struck German mines in the North Sea a mere 32 hours after the outbreak of hostilities on August 4, 1914.

It was to be another two years before the bloody trench warfare in France and Belgium was to send Ulster soldiers to their early deaths in the most horrific of circumstances – carnage which is remembered every year at solemn ceremonies across Northern Ireland.

But now a recently-established group called History Hub Ulster (HHU) has started a major drive to highlight the untold story of the Amphion and the sailors who died on board the ill-fated ship.

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HHU organiser Karen O'Rawe, who recently ran the hugely successful Castleton Lanterns project in Belfast to identify soldiers whose pictures were found in the attic of a church, is the driving force behind the Amphion project.

And it all started with a simple question from the Northern Ireland WW1 Centenary Committee.

Karen says: "They wanted to know who was the first person from Northern Ireland to die in the First World War. I think they assumed it was a soldier.

"But after I started my research with the War Graves Commission and through war diaries, I discovered accounts about HMS Amphion, which sank just two days after the start of the war.

"I found out from the service records that at least 14 Irish people had been on board the active class cruiser. Luckily the Navy records weren't lost. A fire in the Four Courts in Dublin had destroyed a lot of of the records of soldiers but I was able to establish that four of the Irishmen who died on the Amphion were from the province of Ulster."

Karen's later research included trawls of the relevant census listings, marriage and birth certificates as well as newspaper archives, and she was able to build up human stories to expand on the scant details in the military records.

Her persistence paid off but she wasn't able to construct full pictures of all four of the Ulster victims, though she did uncover some of their backgrounds and their links with various parts of the province.

One of the men who died was Henry John Bennett, a 36-year-old Engine Room Artificer who came from Co Antrim, his birth certificate recording Culfeightrin, Torr Head as his birthplace.

He had been awarded a long service and good conduct medal after he had seen action in the Boer War.

The second victim that Karen discovered was Able Seaman William Clarke, the seventh son of a seventh son, from Moville in Co Donegal, who enlisted in the Navy on his 18th birthday in December 1906.

Victim number three was Petty Officer Joseph Lynch, from Bright, near Downpatrick, who was 39. His parents were from Ringaskiddy, Co Cork.

Though she wasn't able to find out much more about Bennett, Clarke and Lynch, Karen did have considerable luck with her research on the fourth Amphion victim, Able Seaman Charles George McConaghy.

And what an intriguing story she uncovered.

McConaghy was born in 9, Pacific Avenue, near the Waterworks in Belfast on July 11, 1889, and was baptised in St Patrick's Catholic Church in Donegall Street, but he and his entire family appeared to have changed their religion to Presbyterianism by the time they moved to live in Ballymena, where Charles attended the town's academy.

The reason for the McConaghys conversion to the Protestant faith isn't clear.

But, by a tragic twist of fate, one of McConaghy's sisters, Ethel, who had lived for a time in Fitzroy Avenue and later Baltic Avenue in Belfast, herself became a victim of war, also perishing at sea.

It's not known how or why but she had joined the Malaya Nursing Service and she was killed on board the SS Tanjong Pinang which was sunk apparently by a Japanese submarine in February 1942 after it had picked up survivors of another ship, the SS Kuala, off the Indonesia island of Banka. Obviously none of the bodies of the four local victims of the Amphion sinking were ever found and the only known Ulster memorial to any of them is in Limavady, where Charles McConaghy's name is recorded, presumably because his parents had lived in Dungiven.

He's also remembered on a naval memorial in Plymouth.

Karen is hoping to track down more information on all the four Amphion victims. "I have contacted all the local papers where the men were from in the hope that the names might mean something to someone and they can fill in the blanks," she explains.

The sinking of HMS Amphion – named after a twin son of Zeus from Greek mythology – has been easier to research than its victims.

Even before war was declared on August 4, 1914, the Germans had been preparing for the conflict. They had converted a holiday ferry called the Konigin Luise into an auxiliary minelayer and she set off through the North Sea to the Thames Estuary.

There she laid her mines but the Amphion and the destroyers of the 3rd Flotilla had sailed out from the port of Harwich, 80 miles north of London, towards the Heligoland Bight where they received information from a fishing boat about a suspicious steamer "throwing things off overboard".

On August 5, at 10.25pm, the Amphion spotted the heavily disguised Konigin Luise and after she ignored a warning shot across her bows, the order went out to two destroyers, the Lance and the Landrail, to give chase.

Five minutes later the Lance fired the first shots of the First World War and the Amphion, which had received awards for its gunners' marksmanship, joined in. The end result was the sinking of the German vessel which had 46 of its 100-strong crew rescued.

The celebrations on the Amphion at the sinking earned a sharp reprimand from Captain Cecil H Fox who ordered his men back to their posts and back on the alert.

But after another skirmish with a second German ship, the St Petersburg, which was taking the German ambassador Prince Lichnowsky away from England to the Hook of Holland, the Amphion set course to return to Harwich.

However, at 6.45am on August 6 she hit one of the Konigin Luise mines. A short time later the Amphion struck a second mine. The casualties were horrendous and the 151 dead included a number of German sailors who had earlier been rescued from the Konigin Luise.

At the time of their earlier rescue, the Germans' captain appeared unhappy that he hadn't gone down with his sinking ship.

A newspaper report said: "The captain is described as having been beside himself with fury. He had a revolver in his hand and threatened his men as they prepared to surrender to the rescuing ships.

"He flatly refused to give himself up and was taken by force. He could not control himself as he was taken away from Harwich to a military prison. He flung his bundle into the picket boat with a gesture of angry defiance. His men on the other hand appeared quite contented. They laughed and chattered and smoked whenever they got the chance. They betrayed an eager interest in all things English."

Their joy was to be short-lived.

An official statement from the Admiralty on the loss of the Amphion revealed they were killed in the second landmine explosion.

It read: "In the course of reconnoitring after the minelayer Konigin Luise was sunk, the Amphion struck a mine and foundered. The forepart of the ship was shattered by the explosion and practically all the loss of crew ensured from this cause.

"All not killed by the explosion were taken off by destroyers' boats before she sank. The captain, 16 officers and over 135 men were saved. Twenty German prisoners of war confined in the forepart of the ship were killed in addition."

The loss of the Amphion meant, of course, that the very ship which had helped to inflict the first German naval loss of the war became the first British naval loss of the conflict herself.

Karen O'Rawe is hoping that her History Hub Ulster organisation can do more research into the First World War and other conflicts.

A number of other war researchers who had been working on their own in the past have come together under the HHU umbrella to share their individual skills and interests in a bid to focus more attention on the war and particularly the sometimes overlooked role of the Navy.

Karen says: "It's not as big as the Army's role, that's for certain. And also most soldiers volunteered after the outbreak of war so it's seen in a different light from the Navy personnel who had enlisted long beforehand.

"But the Navy contribution was bigger than most people think because the war wasn't all fought on land."

Karen has surprised even herself with her growing interest in distant and dimly recollected wartime exploits which happened so long ago.

"It's a really fascinating subject. I'm addicted to it," says Karen, who has prepared a rolling presentation on the Amphion and eight other ships with Irish connections for the arrival today in Belfast of HMS Duncan, a state-of-the-art Type 45 destroyer which is the Royal Navy's newest vessel.

Karen's main work away from HHU involves helping to co-ordinate festivals like the Belfast Festival at Queen's, but an increasing amount of her time and energies are being devoted to her research into bygone conflicts.

And what started off as a hobby could end up as a full-time career for Karen.

She says that more and more people are becoming interested in what their ancestors did during the wars and that is especially the case in nationalist communities.

For as peace takes a firmer hold in Northern Ireland, the First World War is no longer an unspoken taboo.

Karen adds: "I've had people coming to me looking for information about their grandfathers or great-grandfathers' medals which had been hidden away in drawers in their homes for years and years."

United in the face of the enemy

As part of the United Kingdom during the First World War, Ireland found itself embroiled in the conflict when it was obliged to declare war on the Central Powers along with the other Entente Powers, such as France and Russia.

While the conflict ultimately proved to be a complex and divisive period for the country, at its outbreak most Irish people, whatever their political loyalties, were supportive of the war, and both nationalist and unionist leaders initially backed the war effort.

As a result, the British Army saw large numbers of Irish volunteers, more than 200,000, both Catholic and Protestant, serving in its ranks. Around 30,000 are estimated to have died.

We will remember them

While the world will be remembering the millions who died in the First World War over the next few weeks, services will also be held for some of the individuals featured here.

Charles McConaghy will be remembered at Ballymena's Drumhead service on August 4, while Dublin man Joseph Pierce Murphy will be remembered at a special event in Ringsend in Dublin on August 6.

As yet there is believed to be no official remembrance on the centenary of their deaths for the other three Ulster men featured on these pages.

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