Centenary of introduction of merchant ship convoying in World War One
National maritime charity, the Shipwrecked Mariners’ Society, is marking the centenary of the introduction of the ocean convoying of merchant ships in World War One by launching a video detailing the history and impact of the convoy system.
By the beginning of May 1917, Britain had lost over a thousand merchant ships and 6,000 lives. It had only six weeks’ supply of food left and was facing the prospect of starvation as well as losses of goods and raw materials that could not be sustained and risked us losing the war.
The video, produced by the society, explores how convoying had been rejected by the Admiralty and Ship owners as late as February 1917 but dire circumstances forced a change of policy. Following the success of an experimental convoy from Gibraltar to Plymouth in early May, the first transatlantic convoy of 12 vessels left Hampton Roads, Virginia. With the protection provided by the Royal Navy and the United States Navy, only one ship failed to reach its destination.
In addition to food, raw materials, manufactured goods, oil, military equipment and munitions, more than one million American troops were transported across the Atlantic in convoy. It was found that merchant ship losses in convoy were ten per cent of those suffered by ships making independent passage, and the number of German submarines sunk increased.
During the First World War, the Shipwrecked Mariners’ Society assisted more than 50,000 merchant mariners, fishermen and their dependants, passengers and military personnel by providing clothing, food, accommodation and rail warrants, while also supplying financial assistance to widows, orphans and aged parents of lost mariners.
Now in its 178th year, the charity continues to support seafarers in need and last year provided assistance in over 2,000 cases of financial hardship at a cost of £1.4m.
Chief Executive of the Shipwrecked Mariners’ Society, Commodore Malcolm Williams, said: “The introduction of the convoy system was a late but vital decision which ensured the war was prosecuted to a successful conclusion and the country did not starve. It saved many lives too. This is something not a lot of people know about these days and we are hopeful our film will go some way to raising awareness of the sacrifice of our merchant seamen and the importance of convoying, without which the outcome of the war could have been very different.”
The decisive role and sacrifice of the men of the Mercantile Marine in World War One was recognised by King George V in conferring on them the title of the ‘Merchant Navy’, the fourth service.