Lost with all hands in war’s first winter

IN WAR AND PEACE ... the Viknor, whose loss was one of the biggest local maritime disasters of the Great War. Below, leading fireman Bartholomew Logan left five children. Bottom, the grave of three unidentified Viknor men on the island of Colonsay.
IN WAR AND PEACE ... the Viknor, whose loss was one of the biggest local maritime disasters of the Great War. Below, leading fireman Bartholomew Logan left five children. Bottom, the grave of three unidentified Viknor men on the island of Colonsay.

THEY were scenes a century ago this week that had seldom been seen before in Shields, and that drove home to this seafaring community of ours what the cost of war could be.

Before the outbreak of hostilities six months earlier, the ship Viking, with her smart lines and raked bow, had plied a cheerful summer trade from the Tyne to the fjords of Norway.

But now she was the Viknor, her new name under her new controllers, the Admiralty, and she was operating as an armed merchant cruiser.

And she was missing.

As families of the dozens of local men aboard her gathered at the Mill Dam for news, the effect on them of the announcement that she had been given up as lost was harrowing to observe.

“Painful scenes were witnessed as the worst became known,” wrote one commentator.

HMS Viknor, of the 10th Cruiser Squadron, it was concluded, had sunk in the North Atlantic, north-west of Ireland, with the loss of the entire ship’s complement of 22 officers and 273 ratings, most of whom were Royal Naval Reserve (RNR) ratings.

At least 52 of the men were from the towns and villages that now comprise South Tyneside.

“The loss of the Viknor was the worst maritime disaster to befall the area during the Great War. We owe it to these men to tell their tale,” says Jarrow man Peter Hoy, who is building a huge database of borough men who served in the First World War, and who has researched the stories of many of the Viknor’s local casualties.

Unforgiving as the North Atlantic was then, and remains, only the body of one of those 52 was ever recovered, to allow a proper funeral.

The 5,386-ton Viknor had been built at Govan in 1888, as the Atrato, for the Royal Mail Steam Packet Co. In 1912, she was bought by the Viking Cruising Company, who renamed her.

When war broke out in the summer of 1914, she was swiftly taken over by the Admiralty – so swiftly that she was forced to abandon a pleasure trip to Norway and return to the Tyne.

She subsequently lay at Hebburn, while it was debated whether she should be turned over the United States government, to take refugees, whom the outbreak of war had stranded in Europe, back to the US.

In the event, three days after Christmas 1914 saw her depart the Tyne on naval patrol.

What happened subsequently has never been established. Was she simply overwhelmed by the heavy seas which, during that week in January 1915, were crashing onto the Atlantic coast of Ireland?

Or is as thought is more likely, did she strike a mine?

Whatever happened when she sank on January 13 off the coast of County Donegal, it was so sudden that there was no distress signal.

Over subsequent days, bodies began to wash up on the Irish coast and, eventually, even in the Hebrides.

Seven men, six of them unidentifiable, were buried in the small cemetery on Rathlin Island in Northern Ireland.

The bodies of a further three were washed ashore on the Hebridean island of Colonsay.

For the vast majority of the Viknor’s crew, however, there is no known grave. They are commemorated on the naval memorial at Plymouth.

Of the 52 South Tyneside men aboard her, the body of only one was recovered and identified.

He was greaser Lewis Ogle, who was able to be named from his tattoos, and who is buried at Larne in Northern Ireland.

He had married Mary Jane Hill in 1902 and the couple lived at Lions Lane in Hebburn.

Peter has also only been able to put a face to one of the victims, leading fireman Bartholomew Logan, whose photograph appeared in the Shields Gazette.

Born in 1880, he was the husband of Margaret Logan (née Bolam) of 1 Forest Hill in Shields, who he had married in 1900. The couple had five children.

He is commemorated on the St. Bede’s Church roll of honour and was also commemorated on the now-lost Holy Trinity Church roll of honour at High Shields.

Says Peter: “Margaret outlived her husband by more than 50 years, and his name appears on her headstone in Harton Cemetery.”

Two Jarrow men who died on the Viknor were brothers-in-law James Adam and John William Sayers. They are commemorated together on a headstone in Jarrow Cemetery.

James, 30, lived with his wife, Amy, in Hibernian Road in Jarrow. Before the war, he had worked as a plater for Palmer’s shipbuilders. He is commemorated on the Palmer’s Cenotaph in Jarrow, and on the roll of honour of the town’s St Paul’s Church.

His brother-in-law, John, was born in Chester-le Street. He lived with his wife, Alice, in Ellison Street in Jarrow.

He was 39 at the time of his death and had six children.

He is also commemorated on the St Paul’s roll of honour.