Retro: World War One - Disaster at sea killed city man

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Retro reader Richard Hargate has told the story of a ship that sank 100 years ago during World War One with his great uncle on board.

Richard said: “Living in Halfway, my sister and I would pass by the War Memorial each day on our way to school and see Leonard’s name.

“It wasn’t until years later that my sister Lesley (now Lesley Sanders), while researching our family tree, came across this interesting but sad story of the loss of the Laurentic, the ship on which our great uncle Leonard died.”

Here he recounts what he describes as “just one story of a local lad in the Great War”.

My great uncle Leonard Hargate was a miner from Halfway near Sheffield, and joined up on January 26, 1914.

He was leaving the mine where his brothers worked, and where his father had been killed in 1906, and he joined the Royal Marine Light infantry based at Chatham for training .

On November 27 the same year he joined the ship HMS Laurentic with 50 other LMRI personnel.

The story of a ship

SS Laurentic was built by Harland & Wolff at their Belfast yard No 394 and went down the slipway on April 29, 1909.

A few months later, the same Belfast workers began construction on her famous cousin, Titanic.

Before the war Laurentic was a cruise liner with the White Star company on the Atlantic crossing. She was one of the fastest ships on that route and could reach 17 knots.

Her first brush with fame was in helping with the capture of the murderer Dr Crippen. Dr Crippen had fled on SS Montrose to Quebec with his lover disguised as a boy, having murdered his wife in England.

But he was spotted by the captain who used the new telegraph system to inform Scotland Yard. Inspector Drew gave chase on board the Laurentic, which over took the other ship and Dr Crippen was captured while disembarking.

At the outbreak of war, the Laurentic was requisitioned by the Admiralty as an armed merchant cruiser.

By November 29, 1914 as well as the ship’s crew, there were a total of 100 RMLI on board, one colonel, three sergeants and a corporal. The rest were privates, including Uncle Leonard.

On December 3, they set sail for Sierra Leone and then to Lagos where they assisted with the Cameroon Campaign. They transported native troops and general patrols.

On January 30, they returned to Liverpool, anchored at Birkenhead and disembarked German prisoners they had brought back. She then returned to Sierra Leone via Gibraltar and the Cape Verde Islands, arriving March 5.

By early August 1915 they were in Durban to refuel. From there they headed to Singapore and spent the next 10 months on patrol along with other navy ships around Rangoon and Hong Kong.

In July 1916 they sailed back to South Africa. They refuelled and took on fresh water in Cape Town before loading a quantity of gold bullion on board.

On July 24 they set sail for Halifax Nova Scotia, arriving on August 16, where they unloaded the bullion which was to pay for munitions.

They then spent two months on general patrol in the area before sailing for Bermuda, returning to Halifax with more bullion.

On November 27 they set sail for Liverpool, where they anchored at Birkenhead. The ship’s company were given two weeks leave while the ship was in dry dock.

All returned on December 22 and again the ship was loaded with bullion, bound for Canada to pay for munitions.

On December 28 she slipped anchor and set off on her last fateful voyage.

A number of men were taken ill on board, so the ship sailed into Lough Swilly, Donegal, Ireland on January 25, 1917 in order to take them off to hospital.

Just 45 minutes after leaving the Lough and just off Malin Head, the ship struck two mines laid by the German U-boat U80 and sank. It was a very cold and rough night and although many men made it to lifeboats, they had been unable to send any distress signals, so it was some time before they were rescued and some perished of the cold.

My uncle, aged only 23, was among the 350 men who lost their lives that night.

He is buried with many others in the churchyard of St Mura, Fahan on the shores of the lough.

If you are in the area, there is a pub called the Laurentic near Fahan, which has lots of information, press cuttings and pictures about the ship and her fate.