I've have been occupying myself with (among other things) a digital bundle of old letters – one of my favourite things. These letters are rather more personal than my usual though; they are from my great-grandfather to his sister and were sent during the middle of the First World War, between May 1915 and July 1916. They are almost invariably signed off "Your Bro, Alex", which makes me smile.
I was helped in my quest to follow his footsteps abroad by the extremely handy 1915 Merchant Navy Records project, a searchable database of digitised Merchant Navy crew lists hosted by the National Archives and the National Maritime Museum in London. Using this database I was able to find him on four different ships – Hydaspes, followed by a very brief stint on Sachem, and then two consecutive trips on Turcoman (Dominion Line). On these he sailed through North Atlantic routes, calling at ports in Canada, Ireland and England.
He joined the S. S. Parisian in late December 1915. A Leyland Line vessel, Parisian was bound for Alexandria. This would be his first time going so far east, and he was very enthusiastic about it. It would also be his first Christmas outside the United States.
Parisian was carrying mules (bound, I assume, for war service) and the trip east it seems was uneventful. By Boxing Day he was in Alexandria harbour, soaking up the sun and the (to him) completely new culture of Egypt. Having gone "from the farm to the sea" (as my grandmother later put it) he thought Egypt was worth travelling through the war zone to get to. He thoroughly enjoyed shore time in Alexandria, abandoning his plan to visit Cairo in favour of staying put. He rang in the New Year with many others at a dinner at the Majestic Hotel (the very hotel where novelist EM Forster had established himself on arriving in Alexandria only a month earlier).* The city was thronging with soldiers and sailors, Egypt being a key staging post for campaigns in the Eastern Mediterranean.
While he was in "Alex", disaster struck. S. S. Persia, a commercial passenger ship run by the Peninsular and Oriental (P&O) line, was torpedoed in the waters between Crete and Alexandria. Hundreds of people drowned; the ship sank quickly when the boiler exploded as a result of the hit. What survivors there were floated in lifeboats on the open water for over a day before rescue. They were brought to Alexandria, where my great-grandfather saw them land. They were mainly coatless and hatless he observed (and very probably cold).
He writes almost breezily about this tragedy, but reading between the lines I think the danger of his choice of sea over land rather haunted him. The Parisian had followed exactly the same route as the Persia, less than a week earlier, so what happened to its passengers could very well have happened to him. Enemy submarines, he wrote, "don't bother us but wait for the women and children."
By the beginning of February 1916 he was back in the US, but not for long. He re-joined the Parisian for another trip to the Mediterranean via Gibraltar, expecting to stop again at Alexandria. Going by my great grandfather's letters, by this point in the war the Parisian was fitted with guns for ports east of Gibraltar (moving from SS to HMS), and was at the beck and call of the Royal Navy. Before heading out he was full of anticipation for the journey, writing "This is a very fine trip and the submarines and sea raiders only add a little excitement to the thing." Planning ahead for his sojourn in Egypt, he anticipated buying "curios" (as many troops stationed in Egypt did) to bring back as presents.
But Egypt was not to be on this voyage. Parisian instead headed for Salonika (Thessaloniki) in Greece, another key port in the war's Mediterranean theatre. When he arrived, the Salonika campaign was ongoing. He wrote, "I am in my glory now getting around where something is going on." Unfortunately I have no idea what he got up to at Salonika, but an article on his exploits published in a local newspaper on his return suggests that he spent some time walking around the city. (By the time he was in Salonika, a temporary museum for antiquities found during war trenching had been set up in the White Tower on the harbour, but it wasn't open to the public so it's highly unlikely that he saw it.)
A short time back in the US and he was back at sea on board Parisian once more. The few letters I have from this period are very sketchy in detail. It seems clear the ship was on active service in mid-late May through July 1916, and my great-grandfather was wary of the censor. The last letter in my bundle is from July 1916, written en route back to the US. Frustratingly, in his last sentence he mentions going to Cairo and Algiers. He saw the Pyramids at Giza just outside of Cairo, which he observed were "perfectly grand".
I don't know whether this was his last trip on the Parisian – I suspect not as he seems to have found a ship with a route he liked. At any rate, sometime after the United States entered the war in 1917 he joined the US Army Medical Corps and began a thirty-year career as an army medical man. It's been fascinating to dive into what remains of his correspondence from his first years as a qualified doctor during wartime. I only wish there were more.
Shapland, A. (Ed.). 2018. Archaeology Behind the Battle Lines. London: Routledge.
*Thanks to my father for flagging up the Majestic's importance!