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April 20th 1917 - Copy of letter from Wilfred Brown Constable to his uncle, Harry Brown Constable

20th April 1917
Correspondence From
Wilfred Brown Constable
Correspondence To
Harry Brown Constable
Relationship to Letter Addressee
Text of Letter


‘Ere this reaches you, you will have received my cable I hope saying that I am safe and well, although I believe both our cables and letter are being held up pending the official publication of the torpedoing of our transport, the Cameronia.  I do not think it will matter if I give you some particulars of the incident, as you will not receive this letter until after the publication of the news, of that I am fairly certain, and so no harm can be done, as I do not intend to criticise in any way the actions of others, but rather to give you a bald account of what happened, and of what happened to me in particular.

We left Marseilles in the early hours of Friday April 13th – an unlucky date, but both of which I hoped would be counteracted by the fact that it was my birthday, a fact too that I did not realise till well on into the afternoon when I was playing Bridge.  I happen to be possessed of rather a vivid imagination, and rather than hang about the ship picturing to myself what would happen if the ship were struck, I found it a good thing to keep my mind occupied the whole day by playing Bridge and this I did, commencing immediately after breakfast and continuing right up till midnight.

We had had two days really pleasant voyage, and except that we carried with us, or wore, our lifebelts wherever we went.  Such things as submarines and torpedoes had almost been forgotten.  We had a trusty little destroyer on either side of us, in which everyone placed implicit trust, the weather was fine (probably to our misfortune), and life was progressing very favourably.  We had only another two and a half days to Port Said, and then the danger would be over.  But at half past five on Sunday April 15th they got us, and there’s no mistaking when you’re hit.  It’s the sort of noise one never forgets too.  There is no large rumble like a land explosion.  Just a slight staggering from the impact, a noise like a lot of breaking glass, which was probably a genuine breaking of windows and plate, the sudden realisation of what has happened, a grabbing of one’s lifebelt, and at first a rush for the door.  Then someone shouts out “Steady there – no panic, there’s no hurry” and you suddenly realise that you have got to face it quietly, particularly before the men, and you go calmly to your best station, wherever it may be.  I happened to be officer in charge of a large boat on the port deck, which was supposed to be lowered by the ship’s crew after the first lot of boats had been lowered.  The first lot of boats got away comparatively safely, a few capsized, and one had the bottom of it blown out by a rifle.  But somehow or other the men who knew how to lower the second lot of boats had got into the first lot, and apparently left us to carry on ourselves as best we could.  We had had no boat drill, and none of us were sailors.  The boats were huge clumsy things, at least five feet wider than the davits, and so impossible to launch without swinging them round at an angle, and too, they were an immense weight.  Of about twenty of these huge boats only about five or six were successfully launched, and one or two capsized.

I stayed with mine almost up to the end, trying to direct operations, of which neither I nor anyone else knew anything, cursing the men one minute who tried to clamber in – kicking out those who managed to jump in when I wasn’t looking, and generally shouting out to them that if only they would be patient they would be perfectly safe.  Poor chaps we never launched and I hope none of them were drowned.  But we did our best.  And all this time she was gradually settling down in the water.  One of the destroyers came to the ship’s side and took a lot of men off directly and when she moved away, the other destroyer came to the other side and took more men off, and it was while this was going on that the Captain signalled from the ship for us to give up trying to launch our boat, and to try and get on to the destroyer.  So we went across but there was a large crowd waiting, and while I was waiting the destroyer moved away, lest she should make a target for another torpedo.  So then I thought to myself that it was time to make tracks on my own, in case the old boat went down – thinking too that the destroyers would not come alongside again, which one of them did a few minutes before she sank and took off the last few on the deck, including the Captain and the CO of the troops.  In the meantime, however, I had spied a small raft floating past the ship, and thought that was my only chance.  I cannot swim more than ten yards, but I had my life belt on and so I took the chance.  The raft was some 40 yards away, and I had to get to it before it floated past, as there was quite a fair current running.  I rather pride myself that I had the presence of mind to calculate my direction and speed in order to get to it in time.  All fear was gone, and had been from the moment the ship was hit.  Realisation was preferable to and pleasanter than the nightmare of imagination.  So I climbed down the old ship’s side and dived in, struggling and fighting to get to the raft in time before it got past me.  Half way, I was about blown, and thought it was all UP, but I rested for a second and changed my direction.  Finally I got to it, and hung on for a few minutes to get my breath, after which I clambered aboard, and sat there panting like a dog.  And there I sat for about an hour, perfectly confident that I would be picked up, sooner or later, and taking an occasional pull at my flask, which I had with me.  I drifted about 300 yards behind the old ship, and watched her go down, bow first, propeller straight in the air, with no list either to port or starboard.  Presently a destroyer passed me, threw me a life belt and hauled me aboard.  I was taken into some warm quarters, took my wet clothes off, and put on a pair of sailor’s trousers and a cardigan.  We were terrifically crowded, there being close on a 1000 of us on board, the accommodation being barely enough for the crew of 80, let alone survivors from a wreck.  And then started another nightmare.  All night long we tore round and round in a circle, staying near the boats until more help arrived, imagining any moment that we might be hit again.  For one moment just before dark they thought that they had spotted her, and out banged the guns, ad for those of us below this was rather unpleasant as we thought we had been hit.  At two in the morning the first relief ship arrived, and then we started on our trip of 150 miles to Malta, and as luck would have it we struck dirty weather, and dirty weather in a destroyer is by no means pleasant.  Everyone nearly was sick, and altogether it was most unpleasant.  But everything comes to an end, and at 10 o’clock on the Monday morning we steamed into Malta, all as cheery as ever now that the experience was over.

We were put into ambulances and taken to different hospitals and put to bed.  Before leaving the ship I gathered my clothes together only to find that some kind soul had relieved my pockets of their entire contents, so that I landed with absolutely nothing but what I stood in, tunic trousers, shirt, shoes and one sock!  Also my Sam Browne belt which I was glad to save and which after much polishing is none the worse for the wetting.  I think we all slept for close on 24 hours, and the next day we were told that we might get £10 from the paymaster to go on with, and that afternoon we invaded the town and bought a few necessaries of clothing.  £10 does not go far when one has no clothes at all and at present I have only 15/- left.  I hope myself that we are not sent back, as it means the whole business over again, here we are 2½ days from Port Said, and being here we might as well make a rush for it and once there we are comparatively safe.

For the rest I am very well and quite recovered, though just a little bit nervy.  Everyone has been exceedingly kind to us from the governor downward, and this island is by no means a bad place in which to spend an idle week or two.  In fact one is hardly conscious here of the war.  Food seems fairly plentiful, prices are moderate, often lower than England, and the weather is delightful.  Altogether life is quite pleasant and I am thankful to be alive.

Letter Images
Type of Correspondence
4 typed sheets of notepaper enclosed in a letter of 4th May 1917 from Mela Brown Constable to her fiancée, Cyril Sladden
Location of Document
Imperial War Museum
Record Office Reference