Gallipoli: The West Norfolk men who died en route

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The 100th anniversary of the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign of the First World War has been marked in the past week at home and in Turkey.

But far less well remembered is one tragedy that left many families across West Norfolk mourning the loss of fathers and sons.

No Caption ABCDE ANL-150430-110443001

No Caption ABCDE ANL-150430-110443001

It was four months after the initial invasion on Friday, August 13, 1915 as all but 18 of 300 former Royal Norfolk Regiment men, who had transferred to the Essex Regiment, died.

They were on board the Royal Edward, a transport ship destined for Gallipoli in a contingent of 1,400 soldiers.

At 9.20 the ship, steaming across the Aegean Sea, was struck by a torpedo. It sank in under three minutes and more than 800 drowned.

Why were they in the Essex Regiment that day?

Ernest Jarvis ANL-150430-110636001

Ernest Jarvis ANL-150430-110636001

It is known that several belonged to the Royal Norfolk’s 3rd (Special Reserve) Battalion. A biography of one private who drowned says that this battalion was ‘practically debarred from going abroad’. Its task was to ‘accept thousands of recruits, equip and train them and as soon as the men showed promise to draft them off to other regiments’.

Some undoubtedly transferred to the Essex Regiment to see action.

One was Pte George Stanley Ashby, aged 22, of Friars Street, Lynn, whose mother had remarried.

Others from Lynn to transfer included was Pte Herbert Fake, 22, of 19 Eastgate, a member of the Salvation Army Band, and Pte Reginald Wallis, of Southgate Street.

In his case, Army records show that his last letter home was posted at the Greek port of Alexandria, less than 24 hours before he died.

But it is not so clear why Charles James Jarvis, of Sparrow Hall Cottage, Titchwell, transferred.

“He joined the Royal Norfolk’s to get more money,” believed his son, Ernest, who died aged 94 in 1996 and who was then living at Brancaster.

Mr Jarvis senior was 45 and had a wife and nine children to support. His son remembers he signed-on because of the ‘grinding poverty’ of earning 13/- (65p) a week working at Manor Farm, Titchwell.

Army wages would have seemed like a bountiful harvest for this agricultural labourer. The Army’s family allowances alone came to 12/6d (62 1/2p), only 6d (2 1/2p) less than his farm wage. On top of this he also had his pay of 1/- (5p) a day.

Ernest Jarvis was only 13 when his father travelled to Norwich to enlist in February 1915. He still remembers how he walked half way from Titchwell to Docking railway station with his father at the end of his last home leave in April, waving goodbye at Field House Farm, not knowing he would never see him again.

The day after the sinking of the Royal Edward, Saturday, was Mrs. Helen Jarvis’s birthday. It was also the day she received the fateful telegram, handwritten at Titchwell post-office.

It simply read: “Missing, believed drowned.”

Many other families across Norfolk received similar telegrams but it was not until the issue of the Lynn News, dated September 4, when a full list of those drowned was published on page 67, that the public realised the extent of the tragedy.

The men were assembling on deck for a foot inspection when the torpedo struck. One contemporary account from Peter Liddle’s book Men of Gallipoli says that an AT Fraser, of the Border Regiment, was sitting in a deckchair on the starboard side of the afterdeck when suddenly ‘dozens of men ran past him from port to starboard. The explosion came before he had time to ask what was the matter’.

Fraser is quoted as follows: “The ship had no escort and we had not been ordered to have our lifebelts with us. The hundreds on deck ran below to get their lifebelts and hundreds below would have met them on the way up.

“I shared a cabin accessible from the deck I was on and I raced there to get my life-belt and ran to my life-boat station which was on the starboard side.”

He said: “Already the ship was listing and this prevented our boat from being lowered so we were ordered to jump for it. I saw no panic, but of course one could imagine what was happening on the inside stairs.”

Those hundreds in the bowels of the ship, struggling to reach the deck or their lifebelts had no chance. The boat heeled over and disappeared beneath the waves within two and a half minutes.

Now all that is left are their names on memorials such as the one at Cape Helles, on the Gallipoli Peninsula, and on countless others around Norfolk.