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Posts Tagged ‘Messina’

Last year, the nation came together to remember 100 years since 11 November 1918 when fighting ceased in Europe at the end of the First World War.  Up and down the UK, communities gathered in their local churches and at local war memorials to remember the dead of WW1 and subsequent wars.  Many, but not all, of these men are named on war memorials—and war memorials don’t always tell the full story.

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Lt-Col Henry Roscoe Beddoes in 1918 (Copyright: Stewart Minton-Beddoes)

There is always more to discover, like the life story of Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Roscoe Beddoes, who was the great grandfather of the current Chief Editor of The Economist, Zanny Minton-Beddoes. Beddoes died exactly 100 years ago on 15 January 1919 when the passenger ship he was sailing on, the Chaouia, hit a mine, laid by a German U boat, and rapidly sank.

Despite his long and distinguished military career, Beddoes was one of a handful of servicemen whose case for inclusion on the war memorial in memory of former staff of the Board of Trade was rejected by the Board of Trade War Memorial Committee, as detailed in Board of Trade War Memorial records now in the UK’s National Archives.

This Committee, which met to agree on a suitable and fitting memorial to the men previously employed by the Board of Trade and its associate departments, had to make tough choices based on their agreed criteria for inclusion and given the limited funds available for a memorial.  To date we know of at least four men whose names were deliberately not included on the final memorial. This was very much a local choice, since there were no national guidelines for whose names should be named or not on a war memorial. Like so many of the thousands of memorials across the UK, the War Memorial for the Board of Trade was funded by private subscription rather than from national funds. The committee members took their task of recognising their fallen colleagues and comrades with respect and care and based on the information they had to hand at the time.

The Board of Trade War Memorial recognises 305 men who were all deemed to have died as a direct consequence of WW1, mostly in action or of their wounds up to Armistice Day 1918 but also a handful of servicemen who died in the war’s aftermath (including one staff member who died in 1923 as a result of tuberculosis caused by the war). Beddoes’ name was judged not to warrant inclusion in the final list of the Board’s war dead since his death was not thought to be directly due to the war. The committee noted in its deliberations on whether or not to add his name that according to a letter from the War Office, that “Lt. Col. Beddoes was seconded to the Royal Air Force from 18th October 1918 and at the time of his death was on leave and was proceeding to Romania for private purposes. He cannot be considered to have died on active service”.

 

Beddoes fate in perishing not long after Armistice Day 1918 and before the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in June 1919 and also before 31 August 1921 (when Parliament officially declared the end of the World War One) was shared by many thousands of other servicemen who survived beyond the end of the war, but are not named on war memorials. These unrecorded names are largely forgotten, until relatives or local historians investigate more and make a case for someone’s name to be added to a memorial.

Given the unfortunate timing and manner of Beddoes’ death, the current Department for International Trade War Memorial Research Group was intrigued to know more, with a view to potentially adding his name to the war memorial as a casualty of war.

The group’s research has uncovered that the decision not to include Beddoes’ name on the memorial was rather harsh in the circumstances but also raised some unanswered questions.

So, who was Henry Roscoe Beddoes? Henry was born on 9 October 1865 in Shrewsbury to a distinguished local Shropshire family, who still own the Cheney Longville Castle estate. Beddoes was the youngest of five children of a doctor, William Minton Beddoes (1817–1870) and his wife Laura Seraphina Pugh (1825–1887).

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United Services College at Westwood Ho! (Source: http://www.westwardhohistory.co.uk/united-services-college/)

Henry’s father died when he was just 5 years old and, unlike his elder brothers who attended Shrewsbury School, Henry was sent to the United Services College located at Westwood Ho near Bideford in North Devon (which was also attended by the writer Rudyard Kipling and formed the location for Kipling’s stories “Stalky and Co”). The college was founded in 1874 as a private boy’s public school with the intention of preparing them for military service.

 

Henry, as the youngest son clearly had his future career and life mapped out for him and he went on to attend the Royal Military College at Sandhurst as a gentleman cadet. After graduating, he started his working life as a career soldier, first joining the 7th Hussars, which saw him sent to India in 1886 and thereafter seeing service in Ireland, South Africa, Nigeria and West Africa.

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He eventually retired from the army in 1906 and was transferred to a Reserve Battalion —the 4th Battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers.

Beddoes then turned his attention to a post-army career and was attracted to politics and the civil service. He is known to have stood unsuccessfully on two occasions for Parliament — first in the 1906 election as the Russellite Unionist candidate for Antrim East (when he won 2,145 votes and lost to the Irish Unionist candidate, James McCalmont) and then in January 1910 for St Albans as a Liberal candidate (in a seat ultimately won by the Conservative candidate Hildred Carlile).

In 1911, he was appointed under the Board of Trade Chief of Section to take charge of all Labour Exchange buildings in the UK, hence his connection to the Board of Trade.

By the beginning of WW1, aged 49, Beddoes was one of the older men at the Board of Trade to be called up for service. He was also one of the most senior ranking men, since a Lieutenant-Colonel is in command of units of up to 650 soldiers and responsible for overall military effectiveness.  Given his previous military service he was mobilised with his former reserve Battalion but was soon appointed to command the 1st/4th Battalion, East Yorkshire Regiment.

Given his social status and Army rank, his death appeared on the front page of The Times, the announcement recording that “on the 15th January, drowned at sea in the loss of the S.S. “Chonia” (sic) by mine explosion near Messina, Lt. Col. Henry Roscoe Beddoes, Royal Dublin Fusiliers, beloved husband of Marie Beddoes, The White House, Fawkham, Kent”.

According to his military file, which is accessible at The National Archives, after careful investigation, and after consultation with the Army and the RAF, neither of whom were particularly helpful in their responses, it was decided that, since Beddoes had reverted to Retired Pay and had ceased to be employed on military duties, his death could not be considered as related to his active service. It was decided not to include his name on either the Board of Trade or the Ministry of Labour War Memorials.

This decision also had implications for his widow, Marianne Pascoe Beddoes, who was left in a relatively sorry state since she was not entitled to a full war widows’ pension as designated by Royal Warrants of 1 August 1917 and 2 July 1920. The Director General of Awards, H L Davies indicated in a letter dated 26 November 1920, and addressed to Mrs Beddoes, that she might still be eligible for a pension at the ordinary rate and that “her case has been transferred to the War Office for consideration”. Ultimately Mrs Beddoes was deprived of a pension since she was assessed as having private means.  We can only imagine the impact this had on her and her young family.

On 15 January 1919, she was left a widow with four children ranging in age from 10 months to 11 years old — Edward William Minton Beddoes (born 13 March 1907), Vaughan Roscoe Minton Beddoes (born 30 July 1910), Dorothea Marie Minton Beddoes (born 15 November 1913) and Maude Eithne Minton Beddoes (born 1 March 1918). Mrs Beddoes was to find that she would have to rely on her family and on her two brothers-in-law to support herself and her four children.

This situation just have been very frustrating and disappointing for Mrs Beddoes, especially since her husband Henry Roscoe Beddoes was one of those men who were immediately called up for war service, having being mobilised on 1 August 1914, just a few days before war was declared, and being deployed to France on 1 May 1915. He was sent home injured on 6 July 1915 and was then assigned to the 9th Battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers, rejoining the British Expeditionary Forces in France on 8 October 1916, until he was wounded for a second time on 1 July 1917. After this second period of leave he was assigned to the 3rd Battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers on 1 August 1918 and posted to the 68th Divisional HQ on 19 May 1918, remaining with the Division until December 1918. During this final period of his war service he was attached to an RAF Unit at Reading where despite being 53 years old he qualified as both a pilot and observer, before being recalled to the Ministry of Labour for urgent work.  One of the notes, dated from 1937 from his military file, states however that “after his death there was considerable uncertainty as to his situation on the date, 15.1.19”.

Looking again at the circumstances of Beddoes’ death itself on 15 January 1919, it seems very harsh that his name was not included on the Board of Trade Memorial or that a pension was not granted since the circumstances of Beddoes’ death at sea was not just an unfortunate accident but a direct consequence of war. He drowned on the French passenger ship Chaonia which was travelling with 650 passengers (mainly Greek troops) from Marseilles to Athens when it was struck by a mine 50 miles off the coastline at Messina in Sicily. According to press reports at the time, “the explosion blew the fore part of the vessel into the air, and most of the passengers perished in their bunks” with the ship sinking within only 4 minutes. Barely 184 passengers and crew survived.

An intriguing letter survives, dated 17 January 1919, from the British Consulate based in Messina, just two days after the disaster has survived, written by a Constantine Brown, a fellow passenger of Beddoes on the Chaonia. This letter refers to the disaster, detailing that “on the 16th inst. at 0.15am just before entering the Straits of Messina, while walking with Beddoes on the deck, we heard an explosion on the right side of the boat, and sighted a red flame. All the windows were broken and the lights went out. We understood at once that the boat had struck a mine and hurried to our cabin to take our lifebelts, and then as everybody seemed to have lost their head, to organise something to save the many women and children on board. With the help of my electric pocket lamp I put on my belt and helped Beddoes put on his. Then, feeling that the boat was sinking rapidly I asked him to hurry; he told me to go on back while he was getting his flask with brandy. I went up and saw that the steamer was sinking rapidly; went back at once and shouted to the Colonel to speed up but had no reply”. Such is the last known whereabouts of Beddoes who sadly was not amongst the survivors.

His travelling companion continues to express his wish to try to find Beddoes’ body in order to bury it with the military honours due to his rank. He also mentions in the letter the reasons for their trip which involve an “excellent scheme about banking arrangements with the Chrissovelong Bank; and arrangement for making a kind of Army and Navy Store in Bucharest besides the timber and the negroponte businesses”.

Remarkably the story of Beddoes and the Chaonia voyage is also referenced in a book “America’s Black Sea Fleet: the U.S. Navy amidst the War and Revolution 1919 – 1923” by Robert Shenk which cites the experience of Constantine Brown as a young journalist in post WW1 Europe and describing Beddoes last moments. While broadly similar to Brown’s 1919 letter this new later version of events adds more intrigue and colour to events as follows:

“…he got a place on the old French steamer Chaonia. He boarded it in Marseilles along with several hundred other passengers, most of them Catholic priests or nuns returning to their war-interrupted work as teachers or missionaries in Syria and Lebanon. Brown shared his cabin with a just-retired British colonel who was on his way to represent a London syndicate in the Levant. Though it was winter the weather was calm as the ship entered the Straits of Messina. The two men began flirting with a young Romanian woman, suggesting they could show her the sights in Athens if she could ditch her husband for a few hours. Suddenly there was  loud report, which frightened everybody except the colonel. He announced that the ship had just hit a mine and he calmly helped Brown into a life jacket before heading below to get a whiskey flask. “It will be a good half hour before this old tub goes down”, he predicted. Before the colonel could return, though the ship had begun to founder the Romanian woman had jumped screaming over the stern, and Brown found himself stepping into the sea.”

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“The Coming of the Whirlwind 1914-1952” by Constantine Brown 

Further investigation has revealed that Beddoes’ travelling companion was an American journalist, Constantine Brown (1889–1966) who was originally from Romania. He reported on WW1 for the London Times and about the war in Russia, and was in the country at the start of the Russian Revolution in 1917, becoming one of the first American journalists to interview Lenin. Later he became Bureau Chief for the Chicago Daily News in Turkey, Paris and London and then Foreign Affairs Editor for the Washington Evening Star. He seems to have been well connected with notable people and events, to the extent that his memoirs, The Coming of the Whirlwind 1914–1952, were published in 1964.  In it he refers to at least one stage of his post-war experiences when he was captured “as a suspected spy by the Serbians”.

Could there therefore be more to the private business trip that Beddoes was making to Romania than meets the eye? Considering that this was at a time of considerable political upheaval, was Beddoes also involved in some espionage-related project? Far-fetched as it might sound, is there more to the story of Beddoes making a personal business trip or was he there for a more official purpose?  Could it be that he was on his way on secret British government business to promote British interests and influence in the Middle East? His voyage was made only six weeks after the British had withdrawn from Damascus to avoid confrontation with the French and at a time that the French were pushing for a mandate with Syria and Lebanon.

Looking again at the letter sent from the British Consulate, Brown addresses this to an unknown man rather than to the family, and says that “I have wired today asking instructions as to what I have to do. I am quite prepared to continue the journey……the question is whether you can find somebody else to take his place and who has the same prestige as he had”. Take his place, doing what? There are many questions still to answer.

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Memorial to Lt Col Henry Roscoe Beddoes in Wistanstow Church, Shropshire ((Copyright: Stewart Minton-Beddoes)

Despite missing out on inclusion on the Board of Trade War Memorial, the sacrifice of Henry Roscoe Beddoes is remembered on five other war memorials. He is remembered on the parish church and civic war memorials close to his former home in Fawkham, Kent and also in Wistanstow Church (together with his sword) located near the ancestral home of the Minton Beddoes family at Cheney Longville, Shropshire. He is also named on the Roll of Honour for The Royal Dublin Fusiliers in the Royal Military Academy Chapel at Sandhurst. Finally he is also named on the Hollybrook War Memorial located in Southampton. Tellingly, this Memorial was first opened by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in 1930 to remember almost 1,900 service men and women whose graves are not known. Many of those named, like Beddoes himself, died in ships that were mined or torpedoed.

The question is now 100 years on, whether the time is right to add the name of Henry Roscoe Beddoes and the other three ‘forgotten’ men to the Board of Trade War Memorial and to consider what other more intriguing stories remain to be uncovered about the WW1 generation.

(With thanks to Stewart Minton-Beddoes for his added information about his grandfather and to Margaret Frood for her help in preparing this blog article).

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