With the outbreak of world one war the royal mail moved its home port to Newport, South Wales. However the Brittish government was in dire need of battle ships to strengthen their naval force. Many ships were converted from simply postal delivery vessels into war ready troop carrying ships. One of these ships was the Aragon The Aragon built in harland and wolf in Belfast was 9’588 tons and could carry 306 first class 66 second class and 632 third class passengers. It was launched on the 23rd of Febuary 1905.
The following information was gathered from an unsigned letter written by an officer of the Aragon to a Mr. John William Hannay the father of a VAD on board the Aragon on her way to serve in palestine and Egypt. For two weeks the Aragon laid at anchor in the shelter of the harbour at Marseilles. Every day they would await sailing orders. At last they recieved orders and the ship, set sail. It set of in company with another transporter ship called the ‘Nile’ and also with an escort of destroyers. On board there was 160 nursing sisters, 150 military officers, 2200 troops and the ships own officers and crew. In total there was 2700 poeople on board the Aragon.
One of these men was my great grand uncle Thomas Cassin who was an Irish man and inlisted as a British solider. Along with the thousands of people on board ready to serve there was also 2500 bags of Christmas destined for Egypt. From Marseilles they set sail to Malta in safety. However There was some fierce weather and the sea became quite heavy. Many became sick. Miss Hannay the VAD nurse being sick for just one day. They arrived at the windy bay in Malta on the 23rd of December where they remained for four days until the 27th.
They spent their Christmass holidays here in safety. On the fourth day they set out to sail again still in the company of the NIle and a fresh escort of destroyers. There were three destroyers in number, two of which were Japanese and the other British. They arrived near their destination, Alexandria Egypt, on the 30th of December in the morning. The port was just becoming visible to the naked eye on the horizion. Everyone was very excited to reach shore and every vantage point on the boat was filled with eager passengers looking on ward at the port.
Many had packed their luggage and were already attired for disembarkation. It was heard that many were congradulating themselves on a safe voyage. The Aragon with the British destroyer ‘Attack’ was entering the channel that leads to the port. They were already past the first buoy which indicated entrance into the channel. At this point a wireless message was intercepted from trawlers in the channels that there were mines further on. The Attack, being the senior ship, imediately signalled to the Aragon to follow them as they turned seawards.
The trawelers which were there to direct the ships through the channel were doing the same and retreating. The Aragon had to keep well away from the buoy that they had already passed by when entering the port. Unkown to both the Aragon and the Attack there was a German submarine lurking in the depths of the waters right beside the buoy. It was unable to fire before because of the close proximity of the ship, if they did they would have endangered their own submarine. However now that the Aragon was turning seawards, she presented a perfect target for the Germans who took full advantage.
The officers of the Aragon on duty on the bridge saw the periscope of the submarine and at the next instant the wake of a torpedo which was heading straight for the ship. In a desperate effort for surrvival the passengers and crew tried to turn the ship to avoid the torpedo but this was to no avail as the ship was quite slow. The explosion was a dull crashing blast and the ship shuddered violently. An officer who was on duty at the time was covered in glass as all the windows on the boat shattered. In the next instant the ship became aware to the fact that they had all been dreading.
Everyone on board was at their sations in record time, orders were obeyed with precision. The first order given was the rescue of every sister. They were lowered into the rescue boats before doing anything else. This only took a few minutes and was carried out without a hitch. The boats they got on were the best in the ship and in a position to afford greatest possible facility for getting off. The Aragon sent a call for assitance to the shore and recieved a reply within seconds. By the time the sisters ships had got clear, the ship had taken a heavy list to starboard and had sunk deep astern.
It remained like this for a few minutes. The Destroyer took this time to run up along side and the remaing passengers were ordered to get off. They managed to do this by attaching ropes from the Aragon to the Destoryer Attack. On other parts of the ship troops were ordered to ‘take water’ as the rafts were let loose. In just moments the sea was full of struggling men. Many of the officers and troops were trying to get the remaining life boats into the water but they had become jammed by the list. The crew could now feel her sinking fast.
It had become impossible to stand upon the deck. It was about fifteen minutes after the inicial explosion. The commander gave the order ‘every man for himself! ‘. There was a rush to get over the side of the boat but nowhere was there any sign of panic. The discipline was astounding as the troops clung on to each other, singing and cheering until they reached the water level. Then they broke into struggling masses. Then it was heard “she’s going” and the Aragon began to sink rapidly astern. The Destroyer was still at rescue work but only one rope remained.
One officer was trying to cross when they finally cut the remaining rope. He was thrown into the water between the two ships. He sank like a stone because his full uniform restricted him to swim. However he still managed to get to the surface and make his way onto the Destroyer. The Attack was full of both injured and dying. The Aragon was sinking rapidly, one could hear a roar of rushing water and smashing of internal fittings. Dozens of men still clung to the decks and at the last moment jumping into the water rather than be sucked under along with the ship.
Many of their efforts for survial were futile as with the height that the bow had been raised because the ship had turned whilst it was sinking, they died on impact with the water. With a great surge, a roar of rushing water and the explosion of the ships boilers the Aragon was no more and it went beneath the surface. There was now silence over the men. The place where the ship once was, was now replaced by struggling men clinging to upturned boats and wreckage. The Destroyer was now alive with activity.
As they attempted to move ahead to the safety of the harbour with all their injured on board, one man shouted and screamed and next instant there was a terrible explosion. The Destroyer was hit by another torpedo. The middle of the Destroyer had been smashed sending men flying into the air. OIl, fumes, splinters of wood and steel were sent in every direction. She broke into two halves and began to sink immedietly. Both the bow and the stern rising into the air as the middle(wher the torpedo hit) sank rapidly. Everyone jumped for the water. It was chaos around the remains of the destroyer.
The only hope left for survival was two trawlers which were near at hand. Except for the trawlers the only rescue boats were the rafts from the Aragon which were already on their way to shore. Only wreckage and struggling men remained in the water, everything else had disappeared. However the rafts did an ecellent job, bringing hundreads to the trawlers near by. Other trawlers became visable on the horizon as the rushed at full speed towars the wreckage. However as the port was 80 miles away it took them some time to arrive and many men perished in this time.
The temperature of the water was very cold and this contributed to some of the deaths. It took the trawlers an hour to reach the men but without them few would have survived. The VAD sisters who were the first to leave the Aragon arrived on shore at arround 2:30pm. It wasnt untill 4:30pm when the trawlers with the wounded and survivours arrived. The people on the shore were ready for them when they arrived and the wounded were rushed to hospital. In conclusion the Aragon was torpedoed 8 miles from Alexandria Egypt at 11am on Sunday December 30th 1917 and sank in twenty minutes.
The escort for the Aragon the British Destroyer The Attack was also torpedoed about 5 minutes later. It took between 5 to 7 minutes to sink. The other transport ship ‘The Nile’ with two Japanese destroyer escorts left the Aragon at day break, the day of the attack. They also came under submarine attack but managed to reach their destination safely. My great uncle unfortunately perished that day. It was hard for an Irish man to join the Brittish army. I imagine he would have recieved a lot of criticism for doing so, but he did what he thought was right. He fought with the allies and aggainst evil and for that my family is very proud of him.
Courtney from Study Moose
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