On the 11th of October 1915, 231 men of 1/3 (Kent) Field Company Royal Engineers sailed out of Devonport Docks for the eastern Mediterranean and Gallipoli. Just the previous day, the War Cabinet had decided to stop sending troops to Gallipoli where operations had not strictly gone to plan.
Luck ran out that day for our ancestors George, Frank, Harry (Henry George) and William Funnell, respectively Driver, Lance Corporal and Sappers in the Kent Field Company. Alfred and Harry were brothers from High Brooms, near Tunbridge Wells.
The voyage out to the eastern Mediterranean was uneventful. At Mudros Bay, Turkey, most of the Company transferred to smaller ships to transport them to Helles. The story has it that two ships were available. The commanders tossed a coin to decide who would have which.
Captain Salomons “won” the HMS Hythe, a former cross-channel paddle-driven ferry, with a displacement of 509 tons. She had been built in 1905 for the South Eastern and Chatham Railway to work the Dover-Calais route. Requisitioned at the outbreak of war she had been transformed into a minesweeper and armed with 2 x 12 pounder guns. In 1915, she was sent to work on troop movements in the Dardanelles.
The Hythe left Mudros Bay at about 16:00 on 28 October 1915 with our 4 Funnells aboard. She was severely overloaded. Men were packed on the decks, many huddling under an awning that had been rigged to give a little relief from rain and spray.
At about 20:00, as they neared their destination, men donned their kit, drivers went to their vehicles, and the Hythe doused all lights. Major Ruston relates:
“[…]It was a rough and squally day and … a great number of the men were seasick. However, we had almost reached our destination and were beginning to think about disembarking when suddenly a large vessel loomed out of the darkness and in spite of all efforts to avoid a collision it ran into us, cutting deep into our port bow and bringing down the foremast. In ten minutes the vessel sank, leaving numbers struggling in the water or hanging on to spars and other floating matter. The boats of the other vessel did all they could and picked up many poor fellows – but all too few, for nearly 130 men drowned”.
The other vessel was HMS Sarnia, also a requisitioned ferry built in 1910 for the London and South Western Railway. In war service she became an armed boarding steamer. With a displacement of 1498 tons and a top speed of 20.5 knots, Sarnia was a much larger and more powerful vessel than the Hythe, whose limit was only 12 knots (1).
Both vessels made at least one change of course but it seems that neither slowed down. The Sarnia struck the port side of the Hythe with such force that its bows cut halfway through the ship. That brought the Hythe to a dead stop and caused its mast to collapse on the awning. Numerous deaths were caused instantly by the bows and the mast but those remaining fared little better. The immense damage caused the Hythe to sink rapidly. It was all over in a little as ten minutes. Many drowned trapped under the awning or in the cabs of their vehicles. The others had little or no time to gain the railings and throw off their kit before they were in the sea. Panic reigned as soldiers scrambled for the few life-jackets that could be grabbed before the Hythe went down. Most of those who jumped overboard were drowned in the chaos that followed. Only a lucky few were able to scramble from one vessel to the other without getting their feet wet.
Our four ancestors lost their lives in this tragic accident. Four young men of a generation witness to bloodshed and butchery on a scale without precedent.
LEST WE FORGET
All four are commemorated on the Helles Memorial, Turkey.
1/3rd Kent Field Company Royal Engineers
2234 – Driver – Alfred George Funnell
719 – Lance Corporal – Frank Funnell
900 – Sapper – Henry George (Harry) Funnell
1633 – Sapper – William Funnell
Story based on information from:
Salomons Museum website
Research by Clive Meier resumed on the “Great War Forum”
Read more on the landing at Cape Helles
Photos by Martin Wills
The full story of the Hythe disaster can be found in the book Southborough Sappers of the Kent (Fortress) Royal Engineers by Frank A. Stevens (2000).
(1) HMS Sarnia survived the collision with the Hythe, only to be sunk by a torpedo in the Mediterranean on 12 September 1918.
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