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SS Arcadian sinks in the Southern Aegean in 1917 - a World War One journey

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The War to end all Wars

2014 marks the centenary of World War One, with commemoration activities around the globe continuing until 2018.

It was known as the war to end all wars but nothing could have been further from the truth - we all know that now.

Millions of people from both sides lost their lives - almost a generation of youth wiped out.

George Barker - RAMC

No 104836 Pte George Barker, RAMC - my grandfather

No 104836 Pte George Barker, RAMC - my grandfather

An Ordinary Man

My grandfather, George Barker, lived a quiet life, tucked away in a small village in the north of England with his wife and son.

Times were tough. The village revolved around the cotton mills where most of the inhabitants worked. Sunday was reserved for church or chapel. The chapel for George and his family. A visit to a local town was rare and seen as an occasion.

And then the war beckoned.

April,1917 found George on board the troopship, the SS Arcadian, en-route to Alexandria, Egypt, from Salonika in Greece. The ship was escorted by a Japanese, Navy Destroyer.

26 miles north east of the Greek island of Milos, the ship was hit by a torpedo fired from a German submarine.

The Arcadian in 1915

SS Arcadian - 1915

SS Arcadian - 1915

Just a scrap of paper

A Scrap of Paper.

I can’t say I was immediately impressed with the gift – the Pocket Gospel of St John. It had belonged to my late father’s family.

I almost discarded the faded piece of yellow paper that fluttered out. I looked closer and was stunned.

Scrawled in pencil on a telegram was a chilling message –

Regret to inform you that No 104836 Pte George Barker, RAMC, is reported missing, believed drowned April 15th 1917

This was how my grandmother discovered she was a widow.

All those years later, holding the scrap of paper, the past connected with the present. Suddenly, I could sense all the anguish and despair of that time.

The Waiting

The telegram boy would have been a familiar figure as he delivered important news in the small Lancashire village.

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I know the village well. Many years later I grew up there. I was born in the same terraced house where my grandparents once lived.

I can clearly picture the rooms, the small hallway, where my grandmother would have walked to answer the door that fateful day.

There would have been no advance warning for her. The ship was torpedoed in the southern Aegean sea. News did not travel fast in war torn 1917.

It was April, springtime, warmth in the sun, daffodils, bluebells, the fragrance of blossom, traditionally a time of hope and renewal.

I’m also reminded of T S Elliot in his poem The Waste Land – ‘April is the cruellest month, breeding Lilacs out of the dead land…’

April 1917 was certainly a cruel month.

I never knew my grandmother – I share her anguish.

All these years later, I feel my grandmother’s despair on that day, the day the boy with the telegram stopped and knocked on her door.

I try to imagine her reaction.

Did she rip open the telegram or did she procrastinate?

Maybe she wedged it on the mantelpiece, looked at it, too frightened to open it.

Did she scream in anguish?

Did she weep or was she strong and stoic?

Was she alone? Did she rush to the neighbours for support?

I’ll never know.

I do know immediately she read the words her life changed forever. A small son to support, little money, little hope for the future.

Far Away from Home

As the Arcadian sank in the southern Aegean I wonder also what my grandfather’s last thoughts were.

There's an old adage that your life flashes before you in those final moments. Did that happen to him?

Or did he ponder on the rules of war and duty and regret his role in it?

Did he join in with his comrades in the singing of hymns as he accepted his fate?

I like to imagine his last thoughts were with his family, particularly his young son who he would never see again.

Without doubt in those few precious moments he would have known the telegram was sealed

Trooper Reginald C Huggins who survived the ordeal describes the scene -

‘For a moment or two the Arcadian partly righted on her keel and then with much hissing of escaping steam and explosions from the boiler rooms, she slid for ever out of sight of human eyes, carrying with her hundreds of troops and her own crew caught like rats on the lower decks.’

The Final Moments of the Arcadian

The SS Arcadian sinking in the Aegean - 1917

The SS Arcadian sinking in the Aegean - 1917

The Imperial War Museum, London, put many of my queries into perspective.

In a photo of the Arcadian sinking, if you look closely, it’s possible to see men clambering down rope ladders into lifeboats or into the swirling sea.

I can’t help thinking, where was George when this photo was taken?

Perhaps he is one of the figures portrayed escaping into the sea. Hoping for a lifeboat and not finding one.

Was he on the deck unable to find a way to hurtle in the depths?

Or was he trapped below the decks, doomed, with no way to escape?

Wherever he was, he would have known he was breathing his last breath.

There were many survivors, from the 1,335 troops and crew, 279 lost their lives.

But George Barker was gone forever.

Dear Jack

The last communication of George Barker to his young son - my father

The last communication of George Barker to his young son - my father

Dear Jack -

Dear Jack -

The Last Message

In his last correspondence home, George sent this fun postcard and a message to his small son - my father.

My Dear Little Jack,

I did not think you was an officer till I saw

this photo of you. Now little man you

must be a good boy to your mother till

dada comes again.

Love from dada to both of you. Xxxxxxxx

George Barker RAMC -

George Barker RAMC -

Regret to Inform You

(sinking of the troopship Arcadian 1917)

They say it took

six minutes to sink

I wonder,

Who counted?

tick - tick - tick - tick - tick - tick

They said she was invincible,

British flag flying,

Cannon-fodder troops en-route,

For another chance at dying.

tick - tick - tick - tick - tick.

They say some men cursed and cried,

denying destiny.

Scrambling down rope ladders,

into an ashen, grasping, sea

tick - tick - tick - tick.

They say some soldiers stood and sang,

Abide with me...

Abide with me,

Fast falls the eventide,

Too fast, too soon...

The darkness deepens.

tick - tick - tick.

They didn’t say if you showed

courage or despair,

doomed so young, no future now,

your wife, a widow, with one son.

one final breath,

to greet your death.

tick - tick

They say that silence ruled the sea,

that took all of you and

a part of me.

No help for the helpless now,

all has failed, and comforts flee.

Just a whispering, haunting, echo.


Abide with me…

The Ending

I never knew my grandmother but she left an impression on those who did. A sad lady, they said. Never got over it.

Her son, my father was suffocated within her loneliness.

Indirectly, she set the scene for my life, for the future generations.

In Remembrance

I wonder what my grandfather would think about being googled. He’s there.

His memorial is in the Mikra cemetery in Greece and in his home village.

Lest We Forget

Estimates of deaths from WW1 estimate 15-19 million deaths. Around 23 million wounded.

George Barker was just one ordinary family man caught up in the horror of it all.

So many regrets.


Nauldy1978 Scotland on September 15, 2018:

Very poignant and moving . I too had a relative ,my Grandfathers 21 year old brother Serial No 10870 Private William Mellon Royal Scots Fusiliers drowned in the Aegean Sea after the sinking of the Arcadian and his name is listed in the local war memorial in Airdrie Scotland as well as the large books containing fallen service men and women during WWI and WWII in the Hall of Rememberance in Edinburgh castle . When you have had 60 odd years of life it brings it home how lucky I have been when reading your grandfathers story and knowing of my own great Uncle remembering what they must have endured by serving their country

Greensleeves Hubs from Essex, UK on September 16, 2016:

This is a very poignant pot-pourri of reminiscences, imaginations and emotions travmaj, expertly put together. And with a cleverly composed poem too. It is hard to know exactly the thoughts of all the people involved in the sinking of the SS Arcadian - those who suffered in the tragedy and those who suffered in the aftermath - but it is easy to imagine the trauma of your grandmother.

I notice you have not written on HubPages for a while travmaj - I hope all is OK with you. I will share this because I think the sentiments will move people.

travmaj (author) from australia on April 16, 2015:

Thank you Mona - yes, I've just realised he was handsome young man.

It's one sad story although thousands of families experiences the same trauma. I thank you for your comments, very much appreciate the sentiments.

Mona Sabalones Gonzalez from Philippines on April 16, 2015:

I read this because I wanted to learn more about World War I. Instead, I found this wonderful memoir, so beautifully written. Your grandfather was such a handsome young man. You have paid a marvelous tribute to him, and all the brave men who fought in the war, through this article.

travmaj (author) from australia on March 30, 2015:

Jackie - much appreciate your comment and share. It is certainly a haunting story, I thought this anniversary of WW1 was the right time to put it altogether. don't know what Granddad would make of the www. Best wishes

Jackie Lynnley from the beautiful south on March 29, 2015:

What a haunting story and I can well imagine the feeling and depth in that scrap of paper; all the facts that will never be known. Thanks so much for sharing it.

travmaj (author) from australia on March 03, 2015:

Hello aesta - thank you - I agree with you, grandma was left with a life she couldn't cope with (from what I understand) No, war will never cease in some form or another. Makes me sad to think this way too.

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on March 02, 2015:

A sad story indeed especially when it made your Grandma sad her whole life. There are many more war widows and we keep making more of our women. I don't know when war will ever stop.

travmaj (author) from australia on December 08, 2014:

tobusiness - I appreciate your commenting and yes, the past and present do link through the years. Through his son the family evolved, I can't help wondering what he'd make of us all today. The centenary commemoration of world war one seemed an appropriate time to remember. Thank you Jo - Maj

Jo Alexis-Hagues from Lincolnshire, U.K on December 07, 2014:

The past and the present are inextricable intertwined. While it's so very sad that your grandfather died when he did, and in such a terrible fashion, he fathered a son before that awful day and his granddaughter is here to write this incredible tribute. An impressive and very eloquent account of this very personal but historical event.

travmaj (author) from australia on November 18, 2014:

Rachael, thank you for your comments, much appreciated. I guess it's easier to write about the past when the clues are all there - I was born in the house where the grandparents lived and where my father was born also. Glad you enjoyed the journey.

Rachael O'Halloran from United States on November 16, 2014:

You took the reader back to that time, as if we were right there, and gave a glimpse into what your grandmother and grandfather might have been thinking or doing. That the postcard survived (and didn't get lost) is remarkable! Your style of telling this story was very unique and heartwarming. I liked the way you took us on a journey through history very much. Voted up, interesting and awesome.

travmaj (author) from australia on November 14, 2014:

Thank you Torrilynn, your comments are much appreciated, as the centenary of WW1 this year this seemed the appropriate time to delve into the history..

torrilynn on November 12, 2014:

This was a great historical read. It is always unique to relate someone's family members to such historic times. Thanks for the read.

travmaj (author) from australia on November 12, 2014:

hello again geoff - yes indeed, your relative W A Grainger may well have known George Barker...I'll google the suggested article and send it around my relatives - thank you for your interest...most appreciated.

travmaj (author) from australia on November 12, 2014:

Thanks geoff, most interesting information - will read more about it...

travmaj (author) from australia on November 12, 2014:

geoff - thank you for your comments. My grandfather couldn't swim either. Yes, I'd like to visit the Mikra memorial one day...

travmaj (author) from australia on November 11, 2014:

Vellur, thank you for your lovely words, it is sad and, of course, touched many other families...the 100 years commemoration seemed the right time to write this -

geoff crabb from aylesbury england on November 11, 2014:

travmaj, Look up ..Torpedoed in the Aegean Sea ..a really good account of the sinking of Arcadian and note the lucky escape for the Chaplain. On my shelf i have a 1/2 pint mug used by W A Grainger before going to war with Royal Rifle Brigade , just to think he may have seen George Baker on the ship..

geoff crabb from aylesbury england on November 11, 2014:

The commander of the u boat UC74 was Wilhelm Marschall he lived for 90 years UC74 ran out of fuel and was towed onto a french port ? at the end of the war and scrapped, it sank a lot of ships in cluding the heavyest HT Arcadian.

geoff crabb on November 11, 2014:

A really good story rarely told of the HT Arcadian, a story i know well though not seen sinking picture before, a story i know well because of the 277 lives lost one of them was my grandmothers missing brother W A Grainger, he could not swim. one day we will visit the war memorial at Mikra. 11 november 2014

Nithya Venkat from Dubai on November 11, 2014:

A great tribute to your grandfather. He sacrificed his life for his country. Your grandmother must have been devastated. The postcard is so adorable, shows that he must have been a great father. Great hub, beautifully written, touched my heart.

travmaj (author) from australia on November 10, 2014:

Lest we forget...

travmaj (author) from australia on October 30, 2014:

Thank you Suzette - I thought this piece was appropriate at this time - the commemoration of 100 years since WW1 began. Just back from London where the tower moat is bright red with ceramic poppies. A tribute to all who lost their lives in this war - I never knew my grandfather but now he's online - he'd be amazed.

Suzette Walker from Taos, NM on October 30, 2014:

travmaj: What an amazing and interesting story. This really tug at my heartstrings. My condolences to you and your family on the loss of your grandfather. Your photos are amazing and the post card - Little Jack, oh my how fortunate your father had the last postcard from your grandfather. Your poem is wonderful - the tic-tic-tic, so effective. "The war to end all wars" - what a joke and how ironic it is today. Thanks so much for sharing the story of your grandfather and grandmother with us. It brings us closer to understanding a war that none of us was alive at the time to experience. (Thank God).

travmaj (author) from australia on September 08, 2014:

Flourish - thank you for such generous comments and votes - yes, I agree, I like to think of it as a tribute to all.

FlourishAnyway from USA on September 05, 2014:

This is haunting, sad, and beautiful -- a tribute to the real lives that were lost. Voted way up +++ and shared.

travmaj (author) from australia on September 02, 2014:

GE - this is the one you were looking for - I think so. Hope it fits in with your family stuff...

travmaj (author) from australia on August 29, 2014:

Beth, I'm most touched by your response, thank you so much, you saw the scenario as I tried to recapture those sad moments. When I began to write this I soon realised how a few words on a telegram could affect so many people. Thank you again.

Beth Perry from Tennesee on August 28, 2014:

travmaj, this is so beautifully, stirringly written. I feel the sadness behind your pen, and am struck by the deep sorrow your grandmother knew. I am so sorry her loss brought a shade to your dad's life, too. But the message to your young dad brought tears to my eyes, kind of happy tears as it is so loving. I am sure your grandfather feels very honored his talented granddaughter has written of his tragedy with such respect and beauty of prose.

Vote up and Gods bless.

travmaj (author) from australia on August 21, 2014:

Nell, thank you so much, clearly we share the same thoughts and feelings from the past. It's sad how families were affected by the war and their grief carried through to the next generations. As I wrote this it became really clear, just as you state. Thank you again Nell...

Nell Rose from England on August 20, 2014:

Amazing writing maj, reading it I could see it all unfold, how awful. and yes I wonder why he didn't manage to escape, and your grandmother opening the door, well, another memory from my family too. its so strange that you said it traveled down the family through time, yes it did to ours too. in the second world war my uncle was killed, my grandad also died within the same six months. my gran went blind through shock, and white haired overnight. like a ripple the sadness carried on down through our family so many things could have been different especially if Ron, my uncle had stayed alive. and yes he drowned too, so many lost. both wars, nell

travmaj (author) from australia on August 18, 2014:

Dim - thank you. I'm so glad you approve of my work and yes, we agree on this subject whole heartedly. Most appreciate your lovely comments.

travmaj (author) from australia on August 18, 2014:

MaryH - thank you for being here and commenting - much appreciated.

travmaj (author) from australia on August 18, 2014:

Kay - thank you indeed. Your words state what I hoped to achieve with this. Best - Maj

Dim Flaxenwick from Great Britain on August 18, 2014:

What a marvelous piece of work. The way you write is beautiful, and due to the subject has me in tears.

So glad you didn't lose that telegram in an old bible.

So sad, that horrendous "war to end all wars"

Thank you for a fantastic hub.

MaryH on August 18, 2014:

Lovely, TravMaj!

Kay Readdy on August 17, 2014:

How poignant! Nothing to add, just wish all those now calling the shots in armed conflict around the world could read this one sad account and absorb the ripple effect war has on everyone. You have summed it up perfectly in your personal account.

travmaj (author) from australia on August 17, 2014:

Hi Sallie, thank you - I'll take the kudos! Pleased you could connect with my Grandmother in her anguish, and through my writing so many years later. .

travmaj (author) from australia on August 17, 2014:

DrBillSmithWriter - Thank you, I'm glad you connected with this piece of family history - it seemed the right time to put it together for the family.

travmaj (author) from australia on August 17, 2014:

Thank you Michelle - I agree, a truly tough time - and for so many families.

Sallie Mullinger from Ohio on August 17, 2014:

GREAT story! I loved the images especially of the ship sinking. I especially loved how you were able to tell the story and make me feel the way YOUR grandmother felt knowing that she was now a widow.

Kudos on a really well done hub!

travmaj (author) from australia on August 17, 2014:

Arun, thank you for your positive comments - most appreciated.

travmaj (author) from australia on August 17, 2014:

Bill, thank you - a difficult subject to approach, so many lives lost on both sides. George was just one of those sixteen million - and every one of those families must have their own story to tell. How sad.

Michelle Liew from Singapore on August 17, 2014:

Thanks for sharing this, Travmaj. You're granny must have gone through much agony waiting, then knowing how Grandpa George's passing came to be. This was truly a tough time.

travmaj (author) from australia on August 16, 2014:

John, I must thank you for your enthusiastic response - your words are much appreciated. It seemed the right time to look back and wonder about the past and how the past shaped the future, particularly for the family. When I held that telegram I couldn't help but wonder - how did it feel to open the door and receive that message. Thank you again for connecting with my story in such a positive way and for the vote and share. Best wishes - Maj

William Leverne Smith from Hollister, MO on August 15, 2014:

Thank you, so much, for sharing this remarkable bit of family history from the WWI era. These events are so important to know about... and to have the personal connection, is amazing. Thank you, again! ;-)

ARUN KANTI CHATTERJEE from KOLKATA on August 15, 2014:

A great tribute to your grand parents. Thank you for offering us a wonderful hub so well written.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on August 15, 2014:

This is quite a tribute my friend. A mixture of everything here, all expertly written, and quite beautiful. Modern technology meets trench wonder sixteen million lost their lives. Well done...well done!

John Hansen from Gondwana Land on August 15, 2014:

What a wonderful hub travmaj, one of the best I have read on Hub Pages in fact, and a great tribute to your grandfather George and grandmother. i love his last letter to his son Jack(your father), and the poem "regret to Inform You". This line is also beautiful "It was April, springtime, warmth in the sun, daffodils, bluebells, the fragrance of blossom, traditionally a time of hope and renewal," but brought into perspective with " T S Elliot in his poem The Waste Land – ‘April is the cruellest month, breeding Lilacs out of the dead land…’

Voted up and shared.

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