Kerr's Corner

Kerr's Corner is a regular feature in East Antrim and Newtownabbey editions of The Wizard. David Kerr would like to hear your memories of life in your own area. Maybe you'll trigger some thoughts for a future column.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

The 36th (Ulster) Division man decorated by the Kaiser!


I HAVE WRITTEN before in Kerr’s Corner about the Ulster Steamship Company – the Head Line – whose vessels once brought the Red Hand of Ulster to ports all around the world. Sadly, the old Head Line fleet has gone forever. The last ship was sold in 1976.

During the First and Second World Wars, the Head Line vessels plied the North Atlantic. Their efforts and sacrifices helped to feed and supply the people of the British Isles in the face of German U-boats that were determined to destroy them and starve Britain into submission.
One such ship was the Torr Head, a twin crew four mast steamer built by Harland and Wolff shipyard and launched in 1894. Regarded as a lucky ship, in February 1899, the Torr Head hit an Atlantic iceberg en route from New Orleans to Belfast. Little damage was caused and no-one died.

During the Great War, the Torr Head was used for a time as a squadron supply ship. On April 20th 1917 she was torpedoed near the Fastnet rock by the German U-boat U60 while sailing from St John, New Brunswick to Dublin. It was a sad end to a fine ship.

Ironically just fifteen years previously, the Captain, Senior Officer, Third Officer and some members of the crew of the same vessel were presented with gallantry awards by the Kaiser. The Torr Head had been sailing to New Orleans from Barry in hurricane conditions which drove her some 120 miles south of her course. On February 3rd 1902, the Third Officer, John George Brew spotted a sailing ship in great difficulty. He reported this to Captain Thompson who immediately decided to offer help.

The stricken ship turned out to be the Helene from Bremen. The sailing ship was in a terrible state. She was listing badly, being half full of water. All boats and deck fittings had gone. The cabin was gutted and the sails had blown away. It turned out that the Helene’s exhausted crew had spent some thirty-six hours in waist deep water trying to pump it out. By the time the Torr Head turned up, they had just about given up all hope of rescue.

Two trips in the space of two hours were made in the Torr Head’s lifeboat to bring the twenty-strong crew to safety.

At a ceremony in the Custom House some time later, the Lord Mayor of Belfast, Sir Daniel Dixon and the acting German Consul, Mr AM Ferrar, presented Captain Thompson with an inscribed gold watch bearing a portrait of His Imperial Majesty the German Emperor Kaiser Wilhelm II and each of the officers with a set of binoculars in an inscribed case. The quartermasters and three seamen each received cash gifts from the Kaiser. The German Red Cross society also forwarded certificates to the men through the Consul, as well as a gold medal for Captain Thompson and silver medals for Mr Butt and Mr Brew.

JG Brew’s binocular case bears the German inscription, ‘We, William, by Grace of God, German Emperor, King of Prussia wills to present to the Third Officer, Mr JG Brew of the British steamer Torr Head, this acknowledgement for the help rendered to the lost German ship Helene when in distress.’ A similar inscription was on Mr Butt’s case.

Mr Brew’s silver medal and binocular case were held by G Heyn and Sons for some fifty years, but were handed back to the Brew family on April 20th 1998 – seventy-one years to the day that the old Torr Head went to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. They are now in the possession of Mr Graham Brew, JG’s grandson.

JG Brew went on to serve as First Mate on the Torr Head until he passed his Master’s examination. He was master of the Torr Head from 1903 to 1906 when he went on to join the Rathlin Head.

War broke out in august 1914 between the British and German empires and their allies. On September 15th 1914, less than two weeks after the announcement of the formation of the 36th (Ulster) Division, John George Brew enlisted in Portadown, County Armagh, for the duration of the Great War. His enlistment papers show a 35 year old Protestant Ship master of 5ft. 8in., 133lbs, of sallow complexion, with brown eyes and dark hair, and a chest measurement of 37 inches. The Armagh Volunteers were organised under their commanding officer, Colonel Stewart W Blacker and became the 9th Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers. They were soon nicknamed 2Blacker’s Boys”.

Recruited as a Private, No. 13975, he was posted to his local battalion, the 9th battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers, in the Ulster Division’s 108th Brigade, but was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant 77 days later on December 1st 1914.

After training in Clandeboye in Co Down and Seaford in Sussex, the Brigade landed in le Havre in October 1915 and went to the Western Front.

Brew was promoted to Captain in April 1916 and became second in command of the 9th Royal Irish Fusiliers D Company. By June he had become the Company commander.

At the Battle of the Somme he was reported to have suffered a head wound. He was admitted to hospital in Rouen and was out of action for almost five months. He later saw service at Ypres and other major battles of the First World War. By now a Major, he died on April 6th 1918 as a prisoner of the Germans of gunshot wounds received in action near Amiens. He is buried in Roye New British Cemetery, outside the town of Roye, 40km south-east of Amiens, in the Picardy region of France. Thus a brave man, decorated by the Kaiser died at the hands of his soldiers.

Brew’s old vessel, the Torr Head was not the only Head Line vessel to fall victim to German U-boats. An old sketch shows the last moments of the Bray Head on Wednesday March 14th 1917 as recorded by a crew member, J Watson. A German U-boat fired a torpedo at the steamer but missed. The U-boat surfaced and renewed its attack on the Bray Head.

Watson’s diary reports ‘Our gunners assisted by crew fought the U-boat from 6.10am on Wednesday morning until 8.15, when we hauled down the Red Ensign and hauled it up again upside down in a token of surrender. Picked up by HMS Adventure on Sunday morning at 6.30 am. Arrived in Galway at 11.50 am. We were unable to leave hospital for four days, all frostbitten. We sat in the sunken lifeboat (in water) up to the waist. My hands are still showing the frostbite scars”.

The Bray Head was sunk by German gunfire 365 miles off the River Shannon. Twenty-two men were lost with the ship including the skipper. Twenty men survived the five day ordeal in the lifeboat.


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