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The Great War (1914-1918) Forum

Merchant marine document requirements


Michael Lowrey

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U-boats sank a lot of ships in WWI. And perhaps half the time they couldn't establish the name of the ship they were sinking. Most of these cases have been matched against known ship losses or against a ship posted as missing. But not in all case... and a number of ships are still listed as missing.

Upon reviewing the war diaries (KTBs) of German submarines, I have come across a number of cases were the German account of a sinking contains sufficient details to match it against one of the ships still conventionally regarded as missing.

The CWGC, of course, commemorates men, not ships. But as I understand it, merchant marine casualties are eligiable only if caused by enemy action. Thus, to obtain commemoration, it would seem that you must establish how a missing ship, well, went missing.

Which bring me to my question: what documents would the CWGC need in a case like this, beyond death certificates for the crew? Would they accept information from the KTBs? Would it be necessary to establish date of sailing, destination, and cargo?

Thanks in advance,

Michael

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Michael

You are right. The Mercantile Marine was one of the Recognised Civilian Organisations (the largest) and as such its members only qualify for war grave status and CWGC commemoration/care if they died on duty and of a war cause or the increased threat brought on by war.

So you do have to prove the cause of a ship's loss for a new name to qualify.

Of course, this extra condition does not apply to any service personnel on board as they qualify no matter what the circumstances. So a ship sinking in a storm with Mercantile Marine men on board and Royal Navy men would lead to the RN men qualifying but not the MM men. It did happen.

If the Admiralty accepted the ship as a war loss that seems to have been sufficient for acceptance - even though some causes were actually 'unknown'.

Do you suspect that you have a new name and an unrecorded war loss?

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Terry,

Terry, I do indeed suspect that I have a previously unrecorded war loss. Several actually. It's possible that one or more of these ships is regarded as a war loss, but I have my doubts. These vessels are not listed in British Vessels Lost At Sea 1914-18, the official list of vessels lost at sea by enemy cause. They are not attributed to a U-boat in the German official history, which is the essential volume on the submarine war. The ships are listed in the missing section of Lloyd's War Losses: The First World War, without any indication that the Admiralty regarded them as a war loss during the war or afterwards. Thus my question as to what would be required to establish that a vessel was indeed sunk by enemy action.

Best wishes,

Michael

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Being honest, I have never tried to get a Mercantile Marine man accepted so cannot speak from personal experience.

However, I suspect that reasonable documentary proof of a war loss would be needed. We do not know that the cases you have in mind have not been considered by the Admiralty and rejected on some basis.

It would be good to know how this would work. If you wish to PM me with an example and any background, I'll try to find out what would be needed. Meanwhile, I'll ask some questions.

Come to think of it, I have a copy of 'BVL at Sea' and 'Lloyd's War Losses WW1' so I can look up an example myself!

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Terry,

Between Oliver Lörscher and I, we have at least six ships. Each involves somewhat different issues. Two cases involve misattributed sinkings in the German official history. Then there's a small fishing vessel apparently without an official number. There are two ships crossing the Atlantic and a convoy straggler.

BVLAS lists what the Admiralty thought during the war was a war loss. Actually attributing out U-boat sinking claims against losses didn't happen until a number of years after the war. This was done by Admiral Arno Spindler while preparing the German official history, Handelskrieg mit U-Booten, in five volumes. the fourth volume, covering February through December 1917, was only released IIRC in 1940. The last volume, covering 1918, came out in 1966 though it was largely complete by 1945. Spindler came across a few sinkings that the Admiralty missed. The notes in the missing section of Lloyd's War Losses about attributions in the 1930s (see Elve as an example) are a result of the research that went into producing Handelskrieg. The crews of the ships identified by Spindler are included in the CWGC database.

Note that all this did not involve the exchange of primary source documents.

I have a crew member name from only one of the vessels as of now. (Hasn't been a focus to date.) He isn't in the CWGC database. However, as this is a rather specialized area of research and even getting ahold of the necessary publications and documents isn't that easy, I suspect that the Admiralty has never been presented with a request for commemoration based upon the German documents at issue in most if not all of the cases.

Best wishes,

Michael

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