On this day – HMHS Britannic, the largest ship lost in World War One

Our latest Capital Collections exhibition is a unique personal record of the sinking of HMHS Britannic during World War One.

HMHS Britannic was the third and largest of the White Star Line’s Olympic class of vessels. She was the sister ship of RMS Olympic and RMS Titanic and was intended to enter service as the transatlantic passenger liner RMS Britannic.

Originally the ship was to be named ‘Gigantic’, but due to the loss of the Titanic, her name was changed. The White Star Line knew if they were to keep ahead in the race across the Atlantic, the new liner would have to be more magnificent than her predecessors.

HMHS Britannic - page from Sheila Macbeth Mitchell scrapbook

HMHS Britannic – page from Sheila Macbeth Mitchell scrapbook

Britannic was launched just before the start of World War One but never operated as a commercial vessel. In 1915 this huge luxury liner, the new jewel in the White Star Line, was requisitioned, painted white with a red cross on each side, and fitted out as a hospital ship. On the morning of 21 November 1916, on her way to Naples and on only her sixth voyage, she was shaken by an explosion caused by an underwater mine. She sank 55 minutes later, killing 30 people. 1,065 people survived, rescued from the water and lifeboats.

Photograph of survivors from HMHS Britannic taken at Fort Manoel, Malta

Photograph of survivors from HMHS Britannic taken at Fort Manoel, Malta

There have been many stories surrounding the sinking of the Britannic, some saying that she was transporting weapons to allied forces and so was a legitimate target for the German authorities.

Newspaper clippings showing coverage of the Britannic sinking

Newspaper clippings showing coverage of the Britannic sinking

Mysteriously, when film-maker Jacques Cousteau first attempted to locate the wreck, he could find no trace of it in the position marked on the British Admiralty chart. Britannic’s true position was eventually found some 6.75 nautical miles north-east of the charted position and had been deliberately misplaced to prevent any further investigation of the site.

The wreck of the Britannic lies in about 400 feet of water and was first explored by Cousteau in 1976. The water is shallow enough that scuba divers can explore it, but as a listed British war grave, any expedition must be approved by both British and Greek governments.

In 1996 the wreck of HMHS Britannic was bought by maritime historian Simon Mills. When asked what his ideal vision for the wreck would be, he replied, “That’s simple – leave it as it is”.

And so HMHS Britannic has lain at the bottom of the sea, off the coast of the Greek Island of Kea undisturbed for a hundred years.

Explore Sheila Macbeth Mitchell’s scrapbook for an amazing first-hand survivor’s account of the terrible event.

Advertisements

Sheila Macbeth Mitchell story (part 2)

This is the 2nd installment in the Sheila Macbeth Mitchell story, from the scrapbook kindly donated for digitisation by her family. The scrapbook is available to view in its entirety on Capital Collections.

In November 1916, military nurse Sheila was in Southampton ready to join the HMHS Britannic on what was to be her sixth and final voyage. Time on board the Britannic began as normal. On returning to the hospital ship, Sheila wrote:

Leave up – so back to Southampton to join our ship. Such a relief to find the same cabin and room-mate, and to see how homely it is now looking, with my chintz cushions and our nice jar of brown beech leaves.”

They were en route to pick up wounded troops via Naples where they re-fuelled and took on more supplies. The nurses were kept busy getting ready 3,000 beds and keeping fit:

“One of the sergeants gives us a gymnastic class each morning on the boat deck, much to the amusement of the M.O.s, who come up and take snapshots of us when looking most ridiculous and unable to retaliate”.

Page from Sheila Macbeth Mitchell scrapbook (section)

Page from Sheila Macbeth Mitchell scrapbook (section)

It was on the morning of 21 November when passing near to the Greek Island of Kea, that a loud explosion echoed around the ship. Sheila recalled:

“Up late – so only managed to get two spoonfuls of porridge before: Bang!  and a shiver right down the length of the ship. Of course we all knew what it was! We had thought too much about torpedoes to be surprised to have met one at last. When the siren sounded, I went off to my cabin for my belt, and took my pillow, eider-down, and the first coat I could pick up…”.

“We were kept hanging over the side of the ship for a long while, as the Vice-Captain, who was looking after the lowering of the boats, had to dash off in the middle to call back some fourteen or fifteen firemen, who had gone off from the poop deck in a boat which should have held about eighty-four persons. They were made to come back to pick up a number of men who had jumped over-board…… We did not realize that while we were hanging over the side of the ship, the whole of the fore part of her was under water – we might have been more frightened if we had seen it. The Captain called out to hurry as she was sinking fast. In our boat, we got well away from the sinking ship and busied ourselves with the wounded, whom we picked out of the water”.

The Britannic disappeared fifty-five minutes after she had been hit. As no help had come yet in answer to the S.O.S. calls, Sheila and the rest of the medical crew waited until there was no likelihood of more explosions then sailed back to where the ship had gone down to see if they could find more survivors. After a time, they saw three trails of black smoke in the distance and knew that help was on the way. These were three British ships the Foxhound , Scourge and Heroic, and after three hours in a lifeboat, Sheila was taken on to the Scourge , a torpedo destroyer. Whilst waiting as sailors rowed around making a final search for survivors, Sheila saw a sailor pulling a chair bearing the White Star emblem from the water:

and gave me a part of the back, which I guarded safely under my coat… they gave us all the food they had – tea, dog-biscuits and oranges out of sacks…Several of them gave us their cap-ribbons as souvenirs”.

Cap ribbons belonging to sailors from the rescue boats.

Letters and cap ribbons belonging to sailors from the rescue boats.

After a few hours towing the lifeboats, they were transferred to HMS Duncan then on to a French ship Piraeus, and then transferred to the Russian Hospital in Piree [Piraeus] where after a few days they were:

hurried away to Malta on the hospital ship ‘Grandtully Castle’ as Athens was getting a little too exciting for us….. After four days, when we were very happy – knowing we were at last on our way home – we reached Valetta, where we were met by the P.M. and all put into ambulances and sent to the different Hospitals on the island”.

After seventeen days on the island, they boarded HMHS Valdivia and set sail home to England.

Telegram sent from Athens with message 'SAVED - SHEILA MACBETH'

Telegram sent from Athens with message ‘SAVED – SHEILA MACBETH’

Sheila ends her recollections:

On Boxing Day we got into Southampton at about 9 am and left the boat after lunch as she had to go off to France that afternoon. We all crowded into the Waterloo train, where we were met by Miss Becher (The Matron-in-Chief) who told us that we might proceed to our homes to await further orders.

So ended my days as a refugee – at any rated for this trip”. 

After her serving on the Britannic, Sheila nursed the wounded in France. In 1919 while on holiday in Switzerland she met her future husband John Fowler Mitchell who was home from leave from the Indian Civil Service.  They were married in 1920 and returned to India where three of their four children were born. As a memsahib during the British Raj, she had to learn how to cope with a large household of servants and their dependants. They stayed in India until 1935 when John retired.

Scrapbook page of wedding photos for Sheila and John Mitchell

Scrapbook page of wedding photos for Sheila and John Mitchell

At the age of 86 Sheila answered an appeal from Jacques Cousteau for survivors of the sinking of the Britannic, and Sheila Mitchell flew to where Cousteau had located the wrecked ship on the bed of the Aegean. She was the only survivor who ever visited the wreck. She arrived on the Calypso, using the ship’s small helicopter, determined to retrieve an alarm clock and ring she had left in her cabin! With her she had brought her scrapbook filled with photos and notes. Sheila was able to give him her clear memories of the sinking. She even descended to the seabed in Cousteau’s mini submarine to see round the wreck. As the star of the film Cousteau in Search of the Britannic, she greatly enjoyed a six week publicity tour of the United States. One American fan in her seventies wrote to her:

Mrs Mitchell, you have made me realise that I have been wasting my life”.

For many years Sheila and John, who was a founder member of the Scottish Genealogy Society, systematically recorded all the pre-1955 inscriptions in numerous Scottish kirkyards, creating an invaluable record for people tracing their ancestry. They are commemorated with a bench in the Archivists’ Garden at the National Records of Scotland. Sheila was appointed MBE for her services to genealogy in 1980.

Bench dedicated to Sheila and John Mitchell, in the Archivists' Garden

Bench dedicated to Sheila and John Mitchell, in the Archivists’ Garden

Sheila Macbeth Mitchell died on 15th February 1994, aged 103.

Read the first part of Sheila’s story and view the full scrapbook online via Capital Collections.

Sheila Macbeth Mitchell (part 1)

Back in June, when we published our series of blog posts about Ethel Moir, a nurse who had served during World War One in the Scottish Women’s Hospital, we received an intriguing comment from someone called Jonathan. He had read the story and was getting in touch to tell us about his grandmother, Sheila Macbeth Mitchell, a nurse who had been on board HMHS Britannic when she’d sunk in the Aegean in 1916. Sheila had left him a large scrapbook containing photographs and ephemera from the time  –

If Capital Collections would be interested in seeing this sometime and copying pictures to add to the special collection – get in touch”.

After meeting with Jonathan, seeing the scrapbook and hearing stories of his grandmother, we were extremely keen to take up his offer of sharing the contents and the story of another remarkable woman who led an extraordinary and adventurous life. The scrapbook is now available to discover on Capital Collections.

Sheila Macbeth was born on 12th June 1890 in Lancashire and was educated at Polam Hall in Darlington. An accomplished golfer in her youth, she wanted to become a teacher of physical education, but her family would not let her have a job. World War One, however, enabled her – like many other women of her generation – to leave home and develop her independence. She served as an auxiliary in Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Hospital Nursing Services.

Page of family photos from Sheila Macbeth Mitchell's scrapbook

Page of family photos from Sheila Macbeth Mitchell’s scrapbook

Sheila’s roots however were in Scotland, her great-grandfather James Macbeth had been an Excise Officer in Port Glasgow and both her grandfather and father were born in Greenock. Her grandfather Norman was a portrait painter who, when he came to Edinburgh in 1861 gained employment as a portrait painter and was elected A.R.S.A (Associate of the Royal Scottish Academy) in 1870 and R.S.A. (Royal Scottish Academy) in 1880.

Her father’s first school was Mr Henderson’s Preparatory School in India Street where he was in the same form as Robert Louis Stevenson. He later attended The Institution (later to become Stewart’s Melville) in Queen Street and Edinburgh Academy. When he left school he went to Friedrichshafen in Germany to study engineering and was apprenticed to an engineering firm in Leith Walk. He later relocated to Lancashire where Sheila and several of her siblings were born.

In 1908 aged 18, Sheila went with her elder sister Flora to live in Paris for a year. Here she attended the Cours de Musique, a music course run by Mlle [ Miss] Yvonne Galliet.

Sheila Macbeth, Parc Monceau, in Paris, c1908

Sheila Macbeth, Parc Monceau, in Paris, c1908

Sheila also started to get interested in golf around this time. In her notes she relates:

Flora & I joined the Surrey County Golf Club as well as one at Purley Downs & until Flora married, Father let us have the use of a car & chauffeur – but when she went & I was the only golfer – I had to go by train & it made a hole in my Dress allowance of £50 per annum as I had to take caddies & have new balls when playing matches”.

When war broke out in 1914 one of her first introductions to it was cooking in the hospital of the Camp of Public Schools Battalion:

which was built high above Mother’s house in Surrey. We let soldiers use our dining room each night where we left newspapers etc. & we gave them the use of one bathroom. Many of them filtered into the drawing room with the family – & we had a dance there on occasions – & much music”.

Public School Boys Camp, 16th Middlesex Regiment, August 1914

Public School Boys Camp, 16th Middlesex Regiment, August 1914

In 1915 and with the war continuing in Europe, Sheila served as an auxiliary in Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Hospital Nursing Services, noting sometime later,

In 1915, the London Hospitals were asked to take people like me for 6 months training – so that there would be enough nurses to look after the wounded. I went to Training School of London Hospital for 6 weeks in Bow – & then worked at the Hospital in Whitechapel for 6 months – after which I became a Special Military Probationer attached to Queen Alexandra’s Military Nursing Service Q.A.M.N.S. My 1st Station was outside Nottingham”.

Sheila's timetable as a probationer at the London Hospital Training School.

Sheila’s timetable as a probationer at the London Hospital Training School.

Having completed her training, Sheila joined the crew of HMHS Britannic in November 1916 as she set off for what would be her sixth and final voyage…

Read the second part of Sheila’s story and view the full scrapbook online via Capital Collections.

Scars on the City

Scars on the City: Edinburgh in World War One was an exhibition that ran from February to June 2015 at the Museum of Edinburgh. The exhibition drew on Edinburgh Museums & Galleries’ extensive wartime collections to explore the everyday lives of Edinburgh people during the War. Objects like shrapnel from a zeppelin raid, soldiers’ knitted socks and a Red Cross nurse doll were displayed to help transport visitors to a time of terror, hardship and, sometimes, adventure.

Doll: Red Cross nurse of World War 1

Doll: Red Cross nurse of World War 1

The exhibition’s curator, Vicky Garrington, says that the wartime toys and games from the Museum of Childhood were a big hit with visitors:

“People were surprised to find out how clued up young people were about the details of the War. Cigarette cards taught them about ranks, army signals and artillery, while board games challenged them to evade mines and bombs en route to Berlin!”

Board game from World War 1: To Berlin

Board game from World War 1: To Berlin

Meanwhile, shrapnel from bombs dropped by German zeppelins bring home the reality of the first war to be fought not just overseas, but on the Home Front.

The quirky and poignant objects from the exhibition are now available to view on Capital Collections, together with the stories that bring them to life.

WW1 family history roadshows

soldier and mule photoLots of us have diaries, photographs, medals and other artefacts from World War One which were passed down through our family, and which we know very little about. These items can be really important in helping to build a picture of the contributions and sacrifices made by local people whether on the front line or the home front.

That’s why experts from the Scotland’s War Project will be coming along to Newington, Colinton and Piershill libraries to help you identify what you’ve got, and to show you how to find free information online.

No need to book – just drop in:

Newington Library, Sat 17th Sept 10.30am – 12.30pm
Tel 0131 529 5536 – newington.library@edinburgh.gov.uk

Colinton Library. Sat 24th Sept 10.30am – 12.30pm
Tel 0131 529 5603 colinton.library@edinburgh.gov.uk

Piershill Library.Sat 8th Oct 10.30am – 12.30pm
Tel 031 529 5685 piershill.library@edinburgh.gov.uk

unihead

Scottish Women’s Hospitals

Part five in our There’s a Long Long Trail A-Winding Series

When war broke out in August 1914, the people of Britain clamoured to do what they could to support the war effort. Men volunteered for the army and others set about establishing relief units to help the army or provide assistance to civilians and refugees. The Scottish Women’s Hospitals were one of those – yet they were also very different, because, right from the beginning, they were set up with two very specific aims: firstly, to help the war effort by providing medical assistance and secondly, and equally importantly, to promote the cause of women’s rights and by their involvement in the war, help win those rights.

The SWH’s original idea was set up a hospital in Edinburgh to help treat the war wounded.  However this was soon abandoned in favour of setting up hospitals in the field, close to the fighting. Fundraising commenced and by the end of August 1914 more than five thousand pounds had been raised.

Scottish Women's Hospitals Fund flag day badge

Scottish Women’s Hospitals fund flag day badge

The SWH founder Dr Elsie Inglis approached the War Office with the idea of medical units being allowed to serve on the Western Front. The offer was turned down and she was told by an official “My good lady, go home and sit still”. Undeterred, the hospital was offered to Britain’s allies and the Scottish Women’s Hospitals operated in France, Macedonia, Greece, Corsica, Romania and Russia, but the majority of their work was to help Serbia, all staffed by volunteer doctors, nurses, orderlies and ambulance drivers.

Conditions in Serbia were dire; the army had less than 300 doctors to serve more than half a million men. By the winter of 1915 Serbia could hold out no more, and were forced to retreat into Albania. The SWH had a choice to make, stay and go into captivity or go with the retreating army into Albania. Some stayed and several including Elsie Inglis were taken prisoner and later repatriated to Britain. The army retreated over the mountains with no food, shelter or help, suffering many casualties.

Following her repatriation to Britain in February 1916, Elsie Inglis set about equipping and staffing a hospital to serve in Russia. It served in southern Russia and in Romania, providing medical help to the Serbian Division of the Russian Army. This division was made up from Serbs and Yugoslavs who had been taken prisoner by the Russians but had volunteered to fight for the allies. The SWH once again had to retreat. The hospital was withdrawn and they sailed back from Archangel to the UK. The day after they returned back, Elsie Inglis who had been ill for some time, died.

Towards the end of the war the SWH in Serbia provided medical care to soldiers, civilians and prisoners of war. A new fixed hospital was established in Vranje and by early 1919 this was handed over to the Serbian authorities bringing to an end the SWH. Most SWH members returned home and resumed their pre-war lives, others stayed behind to continue to provide medical care in Serbia.

Over 1,000 women from many different backgrounds and many different countries served with the SWH. Only medical professionals such as doctors and nurses received a salary, all others were expected to pay their own way. Some women joined because it was one of the few opportunities open to women to actively help the war effort, for others it was the rare chance for adventure.

Scottish Women's Hospitals nurses at Wilton Hotel, London. Image kindly reproduced with permission from Glasgow City Archives

Scottish Women’s Hospitals nurses at Wilton Hotel, London. Image kindly reproduced with permission from Glasgow City Archives

The women involved are known and revered in Serbia. There are statues, monuments and streets named after them, yet in their home countries they have been virtually overlooked.

In December 2015 the British Embassy teamed up with Serbian Post to celebrate the efforts of the SWH. The stamps are part of a wider campaign by the British Embassy in Belgrade aimed at highlighting more than 600 British women who contributed to the war effort in Serbia. Five Scots women who worked as doctors, nurses and drivers feature on the new stamps. A sixth English woman, Captain Flora Sandes, who was the only British female to bear arms during WW1, is also remembered.

The five Scots are:

  • Evelina Haverfield – British suffragette and humanitarian worker. She was the chief administrator of Scottish Women Hospitals in Serbia and set up one of the first local orphanages.
  • Dr Elsie Inglis – campaigner for women’s suffrage and the founder of the Scottish Women Hospitals in Serbia. Dr Inglis was one of the first female graduates at the University of Edinburgh.
  • Dr Elizabeth Ross – one of the first women to obtain a medical degree at the University of Glasgow. She travelled to Serbia as a volunteer and tragically passed away during the typhoid epidemic in 1915.
  • Dr Katherine MacPhail OBE – involved in humanitarian work in Serbia throughout WW1. She is remembered for opening the first paediatric ward in Belgrade in 1921.
  • Dr Isabel Emslie Galloway Hutton – joined the Scottish Women Hospitals as a volunteer in 1915 after she was turned away by the War Office in London. She served in France, Greece and Serbia until 1920.
Serbian stamps commemorating heroines from the Scottish Women's Hospitals

Serbian stamps commemorating heroines from the Scottish Women’s Hospitals

Read the previous installments in this series about Ethel Moir and the Scottish Women’s Hospital:

There’s a Long Long Trail A-Winding (part 1)

There’s a Long Long Trail A-Winding (part 2)

There’s a Long Long Trail A-Winding (part 3)

Our search for Ethel (part 4)

 

Two artists, one war: Muirhead Bone and Louis Raemaekers

Central Library’s latest display shows two very different artistic perspectives on World War One.

Although commissioned by the War Propaganda Bureau, the drawings of Britain’s first official war artist, Muirhead Bone, give a restricted eye witness account of life on the front line. He depicts the quiet desolation of the aftermath of battle rather than the gruesome reality of conflict.

A Via Dolorosa, Mouquet Farm

A Via Dolorosa: Mouquet Farm, by Muirhead Bone, 1917

Louis Raemaekers approach is startlingly different. His cartoons, produced for the Amsterdam Telegraaf, criticised German brutality and leadership and supported the Allied cause. They combine biting critique, comical satire and hideous characterisations.

The Bill by Louis Raemaekers, 1917

The Bill by Louis Raemaekers, 1917

Two artists, one war is on display on the mezzanine level of Central Library until 26th May.

You can also explore many more works by the two artists on Capital Collections: Muirhead Bone and World War One and  Louis Raemaekers and World War One.