Let me tell you the story of a young man.
Named after his father James, the middle child in a large family, he started life in Aldershot, Hampshire, before moving to North London where he grew up. His mum came from Cornwall and his dad from Ireland. They’d met when the latter had been stationed in Plymouth with his regiment, the Royal Devonshires, and ended up in hospital there.
By the time young James came along, the family had lived in Salford, Dublin, Colchester, Cork and back to Dublin, following that same regiment wherever it was posted. Rumour has it that they moved to London because his dad wanted to avoid being sent abroad, probably to Burma, without his family. So he went AWOL. They even started spelling their surname differently to avoid detection and arrest, leaving the younger children with a different name to the older ones.
Life seemed settled with James’s dad and older brother, Tom, getting jobs as gunmakers at the local factory. But then tragedy struck. First his dad and then his baby brother died within a year of each other. James was 12.
When he was 15, Tom got married to Emma, and soon James was uncle to a baby niece. Some years later, Emma gave birth to his namesake, another James to add to the family.
When he was 18, our James signed up. The family needing the security of another reliable wage, he became a regular like his dad had been, but not in the army – no, James became a Royal Marine, ‘Soldier an’ Sailor Too’ as they were known. He was assigned to the Light Infantry, Portsmouth Division, fulfilling the traditional roles of shipboard security, boarding parties, and small scale landings. He was proud of the Brunswick Star, with all its hallmarks of the Corps – globe, laurels, anchor, crown, ‘Gibraltar’, and the motto ‘Per Mare Per Terre’ – that he wore on his white helmet on ceremonial occasions. Only men of proven good character were allowed to enlist – his credentials had been fully checked with the Police and his former employer first.
By the outbreak of war, with 6 of his planned 12 years’ service behind him, James was an established Marine, having earned his 1st and 2nd Good Conduct medals. The Corps was sent to defend key ports, where their actions enabled the army to move forward and extend their flank to establish a fighting front. However, this success came at a price: 300 men from James’s battalion were taken prisoner. Soon the Corps was preparing for another key amphibious attack, its location a secret.
But James, along with 224 other officers and men, was assigned to a newly commissioned minelayer, HMS Princess Irene. Built at Dumbarton, 5900 tons in weight, at 120 metres long with a beam of 16 metres and a draught of 5.2 metres, she could travel at up to 22.5 knots.
After two successful mine laying trips, the vessel moored back at her base at Saltpan Reaches in the Medway, between Port Victoria and Sheerness, ready for a refit and loading with a new consignment of 500 mines – that’s about 150 tons of high explosives. These were contact mines, detonated by a ship passing over them.
On the morning of 27th May, it was busy for James and his fellow Marines. Only 3 officers had been given leave to go ashore so all the rest of the crew were on the two mine decks, finishing priming the mines which had been brought down by barge from Upnor and Woolwich. Each mine had to be fitted with a primer and a detonator, which they’d started the day before. Also on board were a party of 88 Petty Officers from Chatham and 76 dock workers, who were helping to repair and ready the ship for her departure on the 29th.
At about ten past eleven, first one and then another flash, each followed by a 200 feet column of flame, shot up from amidships. A few minutes later, there was an enormous explosion and the whole ship blew up into the air, spreading debris, body parts, and chaos over a 20 mile radius.
It killed all those on board bar one, the crew of a barge alongside, a little girl playing innocently in a garden on the nearby Isle of Grain, and our James. He was just 26.
Rumours of sabotage abounded but a later official Royal Navy enquiry found that it was an accident, probably caused by a faulty primer but with implications of the work being carried out in too much haste and by untrained men. Such a senseless waste of life.
So why am I telling you this story? And why am I calling it a blessing?
Well, you’ve probably guessed that this isn’t a recent event. James was born at the beginning of the 20th century and died in the First World War. His isn’t a story of great daring and heroics, not like his fellow Marines who went on to earn their reputation of ‘first in last out’ at the notorious Gallipoli. His is an ordinary story of a man working hard for his family, just doing his job, and losing his life in an horrific industrial (albeit military) disaster. They were one of the lucky families – at least there was a body (or enough of one) for them to bury in their local cemetery back in North London.
James’s death might not be as a result of some great battle in the First World War but it still remains a great tragedy of that War. His death was still a result of that War. His was a dangerous military occupation and he paid the ultimate price for someone’s inexperience and pressure to finish by a deadline.
But I am reminded of the honour and heroism of all men who enlisted at that time, whether just for the war or, like James, a regular in the armed services. They joined knowing the risk, knowing the ultimate sacrifice they, and their families, might have to make.
Men and women continue to make that choice. Whole families continue to make that choice generation after generation. I’ve had a great great grandfather and two grandfathers in the army, a father, uncle and three cousins in the Royal Air Force.
We’re blessed to have our military personnel, flawed human beings as they all are, who are willing to take that risk for the sake of others, willing to be sent to dangerous places to do their jobs at any time at the drop of a hat or the sound of a bugle, knowing they might pay the ultimate price. I don’t think I could ever be that brave but I thank God for those who are.
So why the story of James in particular? Well, I nearly didn’t mention my military relatives also include a great grand uncle who was a Royal Marine. James’s baby niece was my grandmother.