TRAWLING FOR MINES!

By
Dick White

Robert Butler
(1895 - 1916)
Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

Laurence Binyon

Robert Butler of Glasson Dock was drowned while serving with the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve on 15 May 1916. This note contains some information about Robert and what is known about the circumstances of his death.

Robert was born on 25 November 1895, the son of Robert and Agnes Butler of Flookburgh, and one of 11 children (he had four brothers and six sisters). At the time of Robert¹s death the family lived at 6 Thurnham Terrace, Glasson Dock near Lancaster.

The Butler¹s were a fishing family, and owned a number of small inshore fishing boats, working out of Glasson Dock. The boats were named after the daughters e.g. Derina, Eleanor Jane and Jessie.

In 1915 Robert volunteered for the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. He undertook an engagement of 3 years commencing on the 11th December 1915. He as part of the Mersey Division and his Service Number was Z/917. He was attached to the Royal Naval Division for basic training until 3rd April 1916, and then to HMS Victory at Portsmouth before being posted to HMS Iolaire, the shore base at Stornoway. He became part of the crew of HM
Trawler Lily Melling on 7th April 1916.

A copy of Robert¹s Enrolment Form is below. This shows that he was DD (Discharged Dead) on 15 May 1916, with the cause of death given as drowning. A search of files at the Public Record Office found no further information.The log of HMS Iolaire shows that HM Trawler Lily Melling sailed from Stornoway on 8th April 1916 and returned on 23rd May 1916. It does not mention any incidents.

Mrs Marion Inghram, one of Robert¹s sisters, recorded some of her memories of her early life, when she was 89. On the tape she recalls the loss of her brother Robert. She remembers that the family heard that Robert would be travelling from Portsmouth to Oban to join his ship. They believed the train would pass through Lancaster and went to the station in the hope of seeing him, but the train did not stop and they missed him. Later they heard that he had been drowned. Robert lost his life in an accident when a boat was lowered and overturned. Wearing sea boots, he was weighed down and could not be rescued.

Robert is commemorated on the Plymouth Naval Memorial, and the War Memorial in Glasson Church.

H.M.Trawler Lily Melling

Picture courtesy of Fleetwood Museum

Lily Melling was a Fleetwood registered trawler FD222. Built in North
Shields in 1908 by Smith¹s Dock Ltd., and owned by the Melling Steam
Trawling Co. Ltd. She was of 246 gross tons, registered length 125 ft.
(overall length 134 ft.). A copy of her entry in the 1918 - 19 Lloyds
Register is below.

She was taken over by the Admiralty in December 1914 for minesweeping duties. Her Admiralty Number was 400. She was handed back in 1919.

Lily Melling was wrecked in Islay Sound in December 1928 but was salvaged and restored. In 1933 she was renamed Gareloch and register as A276 in Aberdeen. She was wrecked again and became a total loss at Billowness, Anstruther on 18th August 1935.

Trawlers as Minesweepers in WW1

The following description of the Minesweeping Service in WW1 is taken from Swept Channels by Captain Taprell Dorling (Taffrail), published by Hodder and Stoughton in 1935.

On the outbreak of war almost 200 trawlers were immediately mobilised and began minesweeping with their usual crews. By the end of the war over 700 vessels were employed in minesweeping. A total of 214 minesweepers were lost during the war, about one a week.

It was recognised that fishermen, by virtue of their calling are adept in the handling and towing of wires and trawls. The Royal Naval Reserve (Trawler Section), the RNR (T), was formed in 1911 and consisted of 39,000 officers and men by the end of the war.

The technique used was for two trawlers to tow between them a sweep, taught and at the right depth. It required skill to maintain the correct depth as the tide changed, and to cover all the ground without having any gaps. Swept mines were destroyed by gunfire. In the early part of the war the majority of activity was in securing mine free passages along the East Coast. The majority of mines were laid by German surface ships. In 1915 the Germans began using mine laying submarines.

Stornoway is not shown as an important minesweeping unit until 1917 and 1918 when Lt. Howard McGlashan RNR with HMS Armageddon and Lt. W.A.Westgarth RNR in HMS Pavlova are shown based their. A chart giving the location and number of German mines laid around the British Isles shows that they were laid in the Outer Hebrides, off Cape Wrath, in the Minches and near Loch Ewe. One minesweeper was sunk in the vicinity of Stornoway. Some 800 British ships were lost to mines in WW1.

A measure of the huge regard the trawler men were held in was expressed by Captain Wilfred M. Bruce CBE who worked with minesweepers at Lowestoft throughout the whole war ³As a general rule there was little to disturb the monotony of the grim nature of the sweepers - twelve days at sea, and four in harbour in all weathers. The prospect of death and mutilation must always have been in the minds of the crews, but was accepted with the fatalistic composure which is such a marked characteristic of the class of men by whom these vessels were manned. For over four years these little ships, in many cases keeping their small crews intact throughout, swept continuously the different sections of the War Channel. The men knew full well, and often witnessed the fact, that 4 or 5 seconds after striking a mine, no trace of a trawler would be left, and that those of the crew still surviving would be struggling in water poisoned by high explosive. Their steadfastness under these conditions cannot be spoken of too highly, and it is doubtful if anyone - save those who were working with them, and, perhaps, the crews of the merchant ships which passed safely through the swept channels round our coasts - will ever fully understand the debt that England owes to the men of the minesweepers².

The Great War Bronze Memorial Plaque

This Plaque, some six inches in diameter, was given to the nearest next of kin of those killed in the Great War
This a photograph of that given to commemorate Robert Butler

The Plaque was accompanied by a certificate. The one shown is that of William Stoddart who is commemorated on the Lancaster War memorial

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