During WW1 Richard W. Morris was posted, by the Navy, at Malin Head in Ireland at the Wireless Station. This experience is explored in part two of his memoir. His war recollections, compared to other aspects of his memoir, are rather brief. There are some interesting war occurrences which Richard talks about in great detail, including a sinking and a rescue at sea, but these are few and far between.
The sinking happened during a particularly bad gale, he says it was a ‘harrowing experience…working one of H.M. ships unto her death’ (15). Due to the poor conditions the ship seemed to have ‘run on to one of the rocky outcrops off the island of Innistra-hull’ (15) (Inishtrahull is approximately 6 miles north of Malin Head). Richard was in contact with one of the men on the ship, presumably the Captain although this is not stated. The man’s last words were “Goodbye lads, you’ve done your best, but we’ve had it. Goodbye, and God Bless you” (16). It seems these words haunted Richard, ‘His last words I shall never forget’ (16). His memories are, as usual, clear, vivid and at times horrific. Alongside the tragic account of disaster, we are given a story of humanity and light with the rescue he describes. He recalls the communication he had with a German submarine. They came onto the radio to inform the station that they had just ‘sunk a Swedish ship the SS. Treben’ (17). The German had taken the officers on board and set the crew adrift in a life boat: sounding the alarm so life could be spared despite the risk of giving away his own position. These events are told with great sensitivity. Richard gives a voice to those lost in the incident, and by time itself. Malin Head was, and still is, a vicious place in bad weather, its rocks causing many vessels sinking during the wars.
Richard dips into his relationships with locals in the area, and some of the hostility between the Roman Catholics and Protestants. These are short and personal recollections and cannot be read in their wider context, regarding the relations between England and Ireland. As a stranger in a small community, he may have been distrusted despite his religious leanings or English origin. There are also stories of local people, experiences that are told for comic value, including that of getting a few ‘off duty lads’ (8) to help a local ‘Hotel-cum-Store-keeper, a Mr. Patrick Doherty’ (2) to bottle Guinness. When Richard returned, some hours later, he found them all ‘sprawled’ (9) on the floor drunk. The tone, when he writes about his time at Malin Head, is relatively relaxed. It may be that his time in Ireland gave Richard a sense of liberation. It certainly seems that this is the first time he is away from home for any considerable time.
Richard seems proud of his time spent at the wireless station, ‘an important link in the transatlantic communications chain’ (1), suggesting a patriotism to his character. His work was valuable and he recognises its importance in the larger strategies of the war,
I was, and still am, very proud to have had the experience and opportunity to be a member of the team who manned such an important link in our vital communications chain. It was a wonderful experience, and I still get a tremendous thrill when I realise how important it really was, and the responsibility we were entrusted with (2).
Considering the massive impact that WW1 had on the country his personal recollections in this area are relatively short. The memoir focuses, far more, on Richard’s comrades in the coal mining industry. His lack of writing about the war may be due to his different experience to those men stationed in a foreign land, in the trenches. Though Richard is affected emotionally by the sinking of the ship and the words he hears over the radio, he was somewhat removed from the more traumatic events portrayed and outlined by front-line soldiers. Thus, events in the pit seem to have had a rather more traumatic and lasting legacy for him.
Though Richard speaks nostalgically about the mines he does relate some distressing experiences, some of which he witnessed as a young boy. In part one of the memoir he writes, ‘I had not been at the shaft bottom many days before I was to witness an occurrence that has left its mark to this day’ (14). Richard explains how having already seen ‘one or two non-fatal accident cases’ (14) he was to be horrified by seeing his first fatality. A man had been seriously crushed and taken to the bottom of the shaft by stretcher, which was hinged in the middle. The cage to the surface was not wide enough to admit a stretcher full length, so the men had to bend the stretcher to fit it in. Richard writes, ‘I have remained convinced that this short-coming was a contributory cause towards what did eventually prove to be a fatal accident’ (14). He remembers in graphic detail the man screaming and begging his work-mates not to move him, until another man led him away from the scene. This would not be the last fatality Richard witnessed and certainly not the last injury, his own brother being crushed between two wagons, though not fatally. It is understandable given these events why Richard was relieved, and more than willing to move to an apprenticeship in the blacksmith’s shop on the surface of the mine. These lasting traumatic memories make it impossible for Richard to leave the mines behind.
This experience of trauma brings us back to Richard’s first musings: that there should be a lasting memorial to the miners of the coalfields, just as there were to the soldiers killed in action. He is not reducing the sacrifice of those who went to war, but escalating the importance of other kinds of comrades who lost their lives too (See my Purpose and Audience post for further details).
August, Andrew. The British Working Class, 1832-1940. Harlow: Pearson Longman, 2007.
MORRIS, R. W., ‘Autobiography of R. W. Morris’, TS, c.350pp. (c.140,000 words). Extracts published as ‘A Boy goes down the pit’, Bulletin of the Durham County Local History Society, No. 20, Oct 1977, pp. 4-12 (edited by G. Patterson). BruneI University Library.
‘R.W.Morris’ in John Burnett, David Vincent and David Mayall (eds) The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography 1790-1945, 3 vols. (Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989): 1:520.
Featured Image: Malin Head circa 1902. Courtesy of Malinhead.net.
Image: Maline Head circa 2014. Courtesy of Malinhead.net.
Image: Inishtrahull. Courtesy of Irishtimes.com.
Image: SS Laurentic. Coutesy of dailymail.co.uk.
Image: “1101”. Courtesy of dailymail.co.uk