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THE WAR POETRY WEBSITE

Poems about the First World War
by Maureen Jones

On this page

Introduction

The Aragon

Explanations and links relating to the Aragon

Grandpa's medals

In Memory

No Weapons for fun

Maureen Jones's grandfather was in a troop ship, The Aragon, on 30th December 1917, just about to enter the Egyptian port of Alexandria, when it was hit by a torpedo fired from a German submarine. It sank within twenty minutes. Of the 2700 people on board 610 were drowned. Maureen's grandfather lived to tell the story and her poem (which was written and is often performed as a song) records his experience and reactions.

After the poem there is more information and a link to a website where an eyewitness account can be read.

Last moments of the Aragon

The Aragon 

From Malta, after Christmas, in nineteen seventeen,
Seems like only yesterday but I was just nineteen,
On board the troopship “Aragon”, sailing off to war,
Wondering what the voyage and the desert held in store.
The Med. was stiff with U boats, but the Aragon seemed fine,
She had destroyers on each side and zigzagged all the time.

The sergeant said, “You lazy lot, for there is work to do,
I need some volunteers below, that’s you and you and you”,
“Give me just a minute lads, and then I’ll do my share,
For here’s one sweating volunteer who needs a breath of air,”
I ran towards the bows, who knows what made me move so fast,
The stern was blown apart, I heard the noise and felt the blast.

Young nurses in the lifeboats; I hope there’s room for all,
The Captain calls “Abandon Ship”, who needs a second call,
My army boots are first to go, they’re no more use to me,
And they’ll not be short of company at the bottom of the sea.
I blessed the baths in Battersea where I had learned to swim,
I’d been in many races, but this one I had to win.

Some died in the Aragon, and some died in the sea,
Some men reached the escort ship, thinking they were free,
A torpedo hissed beneath my feet, disaster struck again,
And the men that had been rescued died in water and in flame,
And I turn to thinking now that more than sixty years have flown,
Of those two hours in the water so far away from home.

Now I watch my four great grandsons in the local swimming pool,
They’re laughing in the water and they’re safe now if they fall,
They’re learning as their mothers and their grandma did before,
But I hope they never need it in another bloody war.
I hope they never have to see six hundred comrades drown,
Or have memories like mine of when the Aragon went down.

Maureen Jones, 1982
 

Notes provided by Maureen Jones and extracts from newspaper cuttings which she has supplied

When my sister and I were young our Mum’s Dad, William Macdonald, encouraged us to learn to swim and told us how swimming had saved his life. When he was about eighty he told me the parts of the story he had edited when we were children and showed me the newspaper cutting which his father had kept. This song was the result.

He endorsed the song and approved of my singing it. I am sure that he would like it to reach a wider audience too. He lived for many more years and was able to watch his great grandson play water polo, one of the hobbies of his youth. 

Although these are song words, they could work as a poem if presented in a story telling form, less rhythmic, more reflective, as if my grandfather were recalling it while watching the children swimming. Some small words could be omitted to make it more naturalistic.
 

Maureen Jones 2008 

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Extracts from newspapers of the time

            Transcript of newspaper cuttings of the time.   (?) indicates words which were hard to read. Those words which were illegible are shown thus ………… 

RECENT NAVAL LOSSES 

Total casualties 901 

The Secretary of the Admiralty yesterday issued the following:

The transport Aragon (Captain Francis Bateman in command) was torpedoed and sunk in the eastern Mediterranean on Dec. 30th (1917).

One of His Majesty’s destroyers, whilst picking up survivors from the Aragon, was herself torpedoed and sunk, as reported in the communiqué of Jan 7th.

The casualties were as follows.

The Aragon: Officers 4 (Including the Captain) ……….13, Military- Officers 10,

Men 581.         Total 610. 

The Aragon was a Royal Mail steam………… of 9,588 tons gross register and (before ?) the war was a popular vessel on the South American route. She was built in 1905 at Belfast, was fitted up to carry over 1,000 passengers and had a speed of fifteen knots. 

The sinking of the Aragon

A  V.A.D. nurse who was on board the Aragon wrote home to her parents that the vessel sailed from Marseilles with destroyers as escorts. The vessel spent five days at Christmas in harbour where they had a “top hole” time. The vessel left the harbour the following Sunday, Proceeding, the writer says “No doubt we were watched then, but as we were so close to land we thought we were quite safe. At about 10.30 in the morning we could see land. I went down to my cabin and the steward was attending to my trunk which had got damaged on the journey when, at 10.55 there was a terrible crash and the steward cried out “My God we’ve got it”. Anyway, he got me outside, though (I/he ?) was not frightened, and gave me my lifebelt and (we) ran up two flights of stairs to our boat station as we sisters had been detailed to boats. In a (minute?) we had orders to get into the boats which we promptly did without any confusion. We were lowered, which was a shaky business, a doctor and a (colonel??) accompanying us and we got away in………….. as soon as we could. By that time ………… at the (stern?) of the Aragon were singing. By Jove it took some doing. We picked up a lot of the boys in our lifeboat off the rafts, and when we were packed we made for a trawler which was close by. Fortunately there were several close at hand as we were so near land.

            In the meantime we looked at the Aragon which was rapidly sinking. There were hundreds of boys in khaki on board her, and the sight I shall never forget. In fifteen minutes she had completely gone. Anyhow, we got into the trawler, and in another minute our destroyer was torpedoed right amidships. She went clean in half. She was close by and had picked up hundreds of Tommies. They had to go down again and, to my mind, that was the worst of all. The trawler headed for land at once. All the sisters were saved but there is a heavy death roll. We had many troops on board.

            As soon as we reached land we were taken to a sargeants’ mess close by where we had brandy and hot tea,

. We were then put in ambulances and taken to hospital. We had nothing in the wide world except what we stood in”. The writer adds “ A most awful thing happened (the next?) morning. Another ship was torpedoed in exactly the same place, she went down in five minutes. There were forty sisters on board and they were all in the water. A good many I believe were drowned. I know they brought eight sisters to the mortuary. (Osmanjeh) 

Heroic Nurses 

(Paraphrase) Dr. Macnamara, answering a question in the House of Commons said “I very much regret to say that eight nurses gallantly lost their lives in the country’s service on the occasion referred to. The names will appear in the casualty lists shortly. There has been some delay in checking the lists, but the next of kin have been informed ……… No provision had been made to confer any posthumous order in such cases but the nearest relatives would receive a commemorative medallion. 

The following is from “The Daily Chronicle”

Heroes’ last song on doomed ship
Birkenhead tradition upheld on Aragon
Nurses’ request to share soldiers’ perils

Southampton. Feb. 10th.

Over 100 members of the crew of the transport Aragon, which was sunk in the eastern Med. on December 30th with the loss of 610 lives reached their …… at Southampton on Saturday. Many told thrilling and inspiring stories. “……. owe my life to the fact that I was without boots. Many of the fellows had all their clothes on as well as heavy boots and must have found it very difficult to remain afloat. 

Twice in the water 

Another survivor told how he jumped from the Aragon and was rescued by the destroyer only to find himself in the water a second time when that ship went under. “I believe” he said “That the second torpedo which sent the destroyer to the bottom had been saved for the Aragon ……… It was not until the Germans were satisfied that the troopship was doomed that they attacked the destroyer. There must have been 300 or 400 on the destroyer for it had done excellent work in pulling men out of the water and some of then must have been killed or drowned in the second attack. …………………. of the soldiers, and the magnificent composure of the 100 nursing sisters on board. 

            The vessel disappeared within seventeen minutes of being struck, and one member of the crew said that he attributed the swiftness of the disaster to the fact that the cargo hold was practically empty. He said that the torpedo caught the vessel aft of the engine room department, shattering the shaft. Had the vessel been loaded with cargo the progress of the torpedo might have been arrested but as it was it crashed into the bowels of the ship and sent wood ………. and iron flying in all directions. Even then we did not think ………….. Most of us on deck thought we would have plenty of time to get all the soldiers away. When the crash ………. whilst we struggled with the lifeboats the soldiers were (drawn ?) up onto the lower deck.

            The vessel had taken a very decided list and when I tell you that some of the crew were up to their waists in water whilst they were launching the boats you will realize that the work was carried on under great difficulties. One of the lifeboats was smashed in the explosion but we managed to get one set away. It was not possible to launch all the boats because of the ship’s heavy list.

            I shall never forget the magnificent courage of the nurses. It was a case of women first, but those nurses would have gladly given up their places to the soldiers. Two or three of them made a protest as we were hurrying them into the lifeboats. “Let us take our chance with the Tommies” said one sister but of course ……… They showed no sign of fear. (Some of the ?) soldiers gave them a hearty cheer. (If they are proud of nothing else ?) they should be proud of the fact that 100 nursing sisters were not only saved but that not any one of them even got their feet wet.

            The other thing that will remain in my memory is the remarkable behaviour of the troops, men from all parts of the country, northerners as well as southerners, who  (seemed ?) to defy death. How they sang. I have heard the chorus “Keep the home fires burning” on many occasions but I don’t think that I have ever heard it given with so much power.

            And while it is a tragedy to think that so many of them went down, there are two reasons for it. In the first place the vessel sank quite unexpectedly and the second was that those who had been picked up by a destroyer went down when she was torpedoed. As mentioned in the Admiralty communiqué, what one of the seamen described as “the last act” occupied only a minute and a half. “Suddenly” he said “The vessel gave a tremendous lurch, it was the spasm of death. At that time many of the soldiers were drawn up at attention on the deck, and Captain Bateman, who remained on the bridge shouted “Now then, every man for himself, and may God help you all”.

            Within two minutes the great vessel had gone below and those who had not thrown themselves overboard were sucked down by the steamer. Another man who was among the last to leave the ship said that when the captain gave his final command he dived into the water, “I swam hard to get clear” he said “but it was a terrible ………………… 

             The newsprint became too faded at this point, it had been in Grandpa’s wallet for sixty years.

Other information about the event can be found on http://www.merchantnavyofficers.com/rm2.html . This includes a letter from Miss Hannay, one of the nurses. The other site is  http://www.jrawl.co.uk/pugh.htm  It relates to a Welsh war memorial.

The following poems may be of interest too.

This poem refers to my husband's grandfather's medals which I took to have valued and explained. The expert referred to them as "Pip, Squeak and Wilf" medals. 

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Grandpa's Medals (Pip Squeak and Wilf )

We took Great Grandpa's medals to a travelling antiques show, 
Just to have them valued, for we'd never let them go. 
We told the man "They're from the nineteen fourteen-eighteen war", 
We could tell by his expression that he'd seen them all before, 
And, though polite and helpful, he looked unmoved somehow, 
"They made them by the thousand and they're still quite common now, 
They're maybe worth a tenner, their value isn't high",
So I resisted the temptation to poke him in the eye,
Put the medals in my bag and turned to leave the hall. 
"They made them by the thousand," I suppose that says it all. 

Maureen Jones 

Memorial 

We built a new memorial (the proper thing to do), 
To those who died in conflict since the end of World War Two. 
We left the empty spaces for all those future wars, 
So many empty places, for my child or for yours. 

Maureen Jones. November 2007 

Last, but not least, a Limerick  for modern times:
 

No weapons for fun

"My children", I told everyone,
"Won't be given toy weapons for fun,
But Lego to fix,
Those nice coloured bricks",
So what did they build?
Bloody guns!

Maureen Jones

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