Unit: H.M. Yacht Zaida
Service Number: 224/WTS.
Date of Death: 25 November 1916 – Died as a Prisoner of War
Age: 20 years
Cemetery / Memorial: Baghdad (North Gate) Cemetery
Grave / Panel Ref.: C. D1. Pink 36.
N.B. Baghdad (North Gate) War Cemetery is located in a very sensitive area in the Waziriah Area of the Al-Russafa district of Baghdad. A two volume Roll of Honour listing all casualties buried and commemorated in Iraq has been produced. These volumes are on display at the Commission’s Head Office in Maidenhead and are available for the public to view.
According to his Service Record William was born on the 2 June 1895, however, Birth Records show his birth in the June quarter 1896.
Like many he may have added a year to his age to enlist early. He was the son of John William (Grocer and Baker) and Louisa (née Couling) Wilson and had an older sister, Ethel Mary (born June quarter 1894). [see Footnote below]
In 1901 (Census RG 13/3048) the family were living on Manor Street, Ruskington, Lincolnshire (below).
Ten years later (1911 Census RG 14/19618) their address was recorded at Post Office Street, Ruskington.
Before the War William was a ‘Clerk‘ on the “… G.N. and G.E. Joint Railway at Park Drain. ”
(N.B. The Great Northern and Great Eastern Joint Railway was established in 1879, and the joint company built a line between Spalding and Lincoln to complete a new, primarily freight, route between Cambridge and Doncaster, a distance of about 123 miles [198 kms.]. The main purpose was to move Yorkshire coal into East Anglia. Park Drain was a railway station in Nottinghamshire, close to the border with Lincolnshire.)
William’s Service Papers show that when he enlisted he stood 5 ft. 6 ins (1.67 m.), had ‘hazel’ eyes and a ‘sallow’ complexion.
A long time after the end of the War William’s father, John, under what was called: “Naval Prize Money ” (reward paid to a ship’s crew for the capture or sinking of an enemy ship) received three separate cash awards: £25 on 4 February 1921; £37 10s. 0d. (£37.50) on 30 April 1923 and a Supplementary Award of £5. [These represent relative values of £1,500, £2,900 and £400 today (2023)] There is no apparent record of to what event these payments referred.
William’s parents remained in the village for the rest of their lives. His father, John William, died March 1949, aged 77, and Louisa was 91 when she died in June 1961. They now lie together in Ruskington Cemetery, New Plot, North Border, Grave 57.
According to ‘The Lincolnshire Chronicle’ [27 November 1915] William went into training as a wireless operator in September 1914 and “… on gaining his certificate went into service on HMS Astor. ” His Service Papers show William enrolled in the R.N.R. on 3 October 1914 and he was promoted to ” W/T Operator 1st Class ” on 23 October 1914. It was on this date that William was posted to the Yacht “Aster”.
On 20 May 1915 William returned to HMS Victory, a shore establishment, before being posted to HMY Zaida on 14 June 1916. HMY Zaida (painting left) was hired by the Royal Navy as a Patrol vessel on 26 May 1916. She was recorded as operating as a “Tender to HMS Hannibal” and was owned by The Earl of Rosbery.
There are 2 differing versions of the fate of H.M.Y.”Zaida”. She was built in 1900 and was a 350 ton Patrol Yacht. The British version is that she was sunk by a German submarine U35 in the Gulf of Alexandretta but the Turkish version is that she was sunk by Ottoman shore batteries. According to German records U35 was operating off Malta in August 1916 and could not, therefore, have been involved in Turkish waters.
According to ‘Jane’s Fighting Ships of World War One‘ she was sunk on 17 August 1916 by ” .. gunfire from German submarine U35 in the Eastern Mediterranean. ” (Gulf of Alexandretta) Another source has her hitting a mine in the Gulf.
Whatever the cause 3 Officers and 10 ratings and M.M.R. (Mercantile Marine Reserve) were lost. A further Officer, 1 rating, and 3 MMR died while prisoners of war. CWGC Records show that the 7 M.M.R. men are commemorated on the Plymouth Naval Memorial, whilst 2 of the R.N.R. men are on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial and the other 4 are remembered on the Chatham Memorial.
The “Amman Valley Chronicle” [31 August 1916] reported: “… four officers and nineteen men of her crew have been taken prisoners, but there is no information as to the fate of the remainder of the crew – two Officers and eight men – and it must be assumed that they are lost. .. “. Similarly, the “South Wales Weekly Post” [2 September 1916] reported that the armed Yacht Zaida: “… had been destroying petrol stores, etc. has been reported as being considerably overdue. ”
‘The Sleaford Gazette’ carried the following notice of the sinking:
“THE LOSS OF THE ZAIDA. As reported by the Admiralty in the daily papers of Friday last [i.e. 25 August 1916], H.M. armed yacht Zaida, which was on detached service in the Gulf of Alexandretta (the extreme eastern part of the Mediterranean) had been sunk, and especial interest attaches to the fact that Wireless Operator W. Wilson, son of the esteemed postmaster of Ruskington, was on duty on the ill-fated yacht. Mr. Wilson cannot at present get any details from the Admiralty as to who were included in the four officers stated to have been saved, but everyone hopes for the best. Wide spread sympathy is felt for Mr. and Mrs. Wilson and their daughter in their anxiety.”
Those taken prisoner included the Commander, Samuel R. Crabtree, who died in captivity on 30 September 1916. William was also one of those that became a prisoner of war.
In September 1916 the American Ambassador in Constantinople officially confirmed that William was a prisoner of war.
About the same time ‘The Sleaford Gazette’ reported that his father had received a letter from his son, through the American Mission in Adana, Turkey. The letter read:
“Dear Father, Just a line to let you know that along with 18 more of the men I have been taken prisoner by the Turks. The Zaida was sunk by an explosion last Thursday morning by 9 o’clock, and 19 of us were lucky to get clear away. I think it was very lucky any of us escaped as the ship went down in 30 seconds after explosion occurred. We were quite close to the enemy coast at the time and were only in the water three hours. Bar a few scratches here and there, I am quite alright.
Up to the present we have been treated very well by the Turks. They are all very decent to us and give us plenty of cigarettes and fruit. Of course, the food is a little plain, and not the same kind we get at home, but there is plenty of it. Both my mates were killed by the explosion. Poor fellows! they must have been blown to bits, as they were just where the explosion took place, We have not arrived at our proper detention camp yet, we are having a few days before proceeding again. Do not worry if you do not hear for a time, as we shall be on the move for some time before we settle down, but you may depend I shall be alright.”
Initially William, and presumably the other p.o.w.’s, were interred at the Camp at Afion Kara Hissar (right), a large prison camp which was located in the city of Afion Kara Hissar, in the Vilayet of Brusa in Anatolia, he was transferred to Angora (old name for Ankara) on 2 October 1916.
William died 25 November 1916 ” from Tuberculous Enteritis whilst interred as a Prisoner of War at Angora, Turkey. ” [Service papers]
William’s: ” Grave Not Identified ” and he was originally commemorated on Angora Memorial 183. [Angora was the old name for Ankara until 1930. On this memorial were the names of those prisoners whose graves were not identified.]
As well as Commander Crabtree and William, two other members of the crew died in captivity and are commemorated on the same Memorial – Steward Arthur E. Flower (15 November 1916) and Assistant Steward Robert Arthur Harrad, died two days later.
It took, however, until 7 August 1917 for The Admiralty to officially notify William’s family in Ruskington of his death. “The Sleaford Gazette“, published 11 August, no doubt in consultation with William’s parents, carried an in depth report of his life both in Service and as a prisoner of War:
“AFTER MANY DAYS.”- On Wednesday Mr. J. W. Wilson, the respected postmaster, received the sad news of the death of his son, in the following communication: – “Admiralty, 7th Aug., 1917. – With reference to your letter of the 31st ultimo, relative to William Brewin Wilson, Wireless Telegraph Operator, R.N.R., Number 224, W.T.S., late of H.M. Yacht “Zaida.” I deeply regret to have to inform you that, according to a report which has now been received from the Ottoman Government, he died on the 25th Nov 1916, from tuberculosis enteritis whilst interned as a Prisoner of War at Angora, Turkey.”
The much belated tidings came as a great shock to the family, who had received no communication from the deceased later than a card dated October 10th, 1915, but they hoped against hope for the best, knowing that he was interned in Asia Minor and most likely out of direct touch with the world at large. Monthly remittances of a considerable amount have been regularly sent by Mr. Wilson through the Navy League, and, as long as they were permitted, weekly parcels were also sent, as were frequent letters, and as nothing had been declined or returned, except one letter, the family, although suffering the greatest suspense, trusted to get tidings of their son, and hoped he was receiving all what was being sent. Mr. Wilson had made persistent enquiries through the Navy League, and the Swiss and Netherland Governments, the British Agencies in connection with prisoners of war, and, indeed, had left no stone unturned in order to obtain news of his son, but all without avail until he received the letter quoted above.
The gallant young fellow was in his 21st year, and the following particulars of his career, which was not without adventure, may prove interesting. In January 1914, he went as a student for a one year’s course to the British School of Telegraphy, with a view to becoming a wireless operator in the mercantile marine. When the war broke out in August of the same year, the Admiralty applied to the institution for men, and although young Wilson had not completed his course he at once offered his services, and like the enthusiasts of those days was anxious to do “his bit.”
His services were accepted, and he joined H M.S. “______” on board which he spent 18 months, most of the time patrolling the Irish coast, and during that period he was promoted a first-class operator. Then followed a “leave” (the only one) after which he was appointed operator in H.M. armed yacht, “Zaida,” which proceeded to the Mediterranean, and while cruising in the Gulf of Alexandretta the yacht was destroyed by the Turks on the 17th August, the Admiralty official notice of the loss of the vessel appearing in the press a week later; and stating that 19 of the crew had been rescued by the Turks and made prisoners of war, no names being forthcoming. For a month the family suffered the agony of wondering whether their boy had been saved, and then a letter from him gladdened their hearts.
It was dated from Afion Hara Hissar, where he was first interned, and gave an account of the destruction of the yacht – by what agency did not seem clear – and the subsequent three hours immersion suffered by the unfortunate young fellow before he was picked up from the shock and exposure, of which it may be he never really recovered. Cards followed from Angora, the last bearing date October 10th, and from the receipt of that everything has been a sealed book until the sad intelligence of his death came to hand. The greatest possible sympathy is felt for Mr. and Mrs. Wilson and their daughter.”
On Monday, 13 January 1919 William’s father, John, was invited by the Secretary of the Ladies Emergency Committee of the Navy League to attend a special memorial service for prisoners of war who had died in captivity, held at St. Margaret’s Church, Westminster.
“The Sleaford Gazette” of 18 January 1919 reported that Mr. Wilson: “.. was deeply impressed with the beautiful and solemn service, the musical portion of which was rendered by the choir of the church while the sermon was preached by a returned prisoner of war, Capt. the Rev. A. G. Wilken, of the Canadian Forces, who fittingly selected as his text: “Their bodies are buried in peace; their name liveth for evermore.”
As a result of Mr. Wilson’s visit to London, it was said that he hoped to get in touch with returned prisoners of war from Asia Minor and learn further news as to the fate of his son. He did not have to wait as “The Sleaford Gazette” of 2 weeks later (1 February 1919) reported under the heading: “HOW THE TURKS TREATED THEIR PRISONS OF WAR“, with the accounts of two of William’s shipmates on board the ill-fated “Zaida” and has received particulars as to the treatment they received as prisoners of war in the hands of the Turks.
Mr. Pierce Evans wrote:- “I was with your son William Brewin Wilson from the time our ship was mined, until the 14th or 15th Oct, 1916. I was messing with him at the time he went to hospital. During the time we were coming to Angora, and while we were at Afion-Kara-Hissan, he was in pretty good health. We arrived at Angora on Oct, 1st, and then he had some very bad attacks of fever. In fact we were all bad. We had no proper treatment.
There were W. Clive, your son and myself off the ‘Zaida.’ I was sent about 27 miles [43 kms.] from Angora to work on the railway, and your son and W. Clive were sent to hospital. In February I heard William was dead, and a few months later I met a soldier who was in the same ward and he confirmed the news. Three more off our ship died at the same time. I saw several of your letters after he died, but I could not get your address. I was very much upset when I heard of his death as he was one of the best young fellows I ever came across, good hearted, and very gentlemanly in every way.”
A letter from another shipmate, Mr. Frank Quelch, had also been received. In it he said: “It was in September that we were sent to Angora Camp. He [William] had no blanket, nor boots and insufficient clothes. Very bad stale loaves of bread were issued, and by the time the journey ended from Afion-Kara-Hissan to Angora it was almost uneatable. He went to hospital on arrival, and through the hardships in the cattle truck in which he travelled he contracted a cold which brought on dysentery.
This was the last I saw of him, I heard of his death from another Englishman who was in hospital at the same time. Of course, nothing could be done for he was in a very weak state. But I honestly believe if it had been our own doctors he would have lived. I should like to mention that your son was liked by all his ship-mates, and he stuck to his wireless until the ship was sinking.”
The Article concluded with the hope that amidst the great sorrow caused by the knowledge of their son’s heartrending sufferings, they will have the proud memory that he nobly did his duty until the very end.
On Easter Monday 1918 (1 April) William’s sister, Ethel Mary, married Corporal 13507 John Arthur Bayles, Bedfordshire Regiment. He was killed in action 3 months later, on 2 July 1918.
- “Experiences of a Prisoner of War in Turkey : the Captain White story”
- ‘The Sleaford Gazette’ – 2 September 1916; 14 October 1916; 11 August 1917; 13 July 1918; 18 January 1919; 1 February 1919