Seaman James Metcalf

This is part of a series of essays about the First World War casualties commemorated by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in Louisiana.

The Special Memorial commemorating Leading Seaman Peter Beatty
The Special Memorial commemorating Leading Seaman Peter Beatty

Seaman James Metcalf, Royal Naval Reserve, survived being torpedoed in the Mediterranean only to drown in an accident at New Orleans.

He was born on 17 February 1888 in the small, coal-mining village of Cambois in Northumberland the third son and third of the four children of Joseph John and Elizabeth Ann Metcalf.[1] His father was a coal miner at Cambois colliery and, by the time James was 13, he had followed his father down the pit.

He enlisted on 29 December 1914 at Chatham into the Royal Naval Reserve and was allocated the number A/7214.[2] He trained at HMS Pembroke (Chatham) until he was drafted to the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Lady Cory Wright, a former collier employed by the Royal Navy as a mine carrier.[3] He served on the Lady Cory Wright until April 1917 when, after a short period in hospital, he reported for training as a gunner on defensively armed merchant ships.

Following his training he served on a number of ships including the SS Chagres, a general cargo ship. On 10 March 1918 the Chagres was en route from Port Said to Salonica when it was sunk by UC-74 north-east of Crete. One member of the crew, Chief Cook Edward Shields, drowned. By 2 April Seaman Metcalf had reported back to Chatham and he was appointed to a new ship—it was at this stage that he was probably drafted to the defensively armed merchant ship SS Queen Helena.

He sailed on the cargo ship, with two other naval gunners, in early August 1918 from Barry, near Cardiff in Wales,  bound for the United Sates via Gibraltar. The Queen Helena sailed up the Mississippi River and came alongside at Gretna, on the western side of the Mississippi River opposite New Orleans, on 23 August.

On 25 August 1918 Seaman Metcalf was climbing the gangway to the ship when he fell overboard, fractured his skull and drowned.[4]

He was buried the next day in Cypress Grove Cemetery, New Orleans. The description of the cemetery on the War Graves Registry: Circumstances of Death Records reads ‘in the rear of Greenwood Cemetery ‘, which indicates that is was Cypress Grove Cemetery No. 2. This cemetery contained the mass graves of Confederate soldiers and graves of Union soldiers from the civil war. Much of this cemetery was built over to make way for Canal Boulevard. A small section was in use until the 1920s when it was built over. There are no markers to indicate the extent of the former cemetery. The grave of Seaman Metcalf is lost to history. He is one of four First World War burials and five Second World War burials in the area of Greenwood Cemetery.[5] He is listed on the British Burial Association memorial at Greenwood Cemetery and also on a Commonwealth War Graves Special Memorial as ‘buried in this cemetery’. The two Special Memorials commemorating the First and Second World War casualties are located at the British Burial Association Plot, which is at Magnolia Avenue, Lot 20, between Cedar Walk and Hawthorne Walk.

The unveiling of Cambois war memorial on 23 July 1932
The unveiling of Cambois war memorial on 23 July 1932

He is commemorated on the Cambois war memorial. The original memorial in the Cambois Workmen’s Social Club and Institute—a wooden triptych made from wood from HMS Britannia which was broken up in Blyth in 1917—was dedicated in a ceremony on Sunday 5 October 1919. Two hundred and seventy-eight men from the village had enlisted during the course of the war—55 were killed or died. The names of all of those who had enlisted were included on the memorial.[6] The building and the memorial were destroyed in a fire on 6 July 1928. The new brick and stone memorial at St Andrew’s church was dedicated on 23 July 1932; it was rededicated in 2014.

Cambois War Memorial
Cambois War Memorial

His medals group comprises the 1914-15 Star, British War Medal 1914-20 and Victory Medal.

Steve Ellwood for the photographs of Cambois war memorial.
Troy Valos for the photographs of Greenwood Cemetery.

1. (Back) Joseph John Metcalf (1842-1907) married Elizabeth Ann Scott (1853-1912) in 1885; John William (1882-NK); Thomas (1887-NK); Catherine (later Burns) (1891-NK).
2. (Back) His number is recorded by the CWGC as CH/72142.
3. (Back) RFA Lady Cory Wright was sunk by UC-17 on 26 March 1918; all but one of her crew were lost.
4. (Back) Jefferson Parish Death Records. Volume 4, page 462.
5. (Back) The Second World War burials are:

Fireman Francis Guy, Merchant Navy, died on 31 July 1942.
Master William John Kershaw, Merchant Navy, died on 30 June 1944.
Gunner David Somerville, 1st Maritime Regiment, Royal Regiment of Artillery, died on 17 July 1945.
Master Harry Stephen, Merchant Navy, died on 21 June 1943.
Master Frederick Wells, Merchant Navy, died on 14 May 1942.

6. (Back) ‘Cambois Memorial to Servicemen’. (10 October 1919). Morpeth Herald. p 7.

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