HMS Alsatian

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

Trimmer Walter John Joseph Bowles, Mercantile Marine Reserve
Trimmer Percy Samuel Tomas Hyett, Mercantile Marine Reserve
(and Trimmer Leslie James Thornton, Mercantile Marine Reserve)

HMS Alsatian
HMS Alsatian

Two teenage sailors of the Mercantile Marine Reserve—Trimmers Bowles and Hyett—died while HMS Alsatian was alongside in New York during the influenza epidemic in October 1918. A third teenage sailor, Trimmer Thornton, had died as the ship was approaching the United States; he was buried at sea and, for completeness, his story is included here. This story is linked with that of the men of HMS Andes.

HMS Alsatian was an armed merchant cruiser. Built as an ocean liner in 1913 for the Allen Line, her maiden voyage was in January 1914. She was requisitioned for service with the Royal Navy on 7 August 1914 and initially armed with eight 4.7-inch guns, later increased to eight 6-inch guns and two 6-pound anti-aircraft cannons. She had a large crew—67 officers and 480 crewmen—who became officers of the Royal Naval Reserve or men of the Mercantile Marine Reserve.[1]

Alsatian spent most of the war in 10th Cruiser Squadron, on the Northern Patrol, on duties around the Faeroe Islands and Iceland. She was the Squadron Flagship for Rear Admiral Sir Dudley de Chair CB, MVO[2] and, from March 1916, Vice Admiral Reginald Tupper CVO.[3] In August 1917 she became the first Royal Navy ship to be painted in dazzle pattern camouflage. 10th Cruiser Squadron ceased operation in 1917 and, from early 1918, HMS Alsatian was used on trans-Atlantic escort duties.

On 28 September 1918, HMS Alsatian departed Liverpool bound for New York. Among the crew were the three young Trimmers, all on their first voyage. Trimmers were responsible for the loading and movement of coal on board ship; they were amongst the least well paid crew members, with some of the worst working conditions.

On 4 October the number of men on the sick list trebled to 13 as men fell ill to influenza, and more became sick in the coming days. The first to die was Trimmer Thornton, who died as HMS Alsatian approached the coast of the United States at 6.10am on 4 October. The 17-year-old was buried at sea that afternoon, 230 miles due south of Saint Pierre and Miquelon. The burial service began at 3.45pm and just before 4.00pm the ship was hove to. After the committal of his body to the sea the ship made ‘half-ahead all four’ and progressed on her way. Trimmer Thornton is commemorated on Portsmouth Naval Memorial.

Alsatian journeyed up the Hudson River and came alongside at Pier 95 opposite 55th Street at 11.20pm on 6 October. At 2.30pm the following afternoon Trimmer Hyett died—he had just turned 17.

At 9.00pm that night the sickest men were sent to Brooklyn Navy Yard Hospital—three trimmers, a petty officer stoker and a leading seaman. The remains of Trimmer Hyett were sent ashore on the afternoon of 8 October, in preparation for his funeral.

The last of the crew to die was another 17 year-old, Trimmer Bowles, who died in hospital on 9 October. The ship landed a funeral party on 10 October and Bowles and Hyett were buried together in a single grave in the Seamen’s Church Institute plot in The Evergreens Cemetery, Brooklyn. There are 11 other CWGC burials in this cemetery.[4]

HMS Alsatian departed New York in the early hours of 15 October and returned to Liverpool.


Trimmer Walter John Joseph Bowles

(Commemorated by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission as 917688 Trimmer J W Bowles.)

The grave of Trimmer Walter John Joseph Bowles
The grave of Trimmer Walter John Joseph Bowles

Walter John Joseph Bowles was born on 29 October 1900, the second youngest of the six children of Harry and Louisa Bowles.[5] His father worked as a motor car cleaner, and the family lived in Paddington. Given the records that exist, he may have been known as ‘John’.

Bowles joined HMS Alsatian as a trimmer in September 1918 and, as a result, was enrolled into the Mercantile Marine Reserve, being allocated the number 971588.[6] Given their numbers, it is probable that he signed on at, or about, the same time as Percy Hyett. This was his first voyage.

He died from the consequences of influenza on 9 October 1918, aged 17, and is buried with Hyett in The Evergreens Cemetery, Brooklyn, in Grave 17 in the Seamen’s Church Institute plot.

The memorial plaque presented to the family of Trimmer Bowles
The memorial plaque presented to the family of Trimmer Bowles

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

His brother, Albert, enlisted into the Army Service Corps in August 1914 (MS/1554, Driver) immediately proceeded to France. He served in France and Flanders for the rest of the war as a driver and fitter. He was discharged in April 1919.

Trimmer Percy Samuel Tomas Hyett

(Commemorated by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission as  971573 Trimmer P Hyett.)

The grave of Trimmer Percy Samuel Tomas Hyett
The grave of Trimmer Percy Samuel Tomas Hyett

Percy Hyett was born in the third quarter of 1901 in Gloucester, the second of the four children of Samuel and Annie Hyett.[7] His father was a crane driver for the Great Western Railway.

Percy Hyett joined HMS Alsatian as a trimmer in September 1918 and, as a result, was enrolled into the Mercantile Marine Reserve, being allocated the number 971593.[8] Given their numbers, it is probable that he signed on at, or about, the same time as Walter Bowles. This was his first voyage.

He died from the consequences of influenza on 7 October 1918, aged 17, and is buried with Bowles in The Evergreens Cemetery, Brooklyn, in Grave 17 in the Seamen’s Church Institute plot. A new gravestone has been placed over a different grave plot, some distance from Bowles’.

His parents received a letter from the ship’s surgeon that stated:

A trimmer’s life is a hard one but he died for his country as surely as any soldier died in France.’[9]

Trimmer Hyett is commemorated on Gloucester City War Memorial. The memorial was unveiled in 1925 and in 1933 a curved wall was added behind the memorial on which are plaques recording the names of the dead.

Gloucester City War Memorial
Gloucester City War Memorial

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

His brother, Ernest, served briefly with 3rd Battery, 2/1st South Midland Brigade, Royal Field Artillery, Territorial Force (2110, Driver) before being discharged in September 1915 because he was under age (Silver War Badge, number B42822).

Trimmer Leslie James Thornton

Leslie James Thornton was born in Poplar in the fourth quarter of 1900, the eldest of the six children of James and Ada Thornton.[10] His father was a Royal Navy pensioner and worked as a cooper.

Leslie Thornton joined HMS Alsatian as a trimmer in 1918 and, as a result, was enrolled into the Mercantile Marine Reserve, being allocated the number 966835. It is probable that he died on his first cruise.

He died from the consequences of influenza on 4 October 1918, aged 17, and was buried at sea. He is commemorated on Portsmouth Naval Memorial and on the memorial at St. John the Baptist Church in Erith, Essex, which was the home of his parents in their later years.

The war memorial at St. John the Baptist Church, Erith
The war memorial at St. John the Baptist Church, Erith

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

Acknowledgements:
William P. Gonzalez for the photographs of the graves in The Evergreens Cemetery.
John Marshall for the photograph of Trimmer Bowles’ Death Plaque.


1. (Back) The Mercantile Marine Reserve comprised merchant seamen who served under a special wartime Naval engagement and were subject to Admiralty regulations and the Naval Discipline Act.
2. (Back) Later Admiral Sir Dudley Rawson Stratford de Chair KCB, KCMG, KBE, MVO, Governor of New South Wales.
3. (Back) Later Admiral Sir Reginald Godfrey Otway Tupper GBE, KCB, CVO.
4. (Back) See also: Serjeant George Birkenhead, Able Seaman Thomas Drinkwater, Private William Richard Eveleigh, Leading Seaman William Charles John Geeves, Able Seaman Patrick McDonagh, Stoker 1st Class Henry John Gardner Miller, Leading Seaman Sydney Stephen Milliner, Fireman Low On, Scullion William B. Parr, Stoker 1st Class Alfred Weeden, and Leading Seaman Sam Gordon Wills.
5. (Back) Walter Henry Bowles (1859-1919) married Louisa Henrietta Lawrence (1866-NK) on 18 March 1889: Albert Edward (1890-NK); Margaret Ellen (later Stagg) (9 May 1893-5 September 1956); Violet Louisa (later Harris) (19 April 1895-1971); Nellie Edith (16 October 1897-NK); and William Elijah (22 February 1903-10 January 1986).
6. (Back) The Mercantile Marine Reserve medal register records his number as 971588 and records his rating as ‘Fireman’. The CWGC Graves Registration Report Form records his number as 971688.
7. (Back) Samuel George Hyett (1874-1948) married Sarah Ann Tuffley (1876-1945) on 22 May 1898: Ernest George (7 February 1899-1973); Edith Annie (1905-NK); and Beatrice May (1907-1967).
8. (Back) The Mercantile Marine Reserve medal register records his number as 971593, as does the CWGC Graves Registration Report Form, which was amended from 971573.
9. (Back) ‘Local Casualties’. (9 November 1918). Gloucester Journal. p 6.
10. (Back) James Thornton (1859-4 January 1939) married Ada Elizabeth Richards (1870-9 July 1964) in 1899: Minnie Isis (later Eskett) (9 August 1899-NK); Bertie Wilfred (19 February 1902-1959); Irene (2 May 1903-NK); Ada Elizabeth (14 October 1904-NK); and Doris Ivy (1908-NK).

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