Signalman Walter Robert Thorburn

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

The grave of Signalman Walter Robert Thorburn

Walter Robert Thorburn was born on 1 August 1896 in Seacombe in Birkenhead, the third child and second son of James and Laura Thorburn.[1] His father and older brother worked for the Borough Council in the gas and water department and when he left school Thorburn became an apprentice gas fitter.

He enlisted into the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve on Merseyside on 2 February 1914, aged 17 (M3/243 Seaman). After war broke out, he undertook a period of training before joining the ancient ironclad battleship, now a moored repair ship, HMS Imperieuse. Having qualified as a signalman in the spring of 1917, he served aboard several ships before finally joining SS War Knight.[2] The freighter had been built and launched in San Francisco in April 1917; she was owned by the Hartlepool-based, shipping company  Furness Withy and contracted to the Shipping Controller as an armed merchant ship operating between the United Kingdom and the United States. Prior to her final journey from New York in March 1918, Thorburn fell ill and was admitted to hospital in New York. Meanwhile the War Knight sailed for England in a convoy of 16 merchant ships and six Royal Navy destroyers. As the convoy arrived off the Isle of Wight sailing without lights, War Knight collided with O. B. Jennings, at the time the world’s largest oil tanker—most of the crew perished, including three men of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve who had served alongside Thorburn.[3] Also killed was the ship’s replacement signalman, a seaman of the United States Navy, aged only 17.[4] Two of the ship’s crew were awarded the Albert Medal for their bravery in the incident, and an officer and rating from HMS Garland, which came to the rescue, were awarded the Sea Gallantry Medal.[5] [6]

Signalman Thorburn died of his illness in hospital in New York on 5 April 1918 and is buried in Cypress Hills National Cemetery, Brooklyn in Section 2, Grave 7746. His grave is marked with a United States National Cemetery Marker inscribed ‘Walter Thorburn, British Navy’. For his war service he was awarded the 1914-15 Star, British War Medal 1914-20 and Victory Medal.

His brother, R. D. V. Thorburn served in France and Flanders with The King’s (Liverpool Regiment).[7]


1. (Back) James McNaught Thorburn (30 March 1864-1952) married Laura Cockroft (1870-1848) in Leeds on 30 September 1891: Elsie May (29 June 1892-11 December 1983); Ronald Douglas Victor (5 June 1894-1971); Laura H. (14 May 1899-1986); and Norman James (21 February 1906-3 February 2004).
2. (Back) Erroneously recorded in most documents relating to Thorburn as SS Arkwright.
3. (Back) Petty Officer George Tucker, Able Seaman Joseph Gerrity and Able Seaman William Munro McPherson, all Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. None have a known grave and they are commemorated on the Plymouth, Chatham and Portsmouth Naval Memorials respectively.
4. (Back) Seaman 2nd Class, Signalman Charles Larue Phillips, United States Navy of Camp Hill Pennsylvania.
5. (Back) Albert Medal in Bronze (Sea) (Posthumous).

Apprentice Reginald Curtis Clayton, Mercantile Marine. London Gazette 27 August 1918; 30868, p 10115.

In March last the steamship in which Mr. Clayton was serving was in collision, and a serious fire broke out on board. Mr. Clayton was aft, where the accommodation for the crew was situated. It was his fire-station duty to stand by the flood valve of the magazine; and, in spite of the whole of the deck being in flames, he groped his way through the fire, found the valve, and turned it on to ‘flood.’ He received such severe injuries that he succumbed in hospital four days later. Those of the crew who survived no doubt owed their lives to the flooding of the magazine.

Chief Engineer David Falconer, Mercantile Marine. London Gazette 25 March 1919; 31251, p 3884.

On the 24th March 1918. the British S.S. ‘War Knight’ was proceeding up Channel in convoy, in company with the United States Oil Carrier ‘O. B. Jennings’. About 2.30 a.m. the ‘War Knight’ struck the other vessel on the starboard side abreast the bridge. Flames and fumes of naphtha appear to have spurted out of the ‘O. B. Jennings’, rushed the whole length of the ‘War Knight’, and set her on fire. The after part of the ‘O. B. Jennings’ also was soon burning furiously and the ships swung together, the ‘War Knight’ being to leeward of the ‘O. B. Jennings’ and consequently completely enveloped in the smoke, fumes and flames from the weather ship. Immediately after the collision flames swept across the top of the engine-room through the open skylight. Mr. Falconer stood in the flames and shut the skylights down to prevent the fire from entering the engine-room. Later on, when the third engineer and a fireman, who had remained below, made their way on deck, the former was severely burnt and gassed, and Mr. Falconer dragged both men to a place where there were less flames and fumes, and then put them into the engineers’ messroom with others whom, he had collected, from their bunks, and by breaking the skylight he assisted them all to get on to the boat deck. Finally, although he could not swim, he took off his own lifebelt and put it on the third engineer and did not leave the ship until he was satisfied that there were no others in need of assistance. Mr. Falconer displayed the greatest gallantry in rendering these services; but he was so injured that he subsequently succumbed in hospital.

Board of Trade Silver Medal for Saving Life at Sea (Sea Gallantry Medal).

Lieutenant Edward Stephen Fogarty Fegen, Royal Navy
Chief Petty Officer Patrick Driscoll, Royal Navy

On the 24th March 1918, while the British s.s. ‘War Knight’ was proceeding up the English Channel in convoy, she collided with the United States oil carrier ‘O. B. Jennings’. It appears that the naphtha, which was on board the latter vessel, ignited, and the two ships and surrounding water were soon enveloped in flames. The Master of the ‘O. B. Jennings’ gave orders that all the ship’s available boats should be lowered, those on the starboard side were burnt, and the crew abandoned the ship in the port boats, whilst the Master, Chief Engineer, Chief Officer and three others remained on board. H.M.S. ‘Garland’, under the command of Lieutenant Fegen, with other destroyers, were proceeding to the spot to render assistance, when it was seen that one boat which had been lowered from the ‘O. B. Jennings’ had been swamped. The ‘Garland’ closed the ‘O. B. Jennings’, rescued the men from the swamped boat, and then proceeded alongside the ship, which was still blazing, and rescued those who were still on board. She afterwards proceeded to pick up the others who had left the ship in boats, rescuing in all four officers and twenty-two men. Lieutenant Fegen handled his ship in a very able manner under difficult conditions during the rescue of the survivors, while Driscoll worked the helm and saw that all orders to the engine-room were correctly carried out.

6. (Back) For more information about the demise of War Knight see here.
7. (Back) 1931 Private (later 240436 Sergeant) Ronald Douglas Victor Thorburn landed in France with 1/6th (Rifle) Battalion, The King’s (Liverpool Regiment) on 24 February 1915. He was commissioned into the Regiment on 30 January 1918.

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