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.

Seaman Thomas Gleeson

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 Seaman Thomas Gleeson

Thomas Gleeson was a fisherman from County Limerick and a long-serving sailor of the Royal Naval Reserve who was mobilised for service in 1914; he served as a gunner on various ships until he died just before the war ended.

Gleeson’s service records indicate that he was born on 3 January 1872 in County Limerick. His actual birth was, in fact, a little over a year earlier, on 1 December 1870; one of the eight children of John and Kate Gleeson.[1] The family lived in the north of Limerick city and, like his father, Thomas Gleeson became a fisherman on the River Shannon. Continue reading

Leading Seaman Sam Gordon Wills

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

Editor’s Note: Leading Seaman Wills was incorrectly commemorated by the CWGC as ‘Leading Seaman Gordon Willis’ His online record now reflects his correct name and his gravestone will be replaced.

Leading Seaman Gordon Wills
Leading Seaman Gordon Wills

Sam Gordon Wills was born on 5 March 1887, the second of the six children of Francis and Harriet Wills, at South Town, Kenton, near Dawlish in Devon, where his father was a farm labourer.[1] By 1901 he was working as a yard boy for a family in Dawlish.

He enlisted into the Royal Navy at Devonport on 18 April 1906 and was numbered SS/1368—during his service he was known as ‘Gordon’.[2] After a short period of training ashore, he joined the crew of the battleship HMS Vengeance in the Channel Fleet. His second ship was another pre-dreadnought battleship, HMS Caesar, from June 1908 to May 1909, and he then joined the dreadnought HMS Temeraire. He was transferred to the Royal Naval Reserve on 29 April 1911. Continue reading

Stoker 1st Class Alfred Weeden

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 Stoker Alfred Weeden
The grave of Stoker Alfred Weeden

Although recorded as being on the crew of HMS Leviathan, in fact, Stoker Weeden died in an accident in New York while serving in HMS Charybdis, which was undergoing conversion to a passenger and cargo carrier.

Alfred Weeden was born at Farnham in Surrey on 25 December 1884,[1] one of the twelve children of George and Mary Weeden.[2] When he left school he became a bricklayer’s labourer before he enlisted into the Royal Navy on 2 July 1906.[3]

After a period of training ashore and afloat at Portsmouth, Stoker Weeden joined the armoured cruiser HMS Drake. He remained in Drake, other than for periods of training ashore, until July 1909, when he was posted to various training establishments on the south coast. He transferred to the Royal Fleet Reserve on 2 July 1911. Continue reading

Able Seaman Patrick McDonagh

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 older gravestone for Able Seaman Patrick McDonagh
The older gravestone for Able Seaman Patrick McDonagh

Patrick McDonagh (Padhraig MacConnachadh[1]) was born on 16 March 1895 in Claddagh, a fishing village on the western outskirts of Galway in Ireland. He was the fourth of the nine children of Thomas and Kate McDonagh, who lived at Rope Walk in the centre of the village.[2] His father was a stone mason but Patrick became a fisherman, like the majority of men in the village.

Claddagh in the early 20thC
Claddagh in the early 20thC

He enrolled in the Royal Naval Reserve on 20 June 1913 and was allocated the number 5050A. Between August and November he underwent training at Portsmouth and in the gunnery training ships HMS Duncan and HMS Albemarle, and in the Home Fleet in the battleship HMS Bulwark. In the period before the war he returned to Galway, initially fishing as a crewman on the trawler Star of the Sea, before joining the liner SS Merion for a crossing to Philadelphia, and then the White Star liner SS Suevic for a journey to Australia between March and July 1914. Continue reading

Leading Seaman Sydney Stephen Milliner

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 Leading Seaman Sydney Milliner
The grave of Leading Seaman Sydney Milliner

Sydney Stephen Milliner was born on 8 December 1873 at Sittingbourne in Kent, the son of Richard and Louisa Milliner. The couple had two daughters and three sons before Louisa died on 8 December 1879.[1] By then the family had moved to Sandwich. The younger children were brought up by their aunt Rosa, a widow who brought three children of her own into the family, and later had two more children with Richard.[2]

Milliner, who worked as a labourer, enrolled in Royal Naval Reserve on 1 June 1895; he was allocated the number 1708A.[3] Early in 1897, he married Matilda Foster Dray in Ramsgate and later that year their daughter, Jessie Florence, was born.[4] By the turn of the century the marriage had ended—his wife and daughter were living with his wife’s future husband, and Sydney Milliner was working for the North Eastern Railway on a dredger at Tyne Dock; he lived in South Shields. Continue reading

Stoker 1st Class Henry John Gardner Miller

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 Stoker Henry John Gardner Miller
The grave of Stoker Henry John Gardner Miller

Henry John Gardner ‘Harry’ Miller was born on 27 May 1891 at Southsea in Hampshire, the son of George and Louisa Miller—he was one of 14 children.[1] His father worked as a shipwright and Harry worked as a milkman in Portsmouth. In 1912, he married Harriet Freeman.[2]

He enlisted into the Royal Navy at Portsmouth on 10 May 1916 and was allocated the number PO/K/33007. His training lasted until 30 August and he joined the crew of HMS Leviathan, then alongside at Greenock in Scotland. He was promoted to Stoker 1st Class on 19 April 1917. Continue reading