Friday, 22 July 2016

Private war memorials in churches

Just south of Dunnotar Castle in the old county of Kincardine is the small village of Catterline. There is no civic war memorial in the village but there are memorials in the Church of Scotland and Episcopal Church to the men of the village who lost their lives in the World Wars. The cross in the churchyard of St James’ Episcopal Church lists eight First World War names and one for the Second World War. Like many church memorials is lists only names and gives no other details such as rank, unit or date of death to help anyone researching the names. There are also two men with the same name - William Stephen - which is always a challenge when there are no other details. 

Church War Memorial, St James' Catterline
Luckily, inside the church is a private memorial to one of the William Stephens with more information to help identify who he was. 

Private Memorial in St James', Catterline
Unlike civic memorials or other public memorials, privately purchased memorials often have a lot of information on them. They can be simple memorials such as an inscription on a headstone of they could be a brass or marble plaque on a church wall; or sometimes they are stained glass windows or other church fittings. Private memorials often give details of the cause and place of death and family information. Sometimes they will give the citations for gallantry awards or their war service before their deaths. A private memorial such as the one to William Stephen should be a very useful source of information for researchers then.  

The one in Catterline Church certainly has plenty of information. It records William Stephen’s rank, ship, next of kin, date of death and age. It was erected by the officers and engineers of the Australian Transport ship A.49 – a ship used to ferry Australian service personnel and cargo. Engineer Stephen had been in the crew of the SS “Seang Choon” before it had been requisitioned in 1915 as the HMAT 49 and had remained on the ship – still in the Mercantile Marine – when it was under Australian orders.

Engineer Stephen died in early 1917 but a search on the fate of the ship shows it was not lost in early January but in mid-1917. The HMAT 49 was torpedoed by U-87 off Ireland in June 1917. There is also no record of the ship being in any action which would have caused the death of Engineer Stephen.

Stephen’s private memorial records that he died on “Active Service” on  2nd January 1917 but a search on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission database does not show an entry for him, neither does the Scottish National War Memorial database. The CWGC and SNWM have strict criteria for inclusion for men of the Mercantile Marine on their databases. Engineer Stephen may have faced many of the same risks as his Royal Navy colleagues on the high seas but if he did not die as a result of enemy action then he would not qualify for inclusion on the CWGC or SNWM databases. The inscription “Active Service” is a red herring. This is unfortunately quite common on private headstones where ranks, units and dates can all be inscribed incorrectly and send researchers down blind alleys.

As it turns out 2nd Engineer William Stephen did not die on active service. At the time of his death he was not even at sea, he was in Greenwich Hospital and died of Meningitis & Hypostatic Pneumonia. If he had been in the Royal Navy rather than a civilian organisation he would have qualified for commemoration. He is one of many Scottish mariners who did their bit in the war but are not remembered in official records as a war death. However he is still remembered in his home village, and by the Scottish Military Research Group Commemorations Project (SMRGCP)

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