Major William Esson (Royal Marines Light Infantry)
Lieut-Commander Lance Freyberg (RN)
On 27th April 1916, off the port of Malta, HMS Russell struck two mines laid by a German U-boat and sank. 27 Officers and 98 ratings were lost, including two Old Dragons, William Esson and Lance Freyberg.
HMS Russell was flying the flag of Admiral Fremantle, who was amongst the 702 saved. He has written from Malta to say of William Esson, “His cabin was immediately over where the mine struck us. We were hit only four miles from the entrance to Malta Harbour. At that time all the officers, except those actually on duty, were in their cabins, and it is for that reason that we lost such a very large proportion of officers. The great majority of the people on the deck below the main deck, including your husband and five lieutenants (this must include Lance Freyburg) were never seen after the explosion, indeed there are now alive only two men who were in that part of the ship… ”
Whilst 24 officers together with the Captain and Admiral were saved, 27 were killed – almost 50%.
The degree of grief currently the lot of the Esson family can only be understood when one remembers that William Esson’s sister Margaret is the wife of Capt. Edmund Gay (Norfolks), who has been “missing” since last August.
Of Lance Freyberg, Captain Bowden-Smith wrote, “He was asleep in his cabin at the time (5.30 a.m). The explosion took place immediately under his cabin and I think he must have been killed instantaneously and did not suffer. I am afraid that all his belongings went down with the ship. Nothing was saved.”
Clearly, William’s and Lance’s cabins were in very close proximity and it is some small comfort that two Old Dragons should be together, comrades in life and death.
HMS Russell was one of the ships for which our boys supplied the crew with pipes in November 1914. Lance wrote a charming letter back to them. It is a great sadness that the pipes have not become pipes of peace, as he had hoped.