May 7th 1916

William Esson

Major William Esson (Royal Marines Light Infantry) 

Lance Freyberg

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

HMS Russell

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.

 

October 29th 1915

It is good to learn that Major Charles Mayhew (RMLI) – whose father is the chaplain here at Wadham College – has received his copy of the school magazine safely, even though he is so far away in the Dardanelles:

Suvla Bay 5/10/15. “I have been reading with great interest the experiences of various ODs in the Great War, as set forth in the last copy of the Draconian and I feel I must congratulate the Skipper and say how great an honour I feel it is to have once been a member of the School that supplied the hero of quite one of the bravest deeds in the whole war. I refer of course to Jack Smyth…

I thought it might interest you to hear something of the Naval side of the Dardanelles campaign, as far as is possible…

The chief work of the Navy lies in making all arrangements for and superintending the landing of troops detailed for the operation and in covering the landing with their guns… After the landing has been effected, the next duty is to supervise the landing of various stores…

A secondary duty is to keep down the fire, as far as possible, of the Turkish guns whenever they start shelling the beaches or the transports and store-ships in the Bay. This in theory sounds fairly simple, as the ships’ guns easily outrange all the guns that can be brought against us, but their guns are all in such well concealed positions behind hills or other natural features, that it is only by the aid of observation officers in aeroplanes fitted with wireless, that we can be spotted on to them.

We usually get up a game of hockey on the quarterdeck in the evenings, which makes up in vigour what it lacks in science and observance of the rules, and causes more casualties among officers than all the shelling…

The other evening, just after dark, a tremendous bombardment started all round our lines and the sight of the shrapnel and star-shells bursting, with the noise of the continuous rattle of maxims and rifle firing, was most awe-inspiring and we thought that the Turks must be making a most determined night attack, but the real explanation was that our men in the trenches had just heard the good news from the Western Front, and a Scotch regiment started playing the bagpipes and cheering lustily, which so alarmed the Turks that they started all down the line, loosing off anything that came to hand.”

* * * * * * *

The last letter we received from Jack Smyth was at the end of September. He is now in Egypt and is enjoying a rather safer existence:

“The climate here is perfect and there is very good tennis and boating and bathing in the salt lakes, so that we have almost forgotten about the war…”

He tells us that is hoping to return to more active service before too long in France, or possibly in the Dardanelles.