William Whitmore was born on 21st May 1876 in Stoke on Trent Staffordshire. His parents were William and Mary A Whitmore, both born and bred in Stoke on Trent. He was the sixth child for the couple who now had four sons and two daughters.
William junior grew up in Stoke on Trent and on 28th August 1895 at the age of 19 years, he signed up for the Royal Navy, joining the Royal Marines Registration number 8115.
The Royal Marines were originally formed in 1755 and were classed as ‘sea soldiers’, even though they are part of the Royal Navy they have army ranks. The Marines were divided into three divisions, Chatham, Portsmouth and Plymouth and as shown on Williams record he was attached to Portsmouth Division. William was in the Royal Marines Light Infantry, also known as the Red Marines due to the colour of their uniform.
This photo shows William in his uniform which would have been red.
Williams Navy record below records that at the time of his enlistment in Hanley, he was 5ft 78/10”, with brown hair, grey eyes and a fresh complexion. He had several tattoos, the main one a Heart, crossed hands and dot on his left forearm. His religion is shown as Church of England and it is recorded that he could swim, and this had been tested!
When he enlisted his next of kin is recorded as his mother, who was still living in Stoke on Trent. Presumably, by this time his father had died, he doesn’t show on the 1891 census although Mary lists herself as married rather than a widow, (this could be confirmed by checking death certificates).
Williams occupation at the time of his enlistment was Tile Maker. He grew up in the ‘Potteries’ area of England, where tile making was quite a big concern. Stoke on Trent was well known for making tiles and some of them grace many famous buildings across the world. More information can be read at https://ceramiccitystories.info/potteries-tile-trail
“Tiles made by Minton and Maw and Co. were being imported regularly to Australia by the end of the 1860s, and were used at St Paul’s Cathedral in Melbourne and Sydney’s Great Synagogue”. (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-stoke-staffordshire-21633906) Minton was one of many Staffordshire Pottery Companies, however there is no evidence where in Stoke William was working when he enlisted.
The Navy record shows that William had to undertake Musketry and Gunnery training on a regular basis, he also received several good conduct awards throughout his career. This gives a reliable indication of the character of the man, which along with his ability was described as good or very good.
William served on several different ships throughout his career, mainly armed heavy cruiser style ships including HMS Australia, Alexandra, Duncan and Arrogant. He also spent some time on the training ship HMS Boscawen.
On 18th February 1904 William married Margaret Bessie Cooke at Eastry Kent, later that year in December their first daughter was born, Kathleen Louisa Maude. In 1907, after 12 years service, William left the Navy and joined the Royal Fleet Reserve.
William, Margaret and Kathleen
(Picture taken from BBC News website)
The family moved to Northamptonshire and William found work as a Blast Furnace Engineer. In 1910 a second daughter was born, Norah, and the couple moved to Sheepbridge, Chesterfield, were they set up home at 560 Sheffield Road.
William must have enrolled in the Royal Fleet Reserve for four years, as in 1911 he re-enrolled. In July 1914 William was recalled to Portsmouth Division and in August he transferred to SS Carmania, an armed Merchant cruiser.
SS Carmania image taken from https://www.naval-history.net
On 14th September 1914 the Carmania was involved in action with CAP Trafalgar, a German Auxiliary cruiser. It is noted in Williams navy record that he was injured during this action. However, six men were killed, four died of wounds and in total 26 were injured. More information on this action can be read at
William stayed with the Carmania until June 1916. A summary of Williams travels during this time is below, taken from here
These logs cover the period from 14 August 1914 until 5 June 1916, when HMS Carmania completed her Royal Navy Service and was returned to the Cunard Steam Ship Comany. Her service during this period can be summarised briefly as follows.
August – late September 1914: Operations in the South Atlantic including the action with the German armed merchant cruiser Cap Trafalgar. In this action, the Cap Trafalgar was sunk and HMS Carmania suffered serious damage
Late September – late November 1914: Repairs and refit at Gibraltar.
Late November 1914 – Late March 1915: Carmania was primarily employed on the ‘Tagus Patrol’, examining merchant vessels entering and leaving the Tagus River at Lisbon, Portugal. During this period, Carmania spent a further five weeks undergoing refit work at Gibraltar.
Early April – mid May 1915: Carmania was employed on the ‘Canary Islands Patrol’, examining merchant vessels in the region of the Canary Islands off northwest Africa.
Mid May – mid June 1915: Carmania spent time at the Dardanelles in the eastern Mediterranean (mainly at Port Mudros) before returning to Devonport.
Mid June – early August 1915: Refit period at Devonport.
Early August – early October 1915: Canary Islands Patrol, before returning to Devonport.
Early October – mid November 1915: Round trip to Halifax, Nova Scotia, returning to Devonport.
Mid November 1915 – late May 1916: Canary Islands Patrol, including patrolling in the vicinity of the Cape Verde Islands, before returning to Liverpool.
26 May – 5 June 1916: Removal of all naval stores in Liverpool. Naval crew returned to their respective barracks and HMS Carmania returned to Cunard. For the remainder of the war she served as a troopship, not returning to passenger service until 1920.
The Ship’s Log, Copy Log and Rough Logs from the time of Commissioning until 14 September were destroyed by fire and water during the engagement with the German Armed Merchant Cruiser Cap Trafalgar on 14 September. Therefore the logs for that period contain almost no information other than the location.
The voyages of Carmania during 1914-1916
From the information in the ships logs it would appear that William probably didn’t return home during this period.
On the 1st June 1916 William was paid out of the Prize Bounty for the sinking of the Cap Trafalgar. (A monetary reward was paid out to a ships crew for capturing or sinking an enemy vessel).
His next ship was Orvieto, again an armed merchant cruiser, and he served on Orvieto from July to December 1916. At the end of July she left London for the Northern patrol and over the next six months intercepted over 30 foreign merchant ships. William certainly saw plenty of action during World War 1.
In April 1917 William was promoted to Lance Corporal and at some point joined the SS Anna Sofie, another armed British Merchant ship. His Navy record doesn’t show the exact date that he joined but he was certainly serving on Anna Sofie in July 1918.
From this point there have been written several accounts of what happened to William, each story fascinating.
This excerpt from http://ww2talk.com/index.php?threads/wwi-soldier-leapt-into-the-sea-after-u-boat-attack.54299/ gives a good account of what happened to William Whitmore.
“Had they known who was lurking beneath them in the waters off the coast of Cornwall, the ship’s gunners would have been on full alert while men in the engine room were working full pelt to give the captain extra speed.
However, the crew had no idea they were in any danger and Lance Corporal William Whitmore, of the Royal Marines Light Infantry – a 41-year-old reservist born at raised at Boothen Street, Stoke-on-Trent – was resting below deck with the rest of the ship’s gunners.
Below the surface, Kapitanleutnant Werner had his crew on red alert as he gave the order to fire torpedoes, at about 2.30pm on July 23, 1918.
For the crew of the Anna Sofie the torpedo seemed to come from nowhere and struck virtually without warning.
Perhaps a vigilant crew member scanning the waves for signs of enemy submarines may have seen the waters part as the missile headed for the ship. If so, he would have had no more time than to shout a panicked warning.
For the vast majority of the crew, the impact was the first they knew of the attack. William, an experienced sailor who had served in the navy years before the outbreak of war in 1914, was instantly awake.
As the ship quickly filled with water and began sinking into the deep blue, the order came – ‘abandon ship’.
Knowing time was at a premium, William was instantly on deck. He quickly pulled on a lifejacket over the vest and trousers he had been sleeping in and jumped into the rough seas.
At some point while he was in the water, William suffered a broken arm – perhaps from the initial impact when he leapt into the water, or perhaps the swell later caused floating debris to strike him.
Whatever happened, he had enough strength to swim a fair distance away from the Anna Sofie, avoiding being sucked under by the pull of the sinking ship.
The last person to see him alive was a ship’s steward called Wilkinson, who had followed William over the side.
William’s wife, Margaret Bessie Whitmore, had written to Wilkinson almost immediately after hearing her husband was missing, imploring him for information about what happened.
In a reply to her, written on August 2, 1918 – 10 days after the attack – Wilkinson wrote: “We were off Trovose Head, Cornwall, and your husband was asleep at the time with the other gunners and your husband got on deck and then jumped overboard and I went after him and after we swam a good distance from the sinking ship he called me and I went to his assistance and when I got where he was, he had disappeared and I myself was taken out of the water a long time afterwards by a patrol boat, unconscious, and landed at a little place called Padstow, Cornwall.
“But Madam I may say for sure I was the last one who saw your dear husband alive and there was a fair big sea running at the time and there is no doubt but he has gone to his eternal home and rest.”
Margaret, aged 31 in 1918, and William had been married for 14 years, since 1904 when William was serving in the Navy and based at Portsmouth and she 17 years old.
As a sign of their love, the couple had each had a tattoo – scratched with ink by William himself – on their left arms, the side closest to the heart; hers a picture of a Marine with the letter ‘W’, his showing the figure of a lady with the letter ‘M’.
Their first child, Kathleen, was born later that year with a cowl over her face, a thin harmless membrane, which William had stitched into his Royal Marine belt for good luck.
He had left the Navy after 12 years of service in 1907, and joined the Royal Fleet Reserve, earning extra cash on top of his job as a blast furnace engineer.
Then in 1910, the couple’s second daughter, Norah, was born as the family moved from Wellingborough, Northants to Sheepbridge in Chesterfield.
When war broke out in 1914, William re-enlisted – he had wanted to join the newly formed submarine service.
But Maggie, as he always called his wife, persuaded him to rejoin the marines, which she believed would be less dangerous.
William had served at sea throughout the war, eventually training as a gunner and transferred to the merchant navy, where experienced marines like him were needed to help protect the ships from the threat of submarines.
He had joined the crew of the Anna Sofie in February, 1918.
Following the attack of U-55, the vast majority of the crew, about 70 men, were picked up by a patrol boat and taken to Padstow Harbour.
One man, Private William Moore, a Royal Marine who served alongside Lance Corporal William Whitmore, helping to operate the ship’s 4ins aft-mounted deck gun, had suffered torpedo blast injuries to his abdomen
He died two days later and was buried with full military honours at Padstow Cemetery.
Nineteen days later the body of another Royal Marine washed up at Tregudda Gorge, a few miles from Trevose Head.
The man was wearing a life belt over a vest and a pair of trousers, with three buttons marked ‘Royal Marine Light Infantry’. He had a cut to the face and his left arm was broken.
On his left arm was also a tattoo, a picture of a lady, with the letter ‘M’.
The unknown marine was never identified.
He was given a full military burial and lies to this day in an unmarked grave next to that of Private Moore in Padstow Cemetery.
Lance Corporal William Whitmore is commemorated on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial, to soldiers lost at sea with no known grave”.
William died on 23rd July 1918 aged 42 years old.
In 2015, after much research by John Buckingham and Peter Smith, William was finally identified as the Marine recovered from the sea in 1918 and the headstone now shows his name.
At the time Williams granddaughter said, “We could never have imagined this happening after all these years but it is wonderful we now know his true resting place.”
“The whole family would like to thank the town of Padstow, for taking care of my grandfather when he was found and keeping him until we were brought together again.”
Sadly, this would be far too late for Williams wife to know what happened to her husband.
William was awarded the Star, British War and Victory Medals, he is remembered on Old Whittington and the Brushes War Memorials, Portsmouth Naval Memorial and of course Padstow Cemetery.