RFA Naval Discipline in WW1
World War 1
Deserters and Absconders
Crew records show that between the period 27 May 1916 and 1 January 1920 while subject to Naval Discipline 148 crew members (both Officers and Ratings) were registered as having deserted. A further 16 were shown as being absentees without leave while 6 were just noted as having ‘failed to return to their ship’.
The ships with the worst record were RFA Fortol and RFA Petroleum both having recorded 19 crew members as having deserted.
A few records show that when arrested the deserter faced imprisonment. Deserter James Sutton, a Stoker from RFA Servitor was sentenced to 42 days hard labour when he was arrested on 27 April 1917. Others are noted as being sent to Naval Detention Quarters (DQ’s).
Army Deserters on RFA ships
Three soldiers, who had signed on RFA ships under Admiralty control, were found to have deserted from their Army Regiments.
One, a Private from the 16th (Service) Battalion, Royal Warwickshire Regiment, signed on RFA Rapidol on the 9 August 1918 as a Fireman. He was identified as a deserter and arrested on the 22 February 1919 and taken under escort to RFA Sunhill – the RFA Accommodation ship based in Portsmouth Harbour. Notation on the crew record tends to indicate that he managed to escape and then desert from this ship. His relations have advised he was suffering from shell shock and spent the rest of his life in a mental hospital in Kent.
A second was a Private in the Labour Corps who deserted from the Army on the 19 November 1917 and signed on RFA Francol as a Signalman and Able Seaman on 1 December 1917. He was identified as an Army deserter and taken into custody on 30 September 1918.
The third was found on RFA Industry. He had signed on as a Stoker on the 6 September 1917 but was discharged when identfied as an Army deserter and arrested on the 12 October of the same year.
During World War 1 discipline formally enforced against RFA Officers resulted in trials by Court Martial. Both RFA Officers and Rating charged with serious offences also faced the prospect of a Court Martial.
Between 29 May 1916 and 11 October 1919 44 Court Martial’s were convened where 39 RFA Officers (one twice) and 5 RFA ratings appeared as defendants.
In the main the offences related to being drunk onboard or ashore however some allegations were of a totally different character: -
On 12 July 1917 the Captain of RFA Barkol was charged firstly that he ‘Negligently or by default stranded his Majesty’s Royal Fleet Auxiliary ‘Barkol’ and secondly being drunk on board. The record doesn’t show if the stranding was caused by the Captain’s drunkenness. The charges were proved and he was ‘Dismissed his Ship’.
On 18 January 1918 two seamen from RFA Rapidol were charged with sodomy. In one case the allegation was not proved and the accused was acquitted while in the second the offence of sodomy was not proved but Able Seaman and Signalman George H. Constable was convicted of an offence of indecent assault and sentenced to 3 years penal servitude.
On 9 August 1918 a Sub-Lieutenant on RFA Ruthenia was charged with ‘Guilty of a scandalous action in derogation of God’s Honour and corruption of good manners’. The case was not proved and the accused was acquitted. While no facts were shown in the Admiralty monthly record of Court Martial’s this offence was provided for in the second paragraph of the Articles of War.
On 11 October 1919 four officers - Engineer Sub-Lieutenant James Woodhouse, Assistant Engineer William Cowden, Engineer Sub-Lieutenant George R. McOnie faced allegations that they “stated that they refused to take RFA Serbol to sea” and Engineer Lieutenant William M Shaw faced an allegation that “he wilfully disobeyed the lawful command of his superior officer when ordered to steam RFA Serbol to sea”. The first three were dismissed their ship while Lieutenant Shaw was severely reprimanded.
The Officer to face two Court Martial’s was Engineer Lieutenant Charles P. Vickerman of RFA Philol who appeared before a Court Martial on the 16 January 1919 when he faced three charges - Improperly leaving his ship, using insulting language to a Sub-Lieutenant and being absent without leave. The Lieutenant was convicted of the first and third offences and was dismissed his ship. On 3rd April 1919 Lieutenant Vickerman while now serving on RFA Petroleum was charged before a Court Martial with two offences – Absent without leave and improperly leaving his ship. The officer pleaded Guilty to both offences and was adjudged to forfeit 12 months seniority, to be dismissed his ship and to be severely reprimanded.
Prison and Detention
RFA crews in WW1 faced prison or detention for a variety of offences other than being sentenced by Court Martial.
The Crew records have 8 being sentenced to prison while 25 received sentences in cells or in Naval Detention Quarters for matters other than desertion.
In most cases the reason for the punishment is not shown however Switchboard Operator George Ed. Jesson of RFA Reliance was, on the 7 May 1918, sentenced to 14 days detention for sleeping on watch.
Some were recidivist offenders with Able Seaman L. Henderson of RFA Reliance in Malta being sentenced to 7 days in the cells of HMS Egmont on the 2 April 1918 and a further 60 days in DQ’s being awarded to him on the 18 April 1918. His misdemeanours are not recorded.
Another seaman plainly didn’t like the thought of returning to his ship - Able Seaman Lewis Hogan of RFA Dredgol at Gibraltar, was sentenced on the 28 June 1919 to 42 days detention. On his release he deserted.
The longest period of punishment in DQ’s shown as awarded to RFA crew members was 90 days each to three engine room ratings at Malta.
The notice below was outside the Detention Quarters at Portsmouth and is obviously post WW2 but similar notices were outside all Detention Quarters which held those sentenced to Detention from RFA's both at home and overseas and would have referred to the King George V