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  • Writer's pictureSarah von Allmen

Remembrance 2020 (6)

A short series of blogs about Stockport men.

6. Two men on the Royal Edward: Harry Turner and Norman Royle of Heaton Chapel

James Turner, a compositor, married Emma Brigg at St Peter’s Church, Levenshulme on 22 June 1882 and their only child Harry was born in Longsight fifteen years later on 6 October 1897. The family moved to Wingate Road in Heaton Chapel when Harry was a boy and worshipped at the Heaton Moor Congregational Church.

Harry was only 16 when war broke out, but once he turned 17 he joined the East Lancashire Field Ambulance of the Royal Army Medical Corps, a Territorial unit with a lower age limit than the regular army. In theory the minimum age for overseas service was 19, but on 28 July 1915 Harry embarked for Gallipoli on the troopship Royal Edward.

Another member of the RAMC on the same ship was Harry’s neighbour Norman Royle, who lived just a few minutes’ walk away in Langford Road. Norman was born in Bredbury on 12 February 1894 and was the third child of Joshua Royle, a mercantile clerk, and his wife Elizabeth Shaw. Like Harry, Norman spent part of his youth in Levenshulme before moving to Heaton Chapel, where the 1911 census records him as an architect’s assistant, although he would later become a grey cloth salesman. Unlike Harry’s family, the Royles were Anglicans, and presumably worshipped at St Thomas’ Church, a short walk from their home. Norman’s service record has survived, and we know that he enlisted in the RAMC on 26 November 1914.

The Royal Edward sailed from Avonmouth with 220 crew members and around 1,370 officers and men on board. They arrived at Alexandria on 10 August and carried on towards the island of Lemnos, a staging post on the Gallipoli route. On 13 August they passed the British hospital ship Soudan heading in the opposite direction, but both ships had been spotted by a German submarine. Ignoring the hospital ship, it fired a torpedo which hit the Royal Edward in the stern, and the ship sank within six minutes.

Norman and a friend were on deck not far from the stern when the Royal Edward was hit and hurried to their cabin to collect their lifejackets, only to find that Norman’s had already been taken. To make matters worse, their assigned lifeboat had been destroyed in the explosion and the stern was now under water. Luckily Norman was a good swimmer, so he took off his coat, dived into the water and swam as far away from the ship as possible before she went down. In a letter home he wrote “It was an awful sight to see the ship sinking, head first, the boilers bursting, and the good ship then disappeared with a roar.”

After swimming around for a while Norman came upon a life raft and climbed on, but it was already overloaded and taking on water so he and two others who could swim jumped off, and with the aid of two spars from the wreckage he remained in the sea for another three hours. Fortunately the Royal Edward had managed to send an SOS before sinking, and Norman was finally picked up five hours after the explosion by the Soudan which had turned round and come back to help the survivors.

Harry was not so lucky: he was initially reported missing, but as time went on it became clear that he was among those who had perished. Estimates of the dead vary, but an Admiralty casualty list named 864 officers and men who were missing and believed drowned. One reason for the high death toll was that they had just completed a boat drill, so most men were below decks re-stowing their equipment when the torpedo hit.

Local newspapers reported that over twenty members of the RAMC from the Heatons were on the Royal Edward when it sank, but the only others I have definitely identified are Frank Wilfred Ridge (a neighbour of Harry’s from Wingate Road), John Alfred Milner of York Road, Heaton Moor, Charles Sydney Hodgkinson of Didsbury Road, Heaton Mersey and Bruce Beveridge Blackwood of Gibson Road, Heaton Moor. Other men known to have joined up at about the same time who were likely to have been on board were Frank Abbott of Hawthorne Grove, Heaton Moor, Arnold Grundy of Didsbury Road, Heaton Mersey, Frank Pearson Walton of Brantwood Road, Heaton Chapel and George Trevor Moyles of St Alban’s Avenue, Heaton Moor. Like Norman, all these men survived and came safely through the rest of the war.

Harry is commemorated on the Helles Memorial and the Stockport and Heaton Moor/Chapel war memorials as well as the Heaton Moor Congregational Church memorial.

My WWI website is dedicated to all First World War servicemen from the Heatons and Reddish: the survivors as well as the casualties.

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