Merchant ships of the First World War era are fascinating. This was a period when the goods of the world were transported across oceans to and from teeming ports full of noise and people. Steam ships were taking over from sailing ships although there were still many of these in operation. The shipyards that built the ships were working at full capacity to meet the war-time demand (especially given the numbers that were sunk by U-boats) and the ships they built were magnificent feats of engineering. Two thousand, four hundred and seventy nine merchant ships were sunk in the war and much can be discovered about them by using the sources given below.
The most useful website to go to in order to find out about all aspects of merchant vessels is the Crew List Index Project (CLIP) website. It is a not-for-profit volunteer project, set up to assist research into the records of British merchant seafarers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It is an amazing site, which has the most information on ships (and seafarers) in any one place. It is the first ‘port of call’ for any searches because as well as providing the information that it holds, it gives links to other sources of information in other places. Databases that can be searched include:
These databases draw on original records that include the following sources.
From 1855, British ships were given a unique official number when they were first registered. The number stayed with the ship throughout her life, even if she was re-registered or the ship’s name was changed. It was frequently carved or welded onto a substantial part of the ship’s structure.
The official numbers were allocated by the Registrar General of Shipping. At each Port of Registry the numbers were recorded in the Shipping Registers and also in the Appropriation Book for that port. Copies of register entries were sent to the Registrar General of Shipping who maintained the central Appropriation Books, which formed the single complete definitive list of British registered vessels and their official numbers.
First published in 1849, from 1857 the annual Mercantile Navy List (MNL) listed the official number of every British registered ship afloat at that date, giving details of registry and ownership, and physical details of the ship. It continued until 1977, with a gap during the Second World War. It is by far the most useful record of British registered shipping, because it is comprehensive – including all ships of any tonnage over 15 tons
This is the annual list of ships insured at Lloyd’s of London. It included official numbers from 1872 and continues to the present. Lloyd’s Register is not comprehensive: only ships registered with Lloyd’s are included, so many smaller ships are not there.
Once you have found the page for the ship that you are interested in on the CLIP website, all the information held on that ship is linked on the ‘sources’ column. Click on these links to bring up this information. For example, the page for the DERBENT on the CLIP website has a list of sources with links. Clicking on the ‘Appropriation Book’ link brings up a scanned page of the original Appropriation Book showing the entry for the DERBENT. Clicking on the ‘MNL’ link brings up a scanned page of the original Mercantile Navy List, 1915, showing the entry for the DERBENT.
Example: search results page for the DERBENT on the CLIP website.
Example: scanned page of the original Appropriation Book showing the entry for the DERBENT.
Example: scanned page of the original Mercantile Navy List, 1915, showing the entry for the DERBENT.
The National Maritime Museum at Greenwich has a series of research guides for those who want to look further. These include where to find information on shipbuilding, including where to find ship’s plans, ship’s movements and cargoes and ship’s company’s records.
The website Naval-History.Net is the most comprehensive online resource for researching Royal Navy operations during the First World War.
All five volumes of Naval Operations are freely available to read online on the Naval-History.Net website. They provide extensive details of Royal Navy operations during the war and you can trace the operations of specific ships. Included are appendices with lists of losses and campaign descriptions. Unfortunately, the maps are not included, and you would need to see the original books to view these.
The Naval Operations volumes have been described as:
“indispensable to any researcher or scholar of World War 1 who wants to start to understand the vastness of the war at sea and the role of the Royal Navy and its Allies” — Gordon Smith, Naval-History.Net
The official place of deposit for records of the Royal Navy is The National Archives (TNA) at Kew in London. And they have a series of research guides to help you look further into their extensive collections of Royal Navy records covering this period.
The website uboat.net has the most comprehensive information about both ships and U-boats lost during both world wars. The search page ‘ships hit by U-boats during WW1’ allows you to put in a ship’s name, which then takes you to a map showing where she was sunk, the date, the U-boat which sunk her and the type and size of ship. Clicking again on the ship’s name on this page takes you to another page with further information, such as: the operator of the ship, number of casualties, route and cargo.
Many of the ship’s pages have photos and there are photographs of the commanders of the U-boats.
There is also extensive information about the U-boats including their fates during and after the war.
Example: ship’s page on uboat.net for the DRINA.