A Merchant Navy became an important lifeline for many European countries during the war.
The British Isles relied heavily on imports of food and raw material from the Empire, Dominions, and other countries.
As the war economy grew so did demand for more resources. The British Navy was the largest in the world and was augmented by the Merchant Navy. Many Orangemen from commercial seaports like Larne, served in that vital arm of the war effort. Two examples were Lieutenant James Canning and Stoker Hugh Purdy from LOL No. 22.
Thousands served aboard ships that brought vital cargo to the factories and tables of the country. Germany recognised the importance of trying to stem this flow of supplies and quickly embarked on an unrestrained U-boat campaign. Thousands of tons of shipping were lost.
Like other restricted jobs, many Orangemen were among the ranks of the Merchant Navy. William Henry Ryding, of Strandtown, Belfast, was Master of the SS Castlebar and member of LOL No. 1161. SS Castlebar was a cargo and transport ship that operated between Scotland and Ireland. On 14 March while heading for Limerick, she was lost; hit by either a torpedo or an enemy mine.
It was equally dangerous for those ‘civilian ships’ requisitioned for war service. At the beginning of the war SS Minneapolis was requisitioned to take some of the BEF to France. She continued as a transport and supply ship until being sunk on 24 March 1916 near Malta. Amongst those who perished was Matthew Weir, a member of Deramore Purple Star LOL No. 819 in Belfast.
Another example was that of Bro. John McGowan of LOL No. 745 in Portrush. Bro. McGowan (pictured right) had retired from the sea and settled in Glasgow.
With the outbreak of war, he felt it important to use his skills to assist with the war effort. He re-joined the Merchant Navy, serving on board the SS Gretaston.
Sadly, the ship struck an enemy mine while travelling between Glasgow and Ireland on 4 November 1917 with the loss of all hands.