1. Memorial:The (1940) Scroll - WW1 Roll of Honour21A GQS

Awards & Titles:


Early Life :

John was the son of the Reverend and Mrs Thomas, of Major House, Newport. He was a Mechanical Engineer, and had been working in Africa prior to the war.

Service Life:


Unit / Ship / Est.: SS Falaba 

"On 28th March 1915 the SS Falaba, built 1906, 4,806, was torpedoed and sunk by U 28, 38 miles W from the Smalls Lighthouse, St George's Channel, carrying passengers from Liverpool to Sierra Leone, owned by Elder, Dempster & Co Ltd of Liverpool and managed by the Elder Line. 104 people died, a mixture of crew and passengers The crew did surface and were accused by survivors of jeering and shouting taunts at those struggling in the sea. I can also tell you that a second torpedo was fired at the Falaba. This happened as the ship was being evacuated, and while the ship was sinking from the first impact. Most passengers and crew had been evacuated, and a boat was being lowered when the second torpedo hit. This boat was destroyed. According to Hubert Blair, the boat simply disintegrated, and the force of the explosion threw him into the sea. Except from Daring deeds of merchant seamen in the great war - Wheeler, Harold F. B 1918 The submarining of the unarmed Elder Dempster liner Falaha on the 28th March, 1915, has several points of special interest. First, it was cited in one of the numerous American Notes, and was consequently a contributing factor in bringing Uncle Sam to a decision to enter the war on the side of the Allies. Second, the commander of the attacking craft graciously gave his word that five minutes would be allowed for the purpose of removing passengers and crew. Third, the German officer lied, and fired the torpedo before the appointed time-limit was up, and while many remained on the vessel. Fourth,the enemy jeered at drowning men and women. Fifth, the foresight of Skipper George Wright, of the steam drifter Eileen Emma, spared the death roll a goodly number of names, while other small fry also lent a helping hand. Sixth, the Falaha was the first passenger ship to be torpedoed. The hner, of 4806 gross tons register, was sunk about fifty-five miles west of St Anne's Head, off the Pembrokeshire coast, while on a voyage to Sierra Leone. Of the 242 souls on board, 147 were passengers. She had only left Liverpool the night previous to her loss, and as a snowstorm had marked the occasion, it would scarcely be a stretch of the imagination to assume that the majority of her population were looking forward to seeing the West Coast of Africa. When the submarine was ' spotted ' she was about three miles distant. Some witnesses declare that she was flying the white ensign, which was afterwards lowered and the German flag shown. The captain offered no resistance, though an attempt was made to outdistance the enemy craft. He sent the third officer below to urge the chief engineer to get every ounce of energy out of the ship. The response was immediate, but the Falaba was not built for record breaking, and all too soon it became painfully evident that she was second in the race. The pirate was gaining. Meanwhile the course was altered so as to bring the submarine dead astern. When called upon to stop and abandon ship, Captain Fred Davis summoned all his passengers on deck and ordered them to put on lifebelts. The crisis had come, and he faced it without fear for himself. His one thought was for the lives of those in his charge and the safety of the ship. ""Stop, or I will fire into you,"" the enemy signalled, and the captain, having no alternative but to obey, brought the vessel to a standstill. An inkling of what had passed in his mind may be gathered from his instructions to the third officer. While the latter was in the engine-room he was to burn a bag of dispatches that there might be no possibility of state secrets falling into the hands of the Germans, should the worst happen. This had been faithfully carried out. The passengers were told to take to the boats. The first was upset, possibly because some of those who had been left behind took fright and jumped into it before it had reached the water. It is not easy to ascertain the facts of a moment hke this, when strange and terrible things are happening. Tragedies of the sea are usually not long adoing. In such affairs the mind acts quicker than the eyes, and the mental photograph taken is apt to be distorted when developed by memory. The consequence is that often enough the accounts of trustworthy folk vary very considerably, though the eye-witnesses may have been standing within a yard of each other. Other boats were got out. The sea was choppy, and three of them were swamped. Four got away safely. The torpedo was fired without warning, at point-blank range, and before there had been sufficient time for all to leave the doomed liner. Her track was through the struggling folk in the water, numbering possibly one hundred. One life-boat full of passengers was on the point of being lowered at the moment of impact. The explosion was so terrific that the davits snapped and the boat crashed down and overturned. The deadly weapon had struck amidships, near the wireless room ; there was no hope for the ship. Within about twelve minutes the sea had opened and swallowed her up. One cannot perceive humour in such a situation. Yet the khaki-clad pirates of U 28 laughed at the spectacle, and jeered at the struggling mass of humanity engulfed about them or dropping into the icy sea from the overhanging steamer. They lined the deck of the sub?to use the shortened form of the Service?keeping a gun trained on the wreck meanwhile. As soon as the Falaha had gone down the grey wolf made off in the direction of another steamer. In an attempt to palliate his foul deed, Commander Schmidt said that his men were crying. They must have been crocodile tears, for on the previous day the same submarine had killed three men in an open boat by shrapnel fire. Both passengers and crew showed cool courage. There was no panic. One lady, uncertain whether to stick to the ship or get into a boat, had the problem solved for her by a quartermaster. He just took her in his arms and threw her overboard. It was a drastic measure, but it saved her life. Willing hands clutched at her and dragged her into a passing boat. Many people undoubtedly died from exposure. The torpedo actually passed beneath one of the boats. One man was swimming and floating for three hours before being rescued. Many brave deeds brighten the tragedy of the Faloha. True to a time-honoured tradition, Captain Fred Davis remained on the bridge, and went down with his ship. Almost his last act was to assist a lady passenger from the boat deck to the poop deck and see that she was accommodated in one of the boats. He then ran the house flag up at the masthead, and endeavoured to attract the attention of trawlers in the vicinity. When the Falaha took her final plunge. Captain Davis came to the surface, was picked up with the aid of a boathook, and died shortly afterward. He had the ship's papers tightly clasped in one of his numbed hands. Captain Fred Davis was a nobleman of the British Mercantile Marine. A number of the officers and crew ""sacrificed their lives in preserving those of the passengers,"" to quote a telegram sent to the owners by one who was rescued. An officer stayed behind to take photographs. Another stood talking until the vessel was on her beam ends. He then walked down into the sea, and was subsequently rescued. The chief cook supported a steward on an awning pole for nearly an hour. The Marconi operator was fully alive to his responsibilities. When he was told that a submarine was overhauling the Falaha, he sent a message to the station at Land's End, and requested that it should be passed on to a battleship. He communicated again, adding, ""Torpedo; going boats."" Although the submarine had not then fired, it was fairly obvious that she had every intention of doing so. Such foresight is to be commended. Skipper Wright, of the Eileen Emma, saw the pirate an hour before she came up with the liner, and did his best to follow in the hope of ramming her. Opportunity failed him, though he got to within 200 yards of the submarine. He searched the neighbourhood of the wreck for two and a half hours, and with his brave comrades picked up 116 people. It is pleasing to be able to add that Skipper Wright and his crew were presented with a cheque for ?125 by Messrs Elder, Dempster & Co. They also received ?100 from a naturalized German "" who wished to show his abhorrence of German methods of warfare."" The skipper of the drifter Wenlock, attracted by the noise of the explosion, picked up eight persons, and Orient II also assisted in a similar way. In giving his judgment at the official inquiry into the loss of the Falaba, Lord Mersey said that while he was not called upon to state whether the submarine was within her rights in sinking the liner, he assumed in any event she was bound to afford men and women reasonable opportunity of getting to the boats and saving their lives. His lordship characterized the time-limit as ""grossly insufficient,"" and concluded that the German commander desired and designed to sink the ship and sacrifice those on board. The German Embassy at Washington, acting on instructions from Berlin, alleged that, as British merchant ships had been provided with guns and advised to ram or otherwise attack enemy submarines, ""military necessity consequently forced the submarine to act quickly, which made the granting of a longer space of time and the saving of hfe impossible."" The statement has no bearing whatever on the case. The Falaba was unarmed, she made no attempt to attack the enemy, and far from being pressed for time, the submarine made off in the direction of another likely victim. One of the witnesses at the Inquiry was a deck-boy named Duncan Irvine. In calm, even tones he told the Court that after the sinking of the Falaba he went home for a week, and then shipped on board another vessel, which was also torpedoed. "" Are you going to sea again ?"" asked Lord Mersey. ""Oh, yes,"" answered the witness. This is the spirit that will maintain British maritime supremacy. Happy the nation which breeds such lads."

Action : SS Falaba, Sinking of 

Falaba was a 5,000 ton British passenger-cargo ship under the command of Captain Davies and was carrying 95 crew and 147 passengers destined for Sierra Leone. It was sunk on 28 March 1915 by the German submarine U-28, which was commanded by Baron Forstner.

Falaba was beyond the mouth of the Bristol Channel off the southern Irish coast when U-28 surfaced and stopped the British ship. Forstner had allowed for evacuation before sinking the ship, but when Falaba started sending wireless messages and distress rockets for help, Forstner cut short the time to evacuate the ship. The Germans claimed that they allowed 23 minutes for evacuation; the British claimed that they were only given 7.

U-28 fired a single torpedo into Falaba, resulting in at least 100 deaths Both the Hull Daily Mail and Gloucester Echo of the 30th May, report 112 and 111 fatalities respectively. The Germans also claimed that Falaba's cargo contained rifle cartridges that exploded, hastening the sinking.

The American press denounced the sinking as a "massacre" and an act of piracy, but the US Wilson Administration took no action on the matter. At home, there were many newspaper articles. An eyewitness account had been reported in the Motherwell Times (2nd April 1915), Beverley and East Riding Recorder (3 April 1915) and the Manchester Evening News (8th July 1915) shows a judgement and conclusions by Lord Mersey.

The Verdict by the jury was returned: "...that the people died from exposure consequent upon the ship being struck by a torpedo from a German submarine."

Detail :

John was among 104 people who were lost during the sinking, and was 26 years old when he died. John is not commemorated on the Tower Hill Memorial, although there is a brass memorial plaque In The Lady Chapel at St Mary's Church, Newport dedicated to him, and acknowledging his death. Strangely enough, the 'Times' casualty list of the 'Falaba' sinking does not list him.

Probate record: THOMAS, John Elwyn of Major House, Newport, Pembrokeshire, died 28 March 1915 at sea. Administration London 8 October to Phebe Thomas, widow. Effects £78 10s 6d.

Masonic :

TypeLodge Name and No.Province/District :
Mother : Gooch No. 1295 E.C.Wiltshire

10th March 1915

Records of the United Grand Lodge of England for Gooch Lodge, Swindon show "Torpedoed on the Falaba" circa 1915

Source :

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Last Updated: 2020-03-15 09:48:36