Gallery: First World War - Robert and Arthur Dale of Tattingstone were true brothers in arms

Robert and Arthur Dale Robert and Arthur Dale

Saturday, July 26, 2014
10:30 AM

While the Great War memorials dotted around East Anglia honour many of those who died, there are thousands of others whose names are not etched in stone. They fell many miles from home. And we must not forget them. Steven Russell reports.

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It might have been wartime, but that didn’t mean soldier brothers Robert and Arthur Dale couldn’t enjoy moments of happiness. And they probably were pretty excited in February, 1917, as they dreamed of a trip home from Greece, where they were based, to Suffolk.

This wasn’t just any old run-of-the-mill leave, either, for Arthur was coming back to East Anglia to get married for the second time – his first wife, Minnie Lay, having died in 1913.

He’d asked his older brother to be his best man.

They were obviously close, these men from Tattingstone – a village south of Ipswich, on the road to Manningtree. Robert had been due to come home on one ship, with his brother following a week or so later. But Robert delayed his departure so they could travel together.

The brothers – who went to Tattingstone National School – had even enlisted together, on September 2, 1914. They were with the 20th Battalion the Royal Field Artillery and served on the Western Front in France before being sent to Salonika in Greece (now Thessaloniki or Thessalonica).

Robert was a corporal with the 20th Battalion; Arthur a sergeant.

They were the sons of Ephraim and Eliza Dale, who had married at Tattingstone in 1868. At one point there were five Dale boys all serving their country during The Great War.

Robert was himself a family man. He’d married Nellie Baldwin and they had two girls: Florence and Bertha.

Mind you, “Florrie” was known to one and all as Jimmy. Her father had yearned for a boy, nicknamed her Jimmy, and it stuck. Florence even signed using her unofficial adopted name.

Doubtless the two Suffolk brothers chatted about their family back in Suffolk, as well as the bright future they dreamed of, as they waited for the SS Princess Alberta to slip away from the small port of Stavros during the evening of February 20.

Almost 84 years later, a great-granddaughter of Arthur Dale pored over a thick file of documents held in the Public Record Office at Kew and made notes about what happened to the ship.

Sandra Coates-Smith deduced that the Dundee-built Princess Alberta, hired by the admiralty, had been a regular on the run between Stavros and the port of Mudros on the small Greek island of Lemnos from November, 1916.

On February 20, 1917, it sailed from Stavros at 8pm, carrying 38 crew and 79 passengers. Among them were 50 Army personnel on leave and (probably) seven Royal Engineers. The voyage appeared to be going well until, at about 6.45am the following morning, it hit a mine (from a German submarine, according to some accounts). It sank within two or three minutes.

Those documents at Kew suggest that three small boats were lowered after the explosion. One capsized, while the others – carrying about 20 men in all – headed for the safety of land.

Later that morning a trawler found the third boat upside down, with five men clinging to it. Four people had died in it, including one soldier. Another six people were found on various bits of wreckage.

A court of inquiry was held three days after the tragedy. It heard, the documents suggest, that the Princess Alberta was not following the laid-down course and that lifebelts had not been issued in a systematic manner. No “abandon ship” stations had been arranged, hence confusion when the mine was struck.

Sandra Coates-Smith’s notes say: “There was a standing order on these transport ships that, except when in defended harbours, all passengers and crew were to have lifebelts on or at least near to hand at all times, except when in bed. The court of enquiry seems to have taken the view that this had been ignored on this occasion.”

Among those who perished were brothers Robert and Arthur. They were 31 and 28 years old respectively.

In a letter to the older brother’s widow, Captain IM Fiennes spoke highly of both men. “I cannot say too much for them… I knew they would do whatever was required to the best of their ability and do it well. They lived with a great sense of duty, and for their duty they have died.”

Nothing is known today about Arthur’s intended bride; not even her name.

In 2003, Robert’s daughter “Jimmy” told us she could recall vividly the day word reached Suffolk of her father’s death. A telegram, brought to the door, delivered the dreadful news. She was only five.

“I can really clearly remember how I was standing beside my mother’s chair and watching her cry. She had my younger sister, Bertha, on her lap and was sobbing and sobbing.

“I didn’t know what to do. I just stood there with her and waited for her to stop.”

Jimmy grew up knowing her father had been killed in the First World War but never realised exactly where or that there was a memorial –a long, long way from Tattingstone – remembering him and his beloved brother.

Then about 11 years ago she spotted in the parish magazine an appeal for information. A woman called Jennifer Jones was trying to track down relatives of Robert and Arthur Dale.

The 74-year-old grandmother from Copdock, near Ipswich, had spent three years investing her own time and money in a crusade to remember anew 83 men from the villages of Sproughton, Tattingstone, Burstall, Belstead, Bentley, and Copdock with Washbrook who didn’t return from the war.

Her interest was sparked by a visit to the Western Front with husband Peter in 1998. Jennifer had won a Women’s Institute bursary to study a topic of European relevance. Her choice was the question “Why has northern France always been fought over?” – hence the couple’s visit to the Somme and Ypres.

As the interest developed, Jennifer got lists of the Great War dead from those villages and sought to find details of all 83. When she came across their graves, she placed poppy crosses on them. It allowed villages to remember, or in some cases learn, where “their boys” lay, for such information often gets lost in the mists of time.

After Jimmy answered that appeal for information about the Dales, she and Jennifer met in the autumn of 2003 to share the details they had. Jennifer had some crucial pieces for the jigsaw.

Robert and Arthur are commemorated on the Mikra Memorial in Greece, south of Salonika, It contains 1,810 burials from the Great War.

The memorial remembers nearly 500 nurses, officers and men of the Commonwealth forces who died when troop transport and hospital ships were lost in the Mediterranean, and who have no grave but the sea.

Jimmy’s son Mick Cook, who lives in Ipswich, feels we must not forget the thousands of men whose bodies lie far away from England.

Much of the talk is understandably about places like Ypres and the Somme, but there were many who fell in places like Greece. Their names might not appear on war memorials in East Anglia, but often – as with the Dale brothers – they’re remembered far from home.

How did the Princess Alberta tragedy affect his mother, who has been dead now for about seven years?

“It was 1917, and she was only five years old. It must have affected her, but she put it behind her. But I don’t think she knew until this lady did her research that there was any memorial to her father. That was the big thing – and what this lady set out to prove: that there was a lot of people out there who the relatives didn’t know anything about.”

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