In early April 1917, one piece of news dominated the presses. The apparent targeting of hospital ships by German U-boats. One ship HMHS Gloucester Castle was torpedoed by a German U-boat off the Isle of Wight and the other HMHS Salta hit a mine laid by a German U-boat off the coast of France heading for Le Havre.
The German commanders considered that the British were using hospital ships, clearly marked up with their red paint, as shipping that was actually being used to carry the weapons of war. The outcome of this was for the rest of the war – hospital ships were considered as legitimate targets.
At Le Havre’s Ste Marie’s Cemetery lies a memorial to those 168 soldiers, nurses and merchant seamen lost from the 'Salta' whose bodies were not recovered, and those lost in the sinking of the hospital ship 'Galeka' (mined on 28 October 1916) and the transport ship 'Normandy' (torpedoed on 25 January 1918), whose graves are not known.
Ernest Henry Harris
One of those who died on board HMHS Salta and whose name lies upon that memorial in Le Havre is Ernest Henry Harris. Born in Staverton, the son of a butcher – he was living in Wembley and enlisted in Harlesden. But when he was listed as missing at sea on the sinking of HMHS Salta, he left a wife of only eighteen months and a son two months from life.
Ernest enlisted in the Royal Army Medical Corps in October 1915 just before he got married. He spent the first few months at home but left for France and the Western Front in March 1916 with the 133rd Field Ambulance until he got sick with influenza in November 1916. He was sent home to recuperate also suffering with nephritis. On the 4th April 1917, he was sent back to duty – being assigned on HMHS Salta at Southampton. Six days later, HMHS Salta hit a mine and sank. Ernest was listed as missing presumed drowned at sea.
On the 24th May 1917, his only son was born.
Just a few years after the early death of his father Joseph in 1910, Ernest’s name was added to his gravestone in Staverton churchyard.
Also in beloved memory of
Ernest H. Harris
Who was drowned at sea
April 10th 1917
Aged 21 years
Few would guess that this young man died doing his service. But none would know that he died on HMHS Salta, a victim of a German mine. At least, they said at the time, the ship had not picked up its cargo of injured soldiers. Otherwise the cost would have been bigger. There were 130 men and women who lost their lives when the Salta sank. The bakers, greasers, firemen and pursers. The nurses of the Queen Alexandria’s Imperial Military Service. The men of the Royal Army Medical Corps – porters, stretcher-bearers, doctors.
These are the men who never returned from the Great War whose memorials lie at Staverton in Gloucestershire:
Private Ernest Henry Harris
DoB 1898 Staverton, Gloucestershire DoD 10th April 1917 off the coast of Le Havre, France
72143 Royal Army Medical Corps attached HMHS Salta
Commemorated: Ste Marie Cemetery, Le Havre, France