Volunteer project uncovers untold stories of Merchant Navy men in the First World War

By William Axtell | 03 July 2015

The remarkable stories of merchant seamen during the First World War are being uncovered thanks to a digitisation project from the National Maritime Museum and National Archives

a photo of a form with writing on it
Hundreds of volunteers have helped preserve the stories of 750,000 merchant seamen© National Maritime Museum London
The stories of 750,000 First World War merchant seamen and 39,000 voyages can be read online for the first time following the completion of a four-year-long project.

Organised by The National Maritime Museum and The National Archives as part of their First World War commemorations, the 1915 Crew List Project has transcribed the entire crew lists of the Merchant Navy from 1915.

The project was aided by more than 400 volunteers from across the world, France, Mexico, Japan, Australia, Italy, the UK and Ireland, who helped transcribe the hand-written documents.

The records reveal an astonish range of heroic stories including that of Victoria Cross-decorated Fredrick Daniel Parslow.

Parslow was transporting horses along the Irish coasts on July 4 1915 when his ship, the Anglo-Californian, came under attack from a German U-boat.

Although it had exhausted its store of torpedoes, the U-boat was able to unleash a storm of shells at the merchant ship and it’s store of horses en-route from Canada to the Western Front.

Parslow refused to take cover and was killed at his post after hours of co-ordinating evasive action. His eldest son, of the same name, also acted heroically in his role as second mate, lying among the wreckage and navigating the ship until rescue came.

Parslow became the first merchant seaman to receive the VC, being posthumously made a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy Reserve to bypass the normal rules against this, while his son was decorated with the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions that day.

On another occasion, November 1 1915, Thomas Alexander of the Stanislas rushed to the rescue of a fellow crewman washed overboard, going down on a line to pluck him from the ocean. For his valour, he was awarded the Bronze Medal of the Royal Humane Society.

The Crew Lists are particularly important as no individual records for merchant seaman during this period exist. As such, they provide a unique source of stories of courage and understated persistence among men often eclipsed in the narrative of the First World War.

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More museums where you can find out about the First World War:

Imperial War Museum, London
Reopened in the summer of 2014 following a £40 million revamp, including a new First World War Gallery.

, South Yorkshire
Visit the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry Regimental Museum to find out all about soldiers' experiences in the First World War. A Call to Arms: the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry and the First World War runs until the end of 2015.

, Liverpool
The war cost the lives of more than 13,000 people from Liverpool. Discover how it affected not only those serving at the Front, but also the city and the people left behind in the exhibition, From Waterfront to Western Front.

Follow William Axtell on Twitter @WilliamAxtell.
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