THE former ocean liner looked magnificent as it headed into the gloom. Painted white with a bright green band above the water line, The Rohilla  was brightly lit with rows of red and green lights along the sides. In the middle was a large red cross. This was a hospital ship which would carry just two patients. It was 1914. War had broken out with Germany.

One patient had a broken leg. The other was a young officer who had been diagnosed with appendicitis and had been taken from Scapa Flow in Orkney to hospital in Aberdeen. He was in fact Prince Albert a member of the royal family who was serving with the Royal Navy. He would later become King George VI, the father of our late queen, Elizabeth II.

On board were 15 men from a small West Riding town who had volunteered to join the Royal Naval Auxiliary Sick Bay Service. They had been members of St John Ambulance Brigade in Barnoldswick. The brigade had been set up to teach industrial workers first aid in order to provide on-the-spot treatment in case of accidents.

A photograph shows brigade members outside the Corn Mill. With mounting tension between Britain and Germany it was understandable that they would want to volunteer and help their injured countrymen. In late October they found themselves heading for Dunkirk to bring wounded British soldiers home.

HMHS Rohilla had set sail from Leith on a Thursday afternoon. Captain Neilsen had spent his career sailing between Britain and India. There were no lighthouses lit because of the war, and then there were minefields. Neilsen took his last accurate position from the setting sun. A grand sight, but Neilsen perhaps regretted that no-one was there to see it: they were seven miles out at sea he thought.

Albert Jefferies was in the coastguard look-out on the East Cliff in Whitby. He was alarmed to see the brightly-lit vessel sailing close to the pier and heading for a dangerous reef known as Whitby Rock. He flashed a warning message to the ship using a Morse lamp and sounded the nearby foghorn.

An officer saw the message, but the Morse code was too fast for him to read. He went to find a signaller. A depth reading indicated the ship was heading for shallower water. It was too late. The ship had hit something. Officers and crewmen were knocked off their feet. The captain believed the ship had struck a mine, and following accepted practice steered the ship for the shore to facilitate any rescue attempts. Outside it was blowing a gale and the sea was incredibly rough. It was four o’clock on a Friday morning and still dark. The shore was between four and eight hundred metres away.

Walter Horsfield, one of the Barnoldswick men, had written to his parents in Essex Street just two days before the Rohilla had set sail.

‘Queensferry 28 October 1914 Dear Parents, Just a few lines to say that we are getting on all right, been here a fortnight today with no patients on, but cleaning the ship up a bit. We get off every other day, I mean afternoon off, but we don’t always get to go ashore. We are having some splendid weather but it is beginning to be colder and frosty in the morning when we get up.

We have had a lot of visitors onboard since we’ve been here, Lady Bettie, which belongs to a private hospital ship, and they told us that we had got a splendid hospital ship, it is all laid with linoleum and radiators to keep us warm. We have received gifts from the Mayor of Liverpool, socks and mufflers with tassels on. I think we should have moved out before now, but there are some four German submarines round the Orkneys. We applied for four days’ leave off the fleet surgeon, so we could have a trip home, but it was a wash out: he would not grant it. Well, I must close as we are all getting on well. I was over the Forth Bridge on the train last Saturday afternoon and we all weighed ourselves: I weigh 12 stone 2 lbs so I think I have not lost much weight.

Yours Walter.

I have seen last week’s Pioneer, Pickles arriving home from Antwerp.

P.S. Remember me and our Thomas to Edith and Harry.’

Sadly, this was the last letter he wrote. It may well be appearing here in print for the first time. It was kindly donated to Barnoldswick History Society together with other letters and photographs. His brother Thomas was the father of seven children and died along with ten of the other men from Barnoldswick. Just three of the 15 survived.

Further articles will tell of the heroic attempts made by rescuers to save the 234 people on board. More than 80 would die. The loss of 12 men had a devastating effect on the town so early in the war. These men had volunteered to save lives and to die in this way was the cruellest of fates.