Last year I noticed on the war memorial of the small village of Stratton in Dorset, that of ten names listed as casualties in the First World War, three had the surname Pope. I decided to investigate further and uncovered a compelling story of devotion to duty and sacrifice. This is an account of one of those sibling.
Captain Charles Alfred Whiting Pope, M.A., M.B., R.A.M.C was Alfred Pope’s fourth son and was born at South Walk House, Dorchester on 26th November 1877. He was one of fourteen siblings to serve in the Great War in some capacity. Like his elder brothers he attended Charterhouse School in Surrey, where he gained both the Classical and Mathematical prizes in the Sixth Form. He was prominent in school cricket, tennis and `putting the weight’ (shot putt).
He then went to Trinity College, Cambridge, taking a M.B., from where he entered St. Bartholomew’s Hospital. Charles distinguished himself in Clinical Pathology and Opthalmic work. He gained his full medical M.R.C.S. and L.R.C.P. in 1904 and took up the post of resident House-Surgeon to the South Devon and East Cornwall Hospital in Plymouth.
Charles was selected to move abroad and become House-Physician to the Somerset Hospital in Cape Town, South Africa before returning to England to practise in Rugby, Hastings and St. Leonards. In 1909 he married Marion Gravener at St George’s Fordington and they had two sons and a daughter. In 1915 he offered himself for active service but was passed fit for Home Service only, gaining a commission in the R.A.M.C. However after a spending a year at a military hospital in Aldershot, he was promoted from Lieutenant to Captain and ordered to command three hundred men in Egypt.
Charles was one of four thousand troops and nurses on board the British troopship Transylvania, making its way from Marseilles to Egypt on 4th May 1917.
At 10a.m. the ship’s captain saw a small sailing vessel change her course and launch a torpedo. Despite causing a great deal of damage, the engines were still intact and the Captain tried to make for shore, some eight miles away, in order to try and beach the ship. However fifteen minutes later another torpedo struck the engine room and the vessel sank fifty minutes later. Efforts were made to lower the boats to save the lives of the nurses first, then the soldiers and crew. However, according to the Admiralty, twenty-nine officers and three hundred and seventy other ranks, as well as the ship’s Captain and ten of his crew were drowned. The Pope family held out the hope that Charles might have been among those saved, writing many letters of enquiry, but after an agonising four and a half month wait, his wife received the following letter from the War Office:
War Office Whitehall S.W. 21st September 1917
The Military Secretary presents his compliments to Mrs Pope, and regrets to inform her that in view of the fact that no further information has been received concerning her husband, Captain C.A.W. Pope, R.A.M. Corps, who was reported “missing, believed drowned” on the 4th May, his death has now been accepted for official purposes as having occurred on that date.
The Military Secretary is desired be the Secretary of State for War to express his deepest sympathy with Mrs Pope in her sorrow.
One of the sergeants under his command wrote:
When the ship was hit I was with Captain Pope in the ship’s hospital. After seeing the patients safe we went to the parade deck. Shortly afterwards we heard that several wounded were below, so Captain Pope went with a party of men to try and rescue them and dress their wounds – and thus he died the death of a British Officer and Gentleman – at his post.
Another member of the R.A.M.C. who was the last to see him wrote:
He was in charge of us on the Transylvania and was missing when we landed. He dies as every Britisher likes to die –doing his Duty, and went down with the ship whilst dressing the wounds of the poor fellows who were hit by the explosion. I happen to know this as I was working with him up to about three minutes before she sank, when he ordered me over the side. He was a good officer and we are all sorry to lose him.
On 30th May 1918 a memorial service was held at St. Mary’s Stratton for Charles and his brother Percy, and a bronze memorial tablet fixed to the south wall of the church, bearing the words:
GLORY BORN OF DUTY IS A CROWN OF LIGHT
His brother-in-law, R.G. Bartelot wrote of him:
It may truly be said of Charles Alfred Whiting Pope that he sacrificed himself on the shrine of Duty. Duty to his King, duty to his Country, and duty to his poor suffering fellow creatures who lay wounded in the hospital below deck as the result of the explosion following the torpedo attack when the ship went down.
Postscript Dozens of bodies of those killed when the Transylvania went down were recovered and buried at Savona, Italy in a special Commonwealth War section of the town cemetery. However Charles was not among them, and he is one of the two hundred and seventy five names listed on the memorial in the same cemetery.
|Savona War Memorial, Italy|
John Broom is the author of Fight the Good Fight: Voices of Faith from the First World War and Fight the Good Fight: Voices of Faith from the Second World War.