WW1: Able Seaman Victor Ferrar

Able Seaman Victor Ferrar

Victor Ferrar was born at 95 Victoria Road, Dundee, on 22 June 1897, the only son of William and Mary Ferrar. The Ferrars ran a jewellery business in the High Street in Dundee, premises occupied today by Timpsons. They were also active social reformers, William serving for two years on Dundee School Board before dying of heart failure aged 45 at the family home, 61½ Perth Road, in 1911.

A pupil at Dundee’s Harris Academy, Victor was also a highly talented musician. Taught violin by Everitt Loseby, the musical director at Her Majesty’s Theatre, he was playing solos at the Kinnaird Hall, aged 10, in 1907. At a Harris Academy concert three years later in June 1910, the Dundee Courier reported that he, ‘…received a great reception, and is a young player of outstanding capability.’ He is first recorded as playing in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve band at a concert aboard HMS Unicorn in March 1914 and is seated at the extreme right of front row in the above photograph.

 

Like many pre-war RNVR bandsmen, Victor was too young for naval service. But he enlisted in the RNVR proper on 24 August 1914, three weeks after the outbreak of war and was drafted to the Hood Battalion of the Royal Naval Division. Formed of naval reservists surplus to the requirements of the fleet, the RND would fight as ‘Sea Soldiers’ alongside the Army and Victor would serve as both a bandsman and, in action, a stretcher-bearer.

In October 1914, he took part in the defence of Antwerp and was one of the lucky ones who escaped when the city fell. By the time it was over, almost 200 officers and ratings had died and 2,415 had been taken prisoner or interned in neutral Holland. But the RND’s role in defence of the city did delay the invading Germans, thus saving the Channel ports and Britain’s ability to support an army on the Western Front.

On 28 April 1915, the Hood Battalion landed at Gallipoli. Victor was slightly injured while bringing in the wounded at the disastrous Third Battle of Krithia on 4 June 1915. But he was back in the front line on the slopes of Achi Baba on 17 July and what happened next was described in a letter sent to the Reverend Stephen Forsyth of Chapelshade Church in Bell Street and published in the Dundee Courier. It describes how a wounded Nelson Battalion rating, trapped in no-man’s-land for three days, managed to attract attention by waving a blood-stained bandage:

Dundee Men’s Efforts at Rescue

At this juncture, the writer states, their [the Hood] battalion took over the line at that point and the stretcher-bearers, which were all Dundee men belonging to the R.N.V.R. Band, decided to take the wounded man down after dark. They started to carry this out, but only managed to get him to within 100 yards of the supports, when, being absolutely dead beat, they were forced to put him temporarily in as safe a place as they could find. They left a bottle of water with the wounded man, and intended to make a further attempt to have him taken to hospital the following evening. About dinner time next day Ferrar thought he would risk carrying some food to the wounded man, and started on this perilous mission. The young Dundee lad, however, never got the length. He was shot through the head, no doubt by a sniper.

That night the wounded man was at last removed to safety, while Victor Ferrar, who had given his life in an attempt to succour him, was laid in a soldier’s and a hero’s grave.

Other accounts suggest that the injured man was delirious and screaming for help when Victor, a water bottle in his hand, scrambled over the parapet on his lone mercy dash into a no-man’s-land swept by enemy machine guns and snipers. And, while his service record gives his age as 18, new research confirms that this immensely brave young man had added a year to his age at enlistment aboard HMS Unicorn and was, in fact, just 17 when he died. Marked with a rough wooden cross, his grave, like so many at Gallipoli, was subsequently lost.

A study of surviving war diaries suggests that the incident took place at or near the half-finished trench shown by a dotted line and ringed in red on this contemporary RND trench map. The location is in the centre of the Allied line at Cape Helles, a mile south of the village of Krithia, modern day Alçıtepe.

Her husband and only child dead, Mary Ferrar (right) sold the jewellery business in 1924, built a new home, The Wattles, at 413 Blackness Road and divided her time between charity work, spiritualism and travel.

A remarkable free spirit, she would recall how, ‘When I was a girl living in Markinch, I would walk to Burntisland Ferry, cross to Leith and walk to Edinburgh to buy two hanks of embroidery thread. I returned by road and ferry the same day.’ She had worked first as a dressmaker, then took a nursing diploma and worked at the Channing Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts before returning to Scotland, marrying William Ferrar and settling in Dundee. Mary undertook her fourth and last round-the-world trip aged 78 in 1947 and died in 1956.

 

At this year’s Annual Remembrance Service on board HMS Unicorn, we will be honouring Victor Ferrar amongst the ten thousand Scots who served in the Royal Naval Division during World War One and commemorate the 1,598 Scots and Sea Soldiers who lost their lives.

The service will feature a 105 year old cornet used during World War One by the band of the Hood Battalion, Royal Naval Division. The cornet is one of only a handful of wartime instruments still in use worldwide, and will sound Last Post for the final time on Sunday 11th November.

Delivered as part of HMS Unicorn, Dundee and their contribution to World War I at sea. HLF project