Article written by Annie Rickard, relative of commander Harrington Douty Edwards DSO, of HM Submarine E5, perished during the First World War above Schiermonnikoog on March 7, 1916. The article is published in a regional magazine, delivered free to households in the parish of Silverstone, United Kingdom.
Genealogy is a fascinating hobby. Many years ago, I started looking into my family tree. One tree stood out above the others was the tree of my great, great Grandfather and his brothers and sisters. Whilst searching for his nephews, born in the West Indies, I was taken down the route of the First World War. Donald William Edwards, looking for excitement, swapped his motorcycle courier position in the Royal Engineers for thrill of spotting in the RFC. This, sadly, lead to his death in a Sopworth Strutter over the French/Belgian border where he and his Canadian pilot were shot down. His elder brother, Harrington Douty Edwards, spent his whole, short life in the Navy. His final posting was as submarine commander on HMS E5. E5 disappeared on 7th March 1916; nothing was really known of what happened to him and his 28 crew.
In 2016, 100 years and 6 months later, a diving expedition in the shipping lane just off the Dutch coast, uncovered the remains of the submarine and the final resting place of Harry and his crew. The escape hatch was open, showing they had made an escape attempt.
Following this discovery, I started corresponding with the person who had organised this dive and learned some very disturbing facts about our naval war dead. Dozens of letters, emails and FOI requests later, the situation has become clear and it is a very sad and disturbing one.
The Navy have full records of vessels lost during the wars. However, the wrecks and final resting places are not automatically protected from looting and salvage, when in International waters. There are local laws and treaties forbidding the removal of items from these wrecks; a “look, don’t touch” approach. However, they do not hold the legal status of a War Grave, despite, some of the time, still containing remains of those lost. They are known as the “Final Resting Place” which holds no legal status and means they do not have the same protection (and worldwide respect) as land-based graves across Europe and the Far East. They are not under the protection of the CWGC as they cannot be maintained. They are at the mercy of those charged with enforcing the local laws and compliance with International Treaties….and of “sport divers” who do not follow the rules.
Local laws and International Treaties work very well if there are enforcement processes in place to prosecute those caught with artefacts from war wrecks in violation of local law. We, in the UK, are quite good at punishing those that break the law as the recent stories about the looters in Kent, confirm. However, other European countries are not quite so effective and despite their commitment to rules, guidelines and laws and with clear, visible proof of wrongdoing, they have consistently failed to act to enforce the law. As a result, many artefacts and items, lifted from other country’s war wrecks, remain on show in private display cabinets and outside cafes in Holland instead of being repatriated to the UK as the Sovereign property they are. The MOD is aware and have made their thoughts known. Historic England is aware. The Dutch Cultural Heritage Agency is aware, and the Dutch Ministry of Culture is aware. Due to the lack of conservation/preservation, some items have deteriorated (due to exposure to the air) and are lost forever. These artefacts remain in Holland in a vacuum of bureaucracy with no immediate action being taken to get them home or to punish those that lifted them. The wheels turn very slowly in cross-channel government departments!
When you stand head bowed in silence, for two minutes on November 11th and think about those that fought and died for our freedom; be it at home, at a war memorial or church service, remember those lost souls on the sea bed who cannot rest in peace, even in death, until their war graves are protected from illegal looting.
If you would like to see undersea war graves given a legal status with automatic rights of protection no matter where they rest, if you would like to see more work being done to protect the undersea war graves and/or repatriation of all stolen undersea war wreck artefacts by default, write to Andrea Leadsom, MP for South Northants and Gavin Williamson, Secretary of State for Defence.