Dictionary of National Biography, 1927 supplement/Fryatt, Charles Algernon

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FRYATT, CHARLES ALGERNON (1872–1916), merchant seaman, was born at Southampton 2 December 1872, the second son of Charles Fryatt, merchant seaman, by his wife, Mary Brown Percy. He first attended the Freemantle school in his native town, but was transferred to the corporation school at Harwich when his father removed to that port on entering the service of the Great Eastern Railway Company, in which he eventually rose to be a chief officer. Young Charles Fryatt adopted his father’s calling, served his apprenticeship, and worked his way upward in large sailing-vessels till in 1892 he entered the service of the Great Eastern Railway as an able seaman on the paddle-steamer Colchester, which was then the company’s latest passenger vessel and was engaged on the route between Harwich and Antwerp. This vessel he eventually commanded (1913), it being the practice of the company to select its officers from those in the lower ranks of its own service. The system stood the test of war conditions; in spite of the removal of guiding lights and buoys, under the constant menace of enemy warships, submarines, and mines, the company maintained a service between British and Low Country ports throughout the European War, Captain Fryatt himself making no fewer than 143 trips before he was captured by the enemy.

Fryatt’s first encounter with an enemy vessel was on 2 March 1915, when, being in command of the chartered steamer Wrexham, he was chased for forty miles by a German submarine but eventually made Rotterdam in safety. His own skill and determination and the exertions of the engine- and boiler-room staffs were suitably recognized alike by the directors of the company and by the lords of the Admiralty. Captain Fryatt was now transferred to the Great Eastern Railway Company’s s.s. Brussels, and on 28 March following was again attacked by a submarine, the u. 38. The enemy was sighted off the Maas light-vessel when four miles distant, and made direct for the mail steamer. Fryatt at once realized that the attacker was far speedier than his own ship. If, therefore, he attempted to get away he would soon be torpedoed; if he stopped in obedience to the enemy’s signal he would make his ship an easier mark. He accordingly made up his mind to ram his enemy. He steered straight for the submarine, discharging rockets as he went, in order to call for any aid there might be in the neighbourhood and to make it appear that his ship had been supplied with guns. As the vessels approached, the u-boat submerged, and Captain Fryatt and others aboard the Brussels thought that the submarine was struck as they passed over her. In this they were mistaken; but the Brussels got safely away. For this exploit Captain Fryatt received from the Admiralty a gold watch ‘in recognition of the example set by him when attacked by a German submarine’. In the following month the lords of the Admiralty, in a letter to the Great Eastern Railway Company, stated that the attention of the secretary for foreign affairs had been called to the ‘highly courageous and. meritorious conduct of the masters of the Company’s steamers’. The commander of the Wrexham and of the Brussels was indicated amongst others, and the letter went on to express the Admiralty’s thanks to the officers concerned for conduct ‘which reflected credit on British seamanship’.

These well-earned recognitions, which naturally became generally known, seem to have led to Captain Fryatt’s undoing. The Germans made long and careful preparations to capture him, intending to make an example which they fondly hoped would strike terror into his comrades under the red ensign. At length on the night of 22 June 1916, when the Brussels was homeward bound from the Hook of Holland, she was surrounded and captured by a considerable force of German destroyers, whose action showed that their commanders had obtained full information as to the ship’s intended movements, probably from spies in Holland. The prize was taken into Zeebrugge and the master and crew sent on to Ruhleben internment camp, near Berlin. Captain Fryatt, however, was soon taken back to Belgium, where he was put on his trial before a court martial at Bruges on 27 July 1916 and condemned to death. Two days later he was shot, in spite of the protests of the United States minister, who had before the trial vainly attempted to secure adequate legal assistance for the prisoner. The charge laid against Captain Fryatt was that, not being a member of a combatant force, he had attempted to ram the submarine, u. 88. The official report of the trial characterized the prisoner as a franc-tireur of the sea, and laid stress on the approval of his conduct by the Admiralty and in the House of Commons as an aggravation of his alleged offence.

The deepest indignation was felt by all maritime peoples. The franc-tireur argument was seen to be wholly unfounded. It may be observed that a franc-tireur is a civilian who, without being attacked, picks off enemy soldiers unaware. Captain Fryatt was a civilian, but in no other respect comparable with a franc-tireur. In the House of Commons two days after the execution, Mr. Asquith, then prime minister, characterized the action of the German court martial as ‘murder’, and declared that ‘His Majesty’s government had heard with the utmost indignation of this atrocious crime against the law of nations and the usages of war’. More deliberate judgement in the calmer atmosphere of peace has in no way tended to alter opinion as to the gross illegality of the condemnation of Captain Fryatt.

Charles Fryatt married in 1896 Ethel Townend, who, with one son and six daughters, survived him. On his marriage he settled at Dovercourt, near Harwich. After the conclusion of peace his body was brought from Belgium to England on 7 July 1919 by a British war vessel, and buried at Dovercourt. A memorial service was held in St. Paul’s Cathedral on 8 July.

[The Times, 9 July 1919; private information.]

B. W. G.