William George Earrey was born in 1900, the eldest of three children to William George and Rosina Earrey. While he was baptised William George, later records – including those for his military service – show him as George William; presumably this had avoided any confusion with his father as the young William was growing up.
William Sr worked as a ships boiler maker and, while they appear somewhat disparate over the census records, the Earreys were based in Gillingham, Kent. (Given his employment, this would ensure William Sr’s proximity to the dockyard in Chatham.)
While his enlistment records are not readily available, William Jr appears to have signed up as soon as his age allowed. He enlisted in the Surrey Yeomanry and was shipped to Ireland, where the regiment has two reserve bases.
On 10th October 1918, aged 18 years old, William was returning home on leave from Ireland. He was one of 500 military personnel on board the RMS Leinster, which also had around 200 civilian passengers and 77 crew on board. Just after 10am the ship was around Kish Bank, just off the coast from Dublin, when passengers reported seeing a torpedo pass just in front of the ship’s bow. This was quickly followed by a second torpedo, which hit the ship on the port side. While it was being turned about to seek shelter back in port, a third torpedo struck, causing an explosion and the RMS Leinster sank.
The crew had managed to launch a number of lifeboats, while other passengers were able to get into the sea, clutching life rafts. Many people – William included – died during the sinking, while some of the survivors also subsequently perished.
The exact number of dead in the torpedoing of the RMS Leinster is not known, but it is estimated that at least 560 souls were lost, making it the biggest maritime disaster in the Irish Sea.
Newspapers of the time heralded the nation’s uproar at such a maritime tragedy – the sinking of the Leinster was the largest loss of life at sea around the British coast since the Lusitania three years earlier. The Derry Journal reported on the ‘fiendish crime’, that had occurred as a result of the ‘German policy of frightfulness at sea’.
The article went on to describe some of the challenges facing Dublin in the immediate aftermath of the disaster.
Owing to a strike in the undertaking trade, considerable difficulty is experienced in making arrangements for the burial of the victims. There is an insufficiency of coffins in Dublin, and all but three posting establishments are closed. The Lord Mayor is endeavouring to arrange the suspension of the strike till the Leinster victims are buried. It is stated that on a very rough estimate about three hundred bodies have been recovered…Derry Journal: Monday 14th October 1918
Sadly, William Earrey’s body was not one of those to have been recovered; this undoubtedly left a lack of closure for his family at the lost of their young son.
Private Earrey is commemorated at the Hollybrook War Memorial in Southampton.
William George Earrey was my first cousin twice removed.