Salomons Museum

David Reginald Salomons, First World War hero

David Reginald Salomons.

'David Reginald Salomons.'

On 11 October 1915 the 231 men of 1/3 ( Kent ) Field Company sailed out of Devonport, bound for the eastern Mediterranean and Gallipoli. Many did not come back; amongst them David Reginald Salomons, only son and heir of Sir David Lionel Salomons. Like so many in that terrible war, he died a hero's death.

After his time at Cambridge University and his travels to Europe and Japan , David Reginald Salomons became involved with the Territorial Army and the training of army cadets. He was commissioned with the Kent Fortress Engineers and completed officer training at Chatham .

In the period leading up to the First World War there was growing concern about increased military activity in Germany , so new British army detachments were built up as a response to this threat.

Reginald's father, Sir David Lionel Salomons, was appointed an Honorary Colonel in the Kent Fortress Engineers and was influential in establishing a new cadet detachment in Southborough, near Tunbridge Wells, in 1912. Second Lieutenant David Reginald Salomons was appointed to command the Detachment and to recruit young men from the area. Sir David paid for the conversion of the old gas works into a drill hall and parade ground. After training and building up the force the Detachment was promoted to a Works Company and Captain Alfred Ruston was given command.

After the First World War broke out in August 1914, 3 Works Company was mobilised and moved to the Kent Fortress Engineers base at Gillingham . Here they continued training and became established as the best bridge-building unit in the Kent Fortress Engineers. It June 1915 it was re-formed as 1/3 ( Kent ) Field Company; Alfred Ruston was promoted to Major and Reginald Salomons to Captain.

On 11 October 1915 the 1/3 ( Kent ) Field Company left Devonport docks – just too late to be included in the War Cabinet's decision of the previous day to stop sending any more troops to Gallipoli.

The voyage out to the eastern Mediterranean was uneventful. At Mudros Bay , Turkey , most of the Company transferred to a smaller ship, the HMS Hythe, to transfer them to Helles. Major Ruston described what happened on 28 October 1915:

“We had sailed from Mudros about 4 p.m. in a small sweeper, the Hythe. It was a rough and squally day and … a great number of the men were seasick. However, we had almost reached our destination [about 8 p.m.] and were beginning to think about disembarking when suddenly a large vessel loomed out of the darkness and in spite of all efforts to avoid a collision it ran into us, cutting deep into our port bow and bringing down the foremast. In ten minutes the vessel sank, leaving numbers struggling in the water or hanging on to spars and other floating matter. The boats of the other vessel did all they could and picked up many poor fellows – but all too few, for nearly 130 men drowned.”

The vessel that had run into the overcrowded Hythe was another British troop ship, the Sarnia , which was returning to Mudros Bay having left her passengers at Helles.

The Kent (Fortress) Royal Engineeers carrying out bridge-building exercises.

'The Kent (Fortress) Royal Engineeers carrying out
bridge-building exercises.'

Some of the men were killed by the actual collision, some were trapped in the sinking ship, and others were drowned in the chaos that followed and in the scramble for the few life-jackets that could be grabbed before the Hythe went down.

Captain Salomons stayed aboard the Hythe to help the men. He was last seen on the bridge of the ship with the Sergeant Major, John Carter, having given away his own life-jacket to someone who did not have one.

One of the rescued men, Driver Frederick Mills, who had been a coachman at Speldhurst, wrote to David Lionel Salomons' head coachman, Mr Nunn, about the actions of Captain Salomons:

“If he was not thinking of others one would imagine he would have gone straight for his own Life Belt of which he had a beauty & would be impossible to sink in that. It is my own opinion if he had thought of himself first he would have been saved, & if I am right he died a Hero's Death & we honour him. I am not asked to write this but I am sure that every man would say the same. His name is repeated daily. Infact him & all our comrades cannot be forgotten.”

One hundred and fifty four soldiers and crew died that night, over eighty from the Southborough and Tunbridge Wells area. Several of the survivors were subsequently killed or injured at Gallipoli or later campaigns.

The full story of the Hythe disaster can be found in the book Southborough Sappers of the Kent (Fortress) Royal Engineers by Frank A. Stevens (2000).

There is a further twist in the tragedy of the overcrowded and insufficiently equipped troop ship. The Hythe, a cross-channel cargo steamer, was requisitioned from its owners, the South East and Chatham Railways, a company of which David Lionel Salomons was a director.

Find out more about the First World War at the Imperial War Museum