Commemoration service marked 100th anniversary of Donside boy’s death in WW1

James Macpherson wanted to mark the 100th anniversay of the death of William Esson Martin at a plaque erected in St Marys Church, Auchindoir, by Martin's parents in his memory
James Macpherson wanted to mark the 100th anniversay of the death of William Esson Martin at a plaque erected in St Marys Church, Auchindoir, by Martin's parents in his memory

A commemoration service was held to mark the 100th anniversary of the death of a teenager from Donside who died at sea in World War One.

William Esson Martin died in action on March 10, 1917, when he was sailing from London to New York as an apprentice on cargo ship the SS Otaki. He was 14-years-and-11-months-old.

James Macpherson laying the anchor at the plaque to William Esson Martin.

James Macpherson laying the anchor at the plaque to William Esson Martin.

The Otaki was caught in battle with a German naval ship and Martin was one of six crew members who perished.

His parents erected a plaque in St Mary’s Church, Auchindoir, in his memory.

James Macpherson, from Aberdeen, came across the plaque about three years ago and wanted to do something at the memorial to mark the 100th anniversary of the boy’s death, which fell on Friday, at the same time of the battle, which was from 4.10pm to 4.30pm with the Otaki sinking at 5.17pm on March 10, 1917.

He said: “I love going through the Cabrach and one day I stopped and read the memorial on the wall of the church.

The plaque and anchor wreath at St Marys Church, Auchindoir.

The plaque and anchor wreath at St Marys Church, Auchindoir.

“I got such a shock that he was the same age as my grandson.

“I just kept thinking of him going to sea at the age of 14.

“That led me to research the story behind the plaque.

“Every time I pass I lay flowers and at Christmas I lay a wreath.

“I wanted to mark the 100th anniversary of his death, so I laid a wreath in the shape of anchor covered in poppies at the plaque at the time of the battle.”

All the poppies were signed by children from Aberdeenshire.

Son of William Martin and Margaret Esson, William, was born on April 11, 1902, at Edin Banchory, near Mossat.

He was educated at Robert Gordon’s College in Aberdeen but left school at 14 and joined the merchant navy as an apprentice.

In 1917, Martin went to London and joined the crew of the SS Otaki - a ship which belonged to the New Zealand Shipping Company.

The Otaki left London making its way to New York and while on route on March 10, 1917, 300 miles west of the Azores, came across German raider, the Moewe, manned by 235 naval crew. It had already sunk eight allied vessels, taken 442 prisoners and was on her way home to Kiel in Germany.

The Otaki sped off but was followed by the Moewe, who signalled the Otaki to stop by firing a shot over her bow.

Captain of the Otaki, Archibald Bisset Smith, who was born in Cults and also educated at Robert Gordon’s College, fired a shot back and a battle ensued.

A German gunner recorded 22 hits on the Otaki, although 35 shots were fired.

The Otaki fired less shells but caused considerable damage to the Moewe.

The German ship fired a torpedo at the Otaki and Captain Smith gave order to abandon ship and the crew got into lifeboats.

Captain Smith remained with the ship until she sank and it is believed Martin stayed as well.

Six members of the Otaki crew were killed - Captain Smith, Martin, chief steward Willis, apprentice Kilner, seaman Kewston and third engineer A H Little - and nine were injured.

Five crew members of the Moewe were killed, 40 were injured and it was disabled for three days.

The rest of the Otaki’s 65 crew members, along with the with other 442 prisoners of war, were taken by the Germans to internment camps and were released after the war ended.

Captain Smith was commemorated in his family grave in Rhynie.

He was posthumously awarded the Royal Naval rank of lieutenant and the Victoria Cross.

His family presented the Otaki shield to Robert Gordon College, which is awarded to the school captain every year who also wins a trip to New Zealand.