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Teachers' Notes

A short resource introducing the role of the Merchant Navy in the First World War and the sacrifices made by these non-military  seamen and their families.


Curriculum Links

  • KS3 & 4 History:  World War One

Learning Objectives

  • Knowledge of the impact of the war at sea
  • Understanding that the First World War was fought at sea as well as on land
  • Skills in analysing and understanding historical documents


Discussion Ideas

  • Why was it so important to continue with merchant shipping during the War? Given that there was so much danger, why didn’t the Wilson line simply stop sailing until the War had ended?

  • Read the letter from Jack Altoft written from the SS Zara (pictured right, download a typed transcript below). What would it have been like for merchant seamen who suddenly found themselves under attack while they were doing their job?

Notes on Content of the Letter

Jack Altoft later transferred to the SS Dido. He was killed, aged 25, when the ship was sunk by a German mine in the mouth of the Humber on 26 February 1916. He is named on the Hull and District Merchant Navy roll of honour.

The SS Zara was torpedoed in April 1917. Eleven members of the crew and 11 passengers were killed. The remaining 17 crew members and 17 passengers set sail in lifeboats for the Norwegian coast. They managed to reach Norway, but five crew members died of exposure on the way there.

The Calypso was requisitioned by the admiralty in November 1914, renamed ‘HMS Calyx’ and served with the 10th Cruiser Squadron until being returned to the Wilson Line in June 1915. In July 1916 it was torpedoed by a German submarine while on a cargo voyage to Norway. There were no survivors.

Activity Ideas

Use the following papers relating to James and Jack Altoft to answer the questions below:
  • Jack’s letter to his mother from the SS Zara
  • The photograph of the SS Dido (pictured above)
  • The two telegrams (pictured above) sent to Ada Altoft notifying her that the ships her husband and son had served on had both been sunk
  1. How useful are these sources as historical evidence?
  2. What other sources could you use to find out more about the Altofts?

Compare the two telegrams (pictured above). What are the similarities and differences between them? How do you think Ada Altoft would have felt on receiving them?