The man was seen in the water some three miles south of Girvan, well-dressed, mid-30s, with gold rings on his fingers, letters tucked into his jacket pocket and most certainly dead.

In his leather wallet were tucked a few French bank notes and coins. Some keys, pocket knives and a silver watch – ominously, stuck at a quarter to 12 – attached to a sovereign case containing precious cargo, a lock of dark hair.

Joseph Huet, Captain of the French merchant steamship SS Longwy, was far from his home of St. Malo on the north coast of France, where his wife – intended recipient of one of the letters in his sodden pocket – patiently waited, soon to receive the worst news possible.

Next day, the cold November water gave up two more of its secrets: one man found on the shore near Stepends, Turnberry, another opposite Ladybank Cottage at the Dipple.

Their lifebelts hinted at a desperate effort to save themselves. One, Samuel Brajeul, wore plain dungarees, the other had a few personal possessions tucked in his pockets: a briar pipe, a handkerchief and papers bearing his name, Harre Adolphe.

The only bodies recovered from the torpedoed and sunk French cargo steamship, SS Longwy, the merchant seamen would be laid to rest, side by side at the town’s Doune Cemetery. Their resting places were marked with simple crosses, bronze plaques and the words “Mort pour la France”.

Later Capt. Huet’s remains would be exhumed and returned home, the cemetery cross removed, leaving a gap his two crewmen.


The Herald: Lorna and Ritchie Conaghan of Girvan and District Great War Project Lorna and Ritchie Conaghan of Girvan and District Great War Project (Image: Girvan and District Great War Project)

The small corner of France in a Girvan cemetery remained that way for around 100 years. That is, until, the yawning space between the graves set two amateur war graves detectives on a journey back to 1917, and a fascinating mission to ensure the crew of SS Longwy would never be forgotten.

Soon, should all go to plan, the spot in Doune Cemetery where Capt. Huet’s now empty lair lies, will be marked by a respectful and deeply poignant granite memorial stone.

The first proper tribute to SS Longwy’s dead, it will bear the names of all the vessel’s crew.

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The stone’s unveiling will bring to a conclusion almost a decade of effort by husband and wife research team, Ritchie and Lorna Conaghan of the Girvan and District Great War Project (GDGWP), whose curiosity over war casualties in the area was sparked as they researched names on Girvan’s war memorial.

It led to them identifying and recording details of at least 600 servicemen from the local area who died from the First World War onwards, among them some previously not named on memorials, and others from Commonwealth countries, including Australia and Canada.

They had already helped uncover crucial details about the grave of a man whose body had been found by a nine-year-old boy on the south Ayrshire coast in August 1940 – an unknown victim from ill-fated WW2 internment ship, SS Arandora Star.

Sunk by a U-boat in 1940, the steamer was carrying hundreds of ‘enemy aliens’, innocent Germans and Italians rounded up from homes across Britain due to be sent to Canada.

When one, Francesco D'Inverno, was found to have a Scottish death certificate, the couple discovered his burial site, on common ground within Doune Cemetery.

That helped lead to a gravestone marking his resting place - not far from the SS Longwy graves and the strange gap between two lairs.

That set them on the trail of the ship’s victims and the discovery that, despite the huge loss of life, no memorial had been erected to mark it.

A campaign is now forging ahead, combined with, among others, input from Le Souvenir Français au Royaume-Uni, the French equivalent of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, to gather funds for the stone.

“The ship was going from Bilbao to Glasgow when it was torpedoed just off Stranraer. Of the 31 men on board, only three bodies were washed up,” says Mr Conaghan.

“The captain’s body was exhumed and taken back to France in 1924, leaving the gap between the two graves.

“We found all the men were from the Britanny area but there was no memorial in France.

“We thought it would be fitting if there was a memorial for all the guys that were lost and the best place would be in the gap between the two crosses, here in Girvan.”

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Their quest has crossed to Brittany, to enlist support. A fundraising campaign was launched there just before Christmas.

Remarkably, their search for information led to the couple learning of a French man with family links to one of SS Longwy’s lost sailors, Albert Merlen. A moving diary entry from Albert’s uncle, respected French artist Paul Emile Pajot, detailed the day he learned of his death along with his photograph.

“We are in profound sorrow, such a huge misfortune has befallen our family,” he wrote. “Poor dear Albert, he was only 18.

“He held a special place in our hearts. The grief of his parents is heart-wrenching and so is ours.”


The Herald: The memorial stone will be modelled on a French tribute to WW2 soldiers in CorsicaThe memorial stone will be modelled on a French tribute to WW2 soldiers in Corsica (Image: Girvan and District Great War Project)

Albert’s name will be included on the granite memorial, which will be modelled on a memorial to French soldiers killed on Corsica during the conflict.

But while it will help fill the gap both in the cemetery space between the two crewmen’s graves and years without a proper memorial to the lost ship, questions linger over why it seems to have been overlooked for so long.

“It seems to have fallen through the cracks,” adds Mr Conaghan.

“But we think there were about 15 guys on board who were French Navy, and the rest were Merchant Navy.

“Someone looking at records in Brest, saw the Captain had been awarded the French equivalent of the Victoria Cross, and the Navy guys received the equivalent of the Military Cross, the Croix de Guerre.

“So we think it may have been on some kind of secret mission.”

The couple also believe they may have found a fourth SS Longwy crewman. “In Ballantrae, an unknown sailor of foreign origin was buried about six weeks after the boat went down,” he adds.

“It says on the death certificate that he was possibly French. We think he may also be one of the crew.”

Their hours of research is their way of paying respects to war dead, he adds.

“There are thousands of Scots war dead buried in France but just 19 French are buried in the UK.

“British and Commonwealth graves are looked after by local people over there, and it’s only right we do the same for them here.”

So much effort has taken its toll, however: “We are not a charity, and this has taken over our life a bit,” says Mr Conaghan.

“We can’t apply for funding to help, and everything we do is out of our own pocket.

“But it’s about remembrance.”

Support the memorial stone fundraising campaign here