125 years ago this week, on 14 January 1897, the troopship Warren Hastings sank in the Indian Ocean. An Old Wellingtonian, Lt Col M C B Forestier-Walker, was widely hailed as the “hero” of the event because of the calm way he and his troops behaved.
Launched in 1893, the steel-hulled Warren Hastings was claimed at the time to be “practically unsinkable” because of her 33 watertight compartments. In January 1897 she was travelling from Cape Town to Mauritius carrying 993 passengers, including four companies of the 1st Battalion, The King’s Royal Rifle Corps, along with 17 women and 10 children, the families of some of the troops.
On 14 January, the Warren Hastings, eight miles off course, steaming at full speed, in pitch darkness and pouring rain, ran straight into rocks on the coastline of Réunion Island. Lt Col Forestier-Walker, the most senior Army officer on board, went to the bridge and asked Captain Holland for orders. As the ship was wedged on rocks, he ordered that evacuation should begin by means of rope ladders over the bows. The captain wanted to keep the women and children on board until daylight, but when the ship began listing, the women, children and sick were helped off the boat. The evacuation continued in an orderly manner, despite complete darkness, until the ship listed further and the last of those on board swam ashore or were aided by ropes. Two soldiers sadly died during the evacuation, but the “remarkable courage and exemplary discipline” displayed by all the troops was considered to have averted a much greater disaster. Lt Col Forestier-Walker was the last soldier to leave the ship.
Montagu Forestier-Walker was one of the College’s early students, attending between 1865 and 1868, and one of its most loyal, as he founded the Old Wellingtonian Society. He appears in this photograph of the Hill from 1868. In 1897 he attended Speech Day, where he was cheered as a hero, and an Old Wellingtonian dinner where he modestly said that his share in the incident had been exaggerated. The Master also granted the school a half-holiday on 14 May in his honour. Sadly he was killed in a railway accident in 1902. At least eight other members of the Forestier-Walker family have also attended Wellington.