Yeoman of Signals John Burke was born on May 1st 1870 in Ballyduff, Listowel, Co. Kerry, the son of David and Bridget Burke (née Browne).
John’s father, who was also in the Royal Navy, enlisting at the age of 12 and served in the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny, taking part in the relief of Lucknow. He married Bridget Browne on March 19th 1864, in Cork and was still in the Royal Navy when his son James was born on July 3rd 1867 in Whitegate, Cork. On leaving the Royal Navy, David Burke went into the Coastguard Service.
John Burke was educated at the Irish National School Whitegate, and shortly after leaving school, like his father, joined the Royal Navy. According to a descendant whose story was recorded by Peter Threlfall in 1999, John served on board either H.M.S. Victoria or H.M.S. Camperdown, when the Camperdown collided with the Victoria, and sank her off the coast of Tripoli, on 22nd June, 1893. He saw active service in the South African War (1899-1902), during which campaign he was mentioned in despatches twice. He also served on the H.M.S. Black Prince, which was sunk at the Battle of Jutland, on 31st May, 1916. John Burke had been been stationed on the Laurentic since 13th September 1916, joining the crew at Captain Norton’s request.
John Burke’s actions on the night of the sinking were noted by Norton in a statement at his Court Martial, 26th February 1917, and stand as a reminder of the human tragedy that unfolded in the aftermath of the explosions.
“I tried to call up the Engine Room by telephone, but could get no reply, nor from the Wireless Room, so telling the Yeoman of Signals, J. Burke, to fire the rocket, which he did, I proceeded along the Boat Deck to the Wireless Room in order, if possible, to send out an “S.O.S.” Call.
Returning to the Bridge, I told the Yeoman to call up Fanad Point Signal Station on the Flashing Lamp, which he did, though he could not get any reply.
I should like to bring to the notice of their Lordships the following officers and men:
Commander Rodgers Royal Navy, was of invaluable assistance in turning out the Starboard Boats, and afterwards in my boat getting out the sea anchor, pulling an oar etc.. Lieutenant Walker, the Navigating Officer, whose assistance all through to me was invaluable. Mr Porter, Chief Steward, who was splendid all the time, and whose torch was of great help. Yeoman of Signals, Burke, who remained quietly on the bridge trying to signal till I ordered him into a boat.”
After the sinking, Captain Norton wrote to John’s mother informing her of his death. He added that her son could have saved himself, but he gave his place to others.
John had three other brothers who also served in the Royal Navy. Petty Officer David Burke was serving on a ship at Dover, when John Burke was posted not only to the same ship, but to the same mess. Their mess mates told them how unlucky they were. That very day David Burke had his hand crushed while saving a fellow crew member from being struck by a large wooden crate, which fell from a sling. He died the following day from Tetanus, and was buried at Dover, with full military honours. John’s eldest brother James died as a result of a lung infection at Gibraltar at the age of 21. His brother William was a signaler in the royal Navy until he was invalided out at the age of 25 as a result of “ill-effects on his hearing” from constantly using the headsets on the wireless. He never worked again, and died aged 72.
Much of John Burke’s story is sourced from original research by Peter Threlfall, World War 1 historian.
With additional information from:-
Irish civil records sourced at http://www.irishgenealogy.ie
The British Newspaper Archive