This article was originally written and published by Louis Frederick Obeyesekere’s great grandnephew, Sheannal Anthony Obeyesekere at: https://medium.com/@
Louis Frederick (Freddy) J. Wijeratne Obeyesekere was born in the early 1890s. He was the forth and youngest child of Mudaliyar Henry Ferdinandus Wijeratne Obeyesekere and Henrietta Isabel (Ellen) Perera Wijesinha Goonetillaka¹ who had married in 1881 at All Saints Church, Galle.
Freddy schooled at St Thomas’ College and took employment as an excise officer in Kurunegala. The Ceylon Excise Service was established in 1913, and Frederick would have been among its earliest recruits. With his father and grandfather having worked as official courtroom interpreters, and his two brothers likewise taking official jobs in the courts and the police, Freddy was well placed for a successful career in the civil service.
Shortly after joining the Excise, Freddy enlisted to fight in WW1. However, he would never reach his intended battlefield. En route to Europe, Freddy’s transport ship fell victim to the first-ever submarine attack in the Mediterranean Sea. As the ship began to submerge, his life was forfeit after bravely handing his life vest to a friend.
In modern day Sri Lanka, Freddy’s name can be found engraved on the National War Memorial near the entrance to Sri Lanka’s parliament, the Cenotaph War Memorial in Viharamahadevi Park in Colombo, and the town clocktower in central Kurunegala.
Off to the front lines
Following the outbreak of WW1 in 1914, the Ceylon government began recruiting, equipping, and paying for contingents of volunteers to travel to Britain and subsequently serve on the Western Front.² On 9 December 1915, Frederick Obeyesekere and 43 other Ceylonese volunteers shipped off from Ceylon, aboard the Ville De La Ciotat, headed for England to join the war effort.
List of Ceylonese passengers. Reproduced without spelling corrections. Source: URL
The Ville De La Ciotat was a large ocean liner steamship built in 1892 and owned by the French Messageries Maritime Company.³ It measured 499 ft in length and 49 ft 6 inch in breadth, weighed 6,631 tons gross registered tonnage, and hosted a 7,000 horse power engine. It was an impressive ship for its time, built with mild steel and fitted so as to be ready for repurposing as high-speed troop transport in the event of a war.
Reporting on the occasion of the ship’s voyage to Australia in January 1893, The Otago Daily Times newspaper wrote about the novel luxuries that could be found onboard: “The smallest details have been carefully thought out, even to two mysterious little buttons in the wall at the side of the bed, which require explanation, because they represent a standard of delicious laziness not to be grasped by intuition. One button, it seems, turns the electric light on and off, so that one can indulge in the luxury of reading in bed — often a dangerous delight on shore — without the necessity of getting out of bed to hunt for matches in the dark, while the other button will ring an electric bell that summons the steward with the café noir necessary to keep the student awake, or the “nightcap” required to procure refreshing slumber.’’
The comforts of the ship are also on display in the following photos:
When Freddy boarded in December 1915, the Ville De La Ciotat was midway through a long cross-continental journey. Commencing first in Yokohama, Japan, it would subsequently call to port at several destinations to pick up volunteers and military personnel along the way to Marseilles, France. From Marseilles, the Ceylonese volunteers would be expected to transfer to another ship to head to England.
After departing Yokohama on 18 November, the ship docked in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Vietnam (Haiphong, Tourane, Saigon), and Singapore, before arriving in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where Freddy embarked. The ship then continued onwards to Djibouti and Suez, before arriving in Port Said on 21 December.
The route of the Ville De La Ciotat in late 1915. Final coordinates of the shipwreck: 34°33″N 19°17″E
Sinking of the Ciotat
On Christmas Eve of 1915, while making its way to Marseilles, the Ville De La Ciotat was torpedoed by a German U 34 U-boat commandeered by captain lieutenant Claus Rücker. Taking place off the coast of Crete, this was the first ever torpedo attack in the Mediterranean Sea and it caught many by surprise. The story of what ensued has been recounted in several newspaper articles from the time, reports from several survivors, and an independent investigation.
Fifteen minutes of chaos⁴
At approximately 10.10 a.m. on 24 December 1915, just two days after departing Port Said for Marseilles, one of the Ciotat’s lookouts noticed a wake out at starboard side. Within minutes of being reported to the captain, the wake promptly disappeared, but the sea in its vicinity continued to look calmer than elsewhere.
Suddenly, a tremendous jolt shook the ship. Everything around shattered and a huge column of water, as high as the Ciotat’s steam chimneys, rose from the sea spraying water everywhere. Upon realizing the magnitude of what had transpired, the captain called for the engine to be turned down, for stations to be abandoned, and for a TSF distress signal to be transmitted with ship coordinates and a request for help.
Despite the attack, the ship continued ahead at full speed instead of stopping and beating astern. This led to the loss of many lives. The enormous ship’s momentum created strong eddies in the sea around it which shook and disrupted the initial lifeboats that were lowered into the water. As a result, one capsized and another crashed and broke against the side of the ship. While the captain had given the correct initial order, the engineers did not implement it and quickly abandoned the engine room in panic. The captain failed to reissue the order and ensure the ship stopped advancing.
As water continued to flood into the ship, the engine was eventually drowned, halting the ship’s advance. As sinking continued rapidly, quick work was made to try and drop all remaining lifeboats and rafts into the water, so that they could quickly shift aside before passengers themselves jumped directly into the sea themselves. As time ran out, all passengers began jumping in, whether with life vests or not, to avoid getting dragged down with the ship.
In its final moments, the ship began to rotate, with the front (bow) rising up in the air and the rear (stern) pulling down. As it went under, a yard from the foremast crashed down on one of the boats, dragging it below together with many who had surely believed they were finally in the clear.⁵ By 10.25 a.m., less than 15 minutes after the torpedo strike, the ship was no longer visible.
The remaining lifeboats and rafts acted with haste to attempt rescue of anyone who remained in the water. All along, the German U-boat remained in the vicinity of this activity. At one point, the U-boat picked up two victims who were struggling in the waves. They were taken aboard the submarine whereupon one was asked the name of the sunk ship, if it was carrying troops onboard, and why there was a cannon fitted on the ship’s stern. They were then set free upon a raft.
Two hours later, the British steamship MEROE arrived on site to rescue the survivors. It did so despite the continued presence of the U-boat which, by that point, had only just begun moving away at low speed.
The S. S. Meroe which rescued survivors from the Ville De La Ciotat. Photo credit: Barbara Chapman⁶
The largest loss of Ceylonese lives in WW1
In total, 78 souls were lost at sea during the sinking of the Ville De La Ciotat. Among them were 14 Ceylonese volunteers, including Frederick Obeyesekere. It was likely the singlemost deadliest incident for Ceylonese participants in WW1. Throughout WW1, only 49 native Ceylonese lost their lives — another 276 Britons who departed for the war effort from Ceylon were also killed.⁷
Onward to London and a warm reception
After rescue efforts were fully exhausted, the Ciotat’s survivors were transported to Malta aboard the Meroe. From Malta they boarded the steamship Crispin headed to Marseilles, arriving on the morning of 31 December 1915. The remaining Ceylonese volunteers then continued their journey to Britain, arriving in January 1916.
News of the attack spread rapidly, featuring in major newspapers across the globe:
Upon arriving in London, the Ceylonese volunteers were photographed meeting and greeting with British servicemen and police, and were featured in several local newspaper articles:⁸
Photo title: “A party of Ceylonese recruits have just reached London after an adventurous voyage. Here are a few of them warmly greeting their British comrades just out of the trenches”. Accessed via: findmypast.co.uk⁹
Photo title: “C. L. Mellonin, one of the Ceylonese who came to London to enlist, talking to a policeman. He was rescued from the torpedoed French liner Ville De Ciotat.” Accessed via: findmypast.co.uk¹⁰
It just so happens that there is old news footage of these very same Ceylonese volunteers arriving at an Army recruitment office in London.
Photo title: “Volunteers from Ceylon cheering after enlisting in London yesterday. These men were on the French liner Ville de la Ciotat when she was torpedoed in the Mediterranean, and were rescued from the sea and taken to Malta, where they were provided with the clothes they are wearing. Fourteen of their comrades lost their lives in the disaster.” Accessed via: findmypast.co.uk¹¹
Investigation into the incident
Following several complaints about the conduct of the Ciotat’s captain, an independent investigation was undertaken into the events of 24 December 1915. The investigation concluded with two main criticisms. The first was that the captain had failed to follow safety protocols — he had conducted only one ship abandonment exercise during the entire journey since departing from Japan. Many passengers did not know the location of their abandonment station and some disorderliness was noted in releasing the lifeboats. The second, and most consequential to the large number of deaths that day, was the failure of the engineering team to put a halt to the engine before abandoning their station. The investigation recommended sanctions against the captain as well as one specific engineer who had admitted to receiving the halt order but who had failed to implement it.
Bravery not forgotten
Among the survivors of the Ville De La Ciotat was one serviceman who owed his life to Freddy’s bravery. Following the end of WW1, this Ceylonese volunteer returned to Ceylon and visited Freddy’s family in Kurunegala. He recounted how Freddy had saved his life by offering him Freddy’s own life vest when the ship was going down. Freddy was the more capable swimmer and believed he still had a chance of surviving without it. Thus, on that Christmas eve of 1915, Freddy traded his life for that of his friend’s — his family would never see him again.
Unfortunately, with over 100 years having now gone by, Freddy’s relations no longer remember the name of this survivor or his family. What is known is that the survivor was a Catholic and either of Burgher or Eurasian descent. After returning to Ceylon, he resided with his family in Kurunegala. His son later became a leading lawyer in the Kurunegala courts.¹² However, this family migrated to Australia after the enactment of the Sinhala Only Act of 1956 which made Sinhala the sole official language of Ceylon.
Thus, although Frederick Obeyesekere could not continue his journey in this world, his memory and bravery are not forgotten. His legacy lives on in the lives of the descendants of the fellow serviceman he saved. As noted earlier, his name also remains memorialized in several Sri Lankan war memorials. One of these sites, the Kurunegala clocktower, was constructed specifically in memory of the eleven Ceylonese from the North Western Province who lost their lives during the first great war. His name is found in a commemorative panel for Old Thomian WW1 volunteers in St Thomas’ College’s College Hall and a War Memorial Monument at the college.¹³ Frederick’s name also appears in the book ‘The Ceylon Roll of Honour and Record of Service in the Great War 1914–1918′, by the Times of Ceylon.
The Ceylonese who volunteered in WW1 were all awarded honorary bronze Ceylon Volunteer Service Medals by the government. Frederick’s family would have also received one such medal on his behalf. While it has been lost over the course of the past century, it would have looked like this:
Ceylon Volunteer Service Medal of G. S. S. Perera. Photo credit: Medalbook.com
A tumultuous generation for the Obeyesekeres
Freddy’s untimely death at sea was just one of several tragedies that befell the four children of Henry and Henrietta Obeyesekere. It is an unfortunate tale for a prominent Mudaliyar-class family that had so much going for it.
Freddy’s eldest sibling and only sister, Grace, seems to have married twice. Details of her first marriage are sparse, but it seems to have been to a V. Ekanayake. This pairing is unlikely to have lasted long and it gave rise to no children. Her second marriage was to a close cousin: she became the fourth successive wife of District Judge John Alvin Obeyesekere,¹⁴ and seems to have largely played the role of taking care of his existing kids. In this marriage as well, she bore no children of her own.
Freddy’s two brothers, Trutand and Christoffel, converted from Anglicanism to Catholicism at marriage. This likely narrowed their social circles and constrained future opportunities — after all, this was an era when religious affiliations and church time were incredibly important for networking, marriage, and status. Later on, their respective public service careers in the courts and police also came to an early end with dismissals from service. Trutand’s wife died at the young age of 32, and a few years later Trutand was banished from Ceylon following an altercation with a Magistrate. He spent the rest of his days in Malaysia and returned to Ceylon only shortly before his passing at the age of 44. Finally, Christoffel died aged 45, leaving behind a family of 10, including several minors.
NOTES & REFERENCES
 The full spouse names and details of marriage are taken directly from a note handwritten in 1883 by Henry Obeyesekere, who was employed as an official English and Sinhala writer for the Galle Kachcheri (i..e. district government office) at the time. Nonetheless, it should also be noted that Ellen’s family frequently went only by the name ‘Perera’.
 The ship was first launched on 10 April 1892. For at least the first decade of its operation, it provided luxury passenger cruise services for French Messageries Maritime Company’s Australian route. Later it also served the company’s Far Eastern lines and the Levant. It was requisitioned by the French government in 1914. These details and more are available here.
 The summary of events in this section is based on accounts by Captain Jules Lévèque of the Ville De La Ciotat, Second Captain Auguste Joseph Le Flahec of the Ville De La Ciotat, Lieutenant Susini of the French army, and an independent investigation conducted following complaints. It also draws upon an article published on 1 January 1916 in Le Petit Marseillais — a daily regional newspaper in Marseille — which quoted a telegram from Malta received by several English newspapers including the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph.
 It seems reasonable to speculate that Freddy either died on this unlucky boat or was dragged down below as the Ciotat finally went under. Most of the fatalities during the event were caused by: (i) the capsizing and destruction of two lifeboats as a result of being released while the Ciotat was still advancing rapidly; (ii) the destruction and dragging below of another lifeboat (Lifeboat #2) beneath the weight of a submerging yard from the foremast; and (iii) drowning due to a lack of a life vest and an inability to swim. However, Freddy was unlikely to have been allowed on the earliest lifeboats that were released while the ship was still moving — making (i) unlikely. Moreover, despite giving up his life vest, Freddy was a capable swimmer. So long as he was not dragged underwater, he should have been eventually spotted by the other lifeboats and rafts in the morning daylight at that time of the day — making (iii) less likely.
There is also one account that claims that the Ceylonese volunteers and Arab passengers had tried to hurry the release of the lifeboats, and had to be ordered to act calmy and methodically. There is a separate account of Arab passengers trying to invade Lifeboat #2, which seems to have been the last to be released, and they had to be held back with a revolver. This could suggest that the Arabs and Ceylonese might have been given relatively lower priority for boarding of the lifeboats. If Freddy did make it aboard Lifeboat #2, he may have died when it was struck by the yard. If he was not able to board any of the lifeboats or rafts, he might have only entered the water at the final moments of the Ciotat’s submerging, and been dragged under without his life vest.
 Source: Stanley Taylor — A Photo Album. This is a photo of a postcard of the S. S. Meroe. The postcard was carried by British Lance Bombardier Stanley Taylor while he was a prisoner of war in Italian hands during WW2, despite the S. S. Meroe having been sunk by a U-boat around 25 years earlier. Stanley’s details are documented at www.camp59survivors.com in articles here and here. Barbara Chapman who originally shared this photo was Stanley’s daughter.
 Source: Remembering World War I veterans
 Aberdeen Weekly Journal, Pictures Of The Week, 27 January 1916
 The Daily Mirror, 8 January, 1916
 Nottingham Evening Post, 6 January 1916
 This son had allegedly also been a good friend of Freddy’s nephew, Willie Obeyesekere.
 Details of the commemorative panel and the War Memorial Monument at St. Thomas’ College are found in the book ‘World War 1 [1914–1918] — Volunteers from Ceylon: Students, old boys and staff representing Royal, St. Thomas’, Kingswood and Trinity Colleges’, compiled by Group Captain Kumar Kirinde, Sri Lanka Air Force (retired).
 A family document claims that John Alvin Obeyesekere had been married three times prior to his marriage to Grace. His previous wives were: (i) Lena Senanayake, (ii) Myrtle Alice Rodrigo, and (iii) Georgia De Silva.
Follow: My name is Sheannal Anthony Obeyesekere. In my spare time, I research my family history and genealogy. My Medium posts are based on this research.
HSM Pieris: The Community, Colombo, 2023
Mevan Pieris: “The Mudaliyar Class Govigama Family Combine in Colonial & Independent Lanka,” 4 March 2023, https://thuppahis.com/2023/03/04/the-mudaliyar-class-goyigama-family-combine-in-colonial-independence
For the concept of “Empire loyalism” which Michael Roberts has deployed, see the following items:
- A memoir of J C W (Willie) Obeyesekere: life, family, and sporting achievements
Joseph Christoffel Wilhelm Obeyesekere was born in Colombo on 14 April 1911 to parents C. Obeyesekere and M. Wijeyesinghe. He was the eldest of 10 children that survived beyond childhood and four others that passed early. On his father’s side, Willie hailed from the prominent Obeyesekere clan of Kathaluwa. His…