Ambrose Betham Cross was born in Norwood, London, England, on the 12th August 1876, the son of Thomas Muston and Matilda Cross (née Betham). His father was a solicitor, and the family home was at 6. Newton Villas, Lambeth, London. He had a younger brother – Howard Turner Cross.
Following his education at Dulwich College, London, where he was a boarder, Ambrose followed in his father’s footsteps by training as a solicitor.
As early as 1901, he had gone out to the Far East, firstly to Singapore and then to Kuala Lumpur in The Federation of Malay States and then on to Seremban, where he set himself up in practise as a solicitor.
On the 27th April 1907, he married Estelle Maria Toreau de Marney in London, so presumably he had returned sometime prior to this. His father-in-law was a professor of French.
By 1908, Ambrose had returned to the Federation of Malay States as he joined the Malay States Volunteer Rifles, where he became an NCO, in that year. In 1911, he reverted to the ranks at his own request so that he could take part in the Coronation Contingent, presumably in London. By the outbreak of war in 1914, he was also a second lieutenant in The Indian Army Reserve of Officers.
By the spring of 1915, however, he had decided to return to Great Britain, to enlist in the British Army and having travelled across the Pacific Ocean, via Japan, he landed on the western seaboard of the United States of America at San Francisco, California, and then travelled by rail to New York. Once there, he stayed at The Imperial Hotel, before joining the
Lusitania as a saloon passenger, (with ticket number 46126) at the Cunard berth at Pier 54 in New York port on the morning of 1st May 1915. Once on board, he was allocated room E46, which was under the personal supervision of First Class Bedroom Steward John Charlton who came from Waterloo, near Liverpool.
The liner’s scheduled 10.00 a.m. sailing was delayed until just after mid-day because she had to wait to embark passengers, crew and cargo from the Anchor Liner
Cameronia which the British Admiralty had requisitioned for war service at the end of April. Then, six days out of New York on the afternoon of 7th May, and within sight of the coast of southern Ireland, the
Lusitania was torpedoed and sunk by the German submarine U-20. At that time, she was only about 250 miles away from her Liverpool destination.
Ambrose Cross was one of just over 100 saloon passengers who survived this sinking and having been rescued from the sea, he was landed at Queenstown, from where he presumably made it to his original intended British destination. After the sinking, he wrote a letter outlining his experiences to Malay newspaper The Malay Mail, so that his friends and business associated would know what had happened to him. This letter was published in the edition of 12th June 1915 and stated: -
Of course, I thought there was a sporting chance that we might not get to Liverpool, but one must take chances nowadays. However, I was astounded to find the ship full of rank, fashion and wealth, and big crowds in the second and third. From the very first the ship's people asseverated that we ran no danger, that we should run right away from any submarine, or ram her and so on, so that the idea came to be regarded as a mild joke for lunch and dinner tables.
There was a lot of money on the ship, in the saloon as well as in the hold. The pool on the ship’s run used to average £105, and on our last night on the ship there was a brilliant gathering (seems ghastly to think of it now) at a concert when £123 were collected for the Liverpool Seamen's Orphanage. I had formulated no plan of campaign except a vague notion that if anything happened I would go right out and not wait to pick up anything; this I did, and it probably saved my life.
When the torpedo struck the bowels of the ship (with an ominous recognisable crack) I was down below. Promptly I walked out to the elevator (I was on the 5th deck). I had always scorned the elevator as laziness, otherwise by force of habit I might have pushed the bell for the lift-boy. The ship started to list to starboard immediately, and going upstairs was a difficulty. It was shortly after lunch and there were few people in the big rooms, and anyhow most people were waiting to pick up this, that and the I other, no doubt thinking too that there was plenty of time (vide the case of the Titanic). There was hardly any row. The few stewards about were quietly saying that it was “all right," a vague assertion which I found myself repeating to one or two ladies who appeared flustered (they were no worse). Hurrying to the top deck, I went out to the port side, heaven knows why, except perhaps for some mad idea that it might help balance the boat. Just by the door I saw a young newly-married couple who sat at my table. They were crouching together leaning up against the wall as it sloped at their back. I beckoned to the girl and thought they would follow me out, but they had evidently made up their minds there was going to be none of the separation business, and they must have gone down together. I was at the staff captain's table. Out of six I am the sole survivor.
The staff captain was James Clarke Anderson from Liverpool, who also perished as a result of the torpedoing.
On the port side there were curiously few people about. It was horrid to look up at those four huge funnels, helpless and coughing. I stood by for orders and
endeavoured to assist some members of the crew in freeing the boats from tackle, but so far as I can remember the pulleys were rusty, or the ropes had not been greased. Anyhow, after a bit I noticed one boat almost full of people. A steward or someone told me to jump in and I did. There was no crush on deck at all. Then the boat wouldn't move. Someone asked where the hatchet was, and no one knew. Then there was a slight rush from within and I remember helping in a lady in a violet costume. Then a big man with a life belt on precipitated himself on to me with great force, and that tore it.
Down went the boat, but we had such a big list to starboard by that time that she struck against the ship and I think she must have smashed for after spending a brief time under water and being kicked and buffeted by fellow victims, I came up among what looked like the remnants of a boat. Although I am a strong swimmer, I thought to husband my strength and as the mast of the boat (I believe) fell to my share I took it and was drifted to stern (there was still a slight way on the ship) for a quarter of a mile, or possibly more, as distances at sea are deceptive. I found myself in company with a bald headed Jew, an elderly Jewish lady, a Belgian and some other women. We also had one oar. The Jew groaned and called upon Moses alternately. He had a lifebelt and I told him to pull himself together, but it was no good, just a case of Kismet with him. The old lady was an awful sport; spat the salt water out of her month like a good 'un. I bucked her up, telling her she was doing splendidly, and I wished 1 could have helped to save her. None of these four could swim, so, of course, the mast or what ever it was well submerged, and they sprawled all over it instead of hanging on and treading water. For myself, I think I must have been 1ightheaded or something, for I felt that I didn't care and generally took charge of my crew and passed the time of day with those on adjacent flotsam or jetsam.
By this time, the ship had seemed to stop her listing and to be stationary, and I thought perhaps we might get back, so told such of my lot as were capable, to hold on and kick out, but it wasn't for long. Suddenly she started again and I really think she must have completed her sinking in a matter of seconds. It was an awful sight and yet it fascinated you, the grace with which the huge thing slithered in, raising its stern on high at the last. So far as I remember, we heard no noises from where we were. Then came the worst part. We were alone. The space a few moments ago occupied by our luxurious home was a ghastly blank of almost still water. The swells caused by the sinkage rolled towards us, and with them came the dead bodies. My Jew's groan had become fainter.
I swam around and managed to get a few more small bits of wreckage. I made out some dozen boats I think, some may have been overturned. Anyhow, I turned on my unrivalled yodel. I don't know if you've heard it. It's rather good. Anyhow, it was most effective on this occasion, and after some time (Heaven knows how long), I saw we had been spotted. The Jews had slid off though, before we were picked up. My head was turned at the time. I did my best for them. Three of us were picked up by a ship's boat after at least 1½ hours in the water, then got to a trawler and were eventually put on a tug and taken to Queenstown, where we arrived at 9.35 p.m.
I lost my father's pipe which I valued, and saved my ring, my school
colours and my eyeglass. Barring a bad cold I am none the worse, and may still return to worry judgment debtors out there.
Bedroom Steward John Charlton, who had looked after Ambrose Betham in room E46, also survived the sinking and eventually made it back to his Waterloo home.
Having finally arrived in England, on 20th May 1915, just a fortnight after the sinking, he applied for a commission in the regular Army, his application stating that he had been married but was by then separated. He gave his address for correspondence as c/o H.T. Cross, 14, Leadenhall St, London. H.T. Cross was presumably his younger brother, Howard Turner Cross.
An introductory letter on his behalf, dated the same day, to an unknown officer from an Ernest Rich, stated: -
30, Harrington Gardens,
20th May 1915
My Dear __________,
May I introduce to you Mr. A.B. Cross. He was a lawyer on his own in the Federated Malay States. He came home via Japan and San Francisco and was on the Lusitania when she went down and was saved. He lost everything including the papers he was bringing home to show his connection with the Volunteers. He intended to offer his services for the war. He can of course refer to Captain Elliott-Cooper RA who was Adjutant of the Volunteers.
I saw Elliott-Cooper the other day, he has rejoined and is, I think, at Dover. No doubt you could ascertain this if it is necessary to refer to him. But it will, I daresay, be sufficient if I guarantee the accuracy of what Mr. Cross states. He is anxious to get a commission in Lord Kitchener’s Army and ready to begin.
I have styled you Captain but if you are a Major forgive me.
It is not clear who Captain Elliott-Cooper of the Royal Artillery was, but there was a Lieutenant-Colonel Neville Bowes Elliott-Cooper in command of the 8th Battalion The Royal Fusiliers, who won a Victoria Cross in November 1917, near Cambrai, France, having already won a Distinguished Service Order and a Military Cross. He later died in captivity in Germany. It is likely that the V.C. winner was a member of the same family as the former
Adjutant of the Volunteers.
Not long after his application, Ambrose Cross was granted a commission in the 1st Battalion of The Wiltshire Regiment and in September 1915, he was posted on attachment to the 1/8th Battalion of The Hampshire Regiment then serving in the trenches at Hill 60 at Suvla Bay on the Gallipoli Peninsula, in the Dardanelles. After the evacuation of the Peninsula, he continued to serve with the Battalion in Egypt and Palestine. On 2nd November 1917 during the Battle of Gaza, he was wounded by a Turkish bullet which entered his inner left thigh two inches above the knee. Having been evacuated to hospital in Egypt, he was operated upon and had the bullet removed from a position eight inches above the knee, on the outer side of his thigh. He was discharged from hospital on 28th December 1917 and boarded the troop ship Bohemian two days later, bound for southern France.
On 29th October 1917, even before the fighting at Gaza, he had written a letter to his Battalion adjutant applying for a transfer to The Chinese Labour Corps, which stated: -
I have for 15 years lived in the Federated Malay States where the Chinese provided the bulk of the labour. I cannot claim to fluency in the several dialects of the Chinese language but in the course of the above period I have gained from considerable experience of their ways and manners and the best methods of working them.
In addition to many business dealings with Chinese I have had large gangs of coolies under my control on my own estates and I feel confident of my ability to understand such control in the above Corps.
This transfer request was granted and when the Bohemian left Egypt on 31st December 1917, Cross had orders to report to the officer commanding The Chinese Labour Corps at The Corps’ base at Boulogne in northern France. The
Bohemian almost certainly made port in southern France and Cross would have travelled to Boulogne from there by rail. An arrival report still extant describes him as
1 Wiltshire Regiment attached to The Chinese Labour Corps, and his transfer to this latter unit was effective from 18th January. On 29th January 1918 he left the base depôt for Folkestone having been granted two weeks leave, and recommended to apply for a medical board in England. At Folkestone he was admitted to Mill Bank Hospital there.
He eventually served on the Western Front with the 72nd Chinese Labour Corps until the Armistice and was formally discharged from the Army on 28th April 1919. His address was given at the time as The Hotel Alexandra, Arosa, near San Moritz, Switzerland.
In 1921, Ambrose Cross returned to the Far East and stayed there for the next 20 years, with interspersed trips to Europe. Having been estranged from his wife for a number of years, finally, in 1924, Estelle Marie Cross filed for divorce in London and her application was granted.
Ambrose Cross was taken prisoner in 1942 when the Imperial Japanese Army invaded and captured the Malay Peninsula. As a British civilian, he was interned throughout the rest of the war in the Far East and suffered the privations meted out to Europeans by the Japanese. These meant that he was taken to Singapore General Hospital on the return of the victorious Allies in 1945, until he had fully recovered. Whilst there, he was visited by his niece Mrs. Barbara Gray, known as ‘Jimmy’, who was at that time serving with the British Military Administration in Malaya as a junior civil assistant.
He eventually returned to Great Britain, and in 1948, he was living at 4, Inverness Terrace, in London W.2.
Ambrose Cross died at St. Johns Hospital, Battersea, London, on 23rd October 1951, aged 55 years. Probate of his estate was granted to his brother, Howard Turner Cross, who was described as an actuary, on the 9th February 1952. His estate was valued at £8,550-6s.-2d. (£8,550.31p.).
Register of Births, Marriages and Deaths, London England Church of England Marriages and Banns 1754 – 1932, 1881 Census of England & Wales, 1891 Census of England & Wales, British Regiments at Gallipoli, Brotherton Library UniLeeds, California Passenger and Crew Lists 1882 – 1959, Cunard Records, Probate Records, Malay Mail, PRO 22/71, PRO WO339/2065, Graham Maddocks, Joe Devereux, Geoff Whitfield, Michael Poirier, Jim Kalafus, Cliff Barry, Paul Latimer, Norman Gray.
Copyright © Peter Kelly.