Frederic Thornton “Fritz” Peters was a 19-year-old midshipman on the battleship HMS Duncan wintering at Malta when Italy was devastated by one of the worst natural disasters of the twentieth century.  In the early morning of December 28, 1908 a 7.2 earthquake and tsunami hit Messina, killing about 70,000 residents of the city and many thousands more on the Italian mainland.

Men on Duncan rushed to Messina to assist with the emergency, along with crews from other ships of the Royal Navy, as well as ships of the Italian navy and the navies of France, Russia and the United States.

damage from 1908 earthquake in Sicily (McBride Collection)

For leading shore rescue parties, Fritz Peters was awarded the silver Messina Earthquake Medal, personally presented by Italy’s King Victor Emmanuel.  The king gave out medals in gold, silver and bronze.  While in Sicily Peters acquired photographs of the aftermath of the earthquake (including the two presented here) and mailed them to his parents and siblings in Victoria, British Columbia.

Messina home destroyed (McBride Collection)

It was the first of a raft of medals Peters would earn in three stints of service in the Royal Navy over a period of 38 years.  His next medal was the Distinguished Service Order — an award for gallantry second only to the Victoria Cross — in March 1915.  He received the DSO from King George the Fifth for saving lives of crew members on the destroyer HMS Meteor at the Battle of Dogger Bank in the North Sea on January 24, 1915.

top: front and back of the Messina Earthquake Medal; bottom, standard formal portrait of Frederic Thornton Peters circa 1912, and detail that shows he is wearing the Messina medal