No family in the early 20th century was unaffected by the 1914-18 First World War. As the anniversary of the start of the Great War is commemorated this year, families will be remembering the role their predecessors played.
The appalling loss of life and the living conditions suffered by the thousands and thousands of conscripted British soldiers who fought in the trenches in France and Belgium has been much reported over the last hundred years.
Now Eyemouth’s Fenton Robb has put together a talk and slideshow which explains the role played by the Royal Navy.
During World War I the Royal Navy was divided into two battle fleets. The Channel Fleet guarded and operated in the English Channel, and the Grand Fleet, based at Scapa Flow, covered the North Sea.
Both protected merchant ship convoys from surface raiders and submarines to keep Britain supplied; and they supported land operations in a variety of theatres.
“By the early 20th century, the Royal Navy, nicknamed ‘The Andrew’, guardian of the sea routes to the dominions and colonies, had gone through a number of changes at a breath-taking rate,” explains Fenton.
“The all-steel armoured warship, bereft of sails and rigging, with massive guns on her upper deck had arrived.
“She was powered by coal or oil-fired boilers providing steam to reciprocating engines or turbines driving not paddle wheels but several propeller shafts.
“The navy now required from industry high quality design, tightly specified materials and reliable engineering.
“Dreadnoughts, or submarines, first developed by the Royal Navy, became the symbol of sea power and objects of pride. Their appearance stimulated an arms race with the other colonial powers, not least with France, Germany, Russia and Japan. Britain’s policy was to have a fleet more powerful than that of the two next most powerful added together.”
“Although Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, had decreed that oil should replace coal, many ships companies still had to turn to coaling every week or two,” added Fenton.
“Dreadnoughts burned 300 tons of coal each day at sea; all of which had to be manhandled from colliers to bunkers and then to the boilers. Just as unpleasant was the task of cleaning out grates, smoke boxes and flue tubes.”
The armoury on board these new battleships was also changing, their guns capable of reaching a range of over eight miles creating new demands on the crews. And such was the expansion that it was not only the regular crews that needed to up their skill set, there were also major demands on the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, whose numbers were also increased rapidly in the first decade of the 20th century and became an essential part of the battle to defend Britain in the Great War.
For the crews, their role could be anything from the usual onboard duties to manning an armoured car defending a Naval Air Station at Gallipoli, flying a seaplane, or fighting in the trenches with the elite 63rd (Royal Naval) Division in the British Army.
Perhaps most unexpected was the call to man His Majesty’s Landships (battle tanks) at the battle of the Somme and elsewhere.
For some there was an even more unusual role – unusual in those days anyway – the opportunity to take to the air as part of the Royal Naval Air Service and become one of the elite band to take part in the first aerial bombings to take place during war.
Despite the huge investment made by both Britain and Germany in building great warships, there was only one battle of the fleets – the Battle of Jutland in 1916. In terms of tonnage sunk and seamen lost, the British suffered by far the most, but the morale of the German Navy was broken.
Following the defeat of the German Army, the Armistice Treaty demanded that the undefeated German Navy be surrendered to the British Grand Fleet in a unique ceremony.
The entire German High Seas Fleet sailed from Kiel and Wilhelmshaven to be met by the British Grand Fleet.
Both fleets anchored off the Forth and the Germans pulled down their ensigns, but not for the last time.
After a year in Scapa Flow they defiantly hoisted their ensigns and scuppered their entire fleet of seventy vessels, depriving the victors of their spoils. Compared with the unanticipated horrors of the trenches, life in the Andrew, for most, was one of hard work enjoyed in the company of fellow crewmen both at sea and ashore.
However, the threat of the sea, as well as that of the enemy, was ever present and never forgotten, never more so than when Lord Kitchener, the War Minister, died along with over 700 others when HMS Hampshire sank in June 1916, when she hit a mine laid by a German U-Boat as she sailed out of Scapa Flow.
○Fenton Robb has captured the story of ‘The Andrew’ in a 45-minute slide show available to Borders clubs: contact 018907 50610. His first talk is to Eyemouth Probus Club at the Dolphin Hotel Eyemouth from 11am on Thursday, January 9.