No-one can have failed to grasp that this year marks the 100th anniversary of the start of World War One. It doesn’t sit very comfortably that there is so much focus on this, what is described as a commemoration has a little touch of a celebratory feel about it. To my mind, we would be better served commemorating the end of the war. Most families were affected by the war in some way and many paid a terrible price.
When Baby Boudica the Elder was about 18 months old, we went on holiday to Belgium. We toured the battlefields and cemeteries first hand. There are several excellent museums that bring the war to life in a vibrant, yet stomach churning way. I found the before and after aerial photographs of towns and villages most starkly illuminating. Entire towns completely annihilated and turned into a sea of mud. I’ve stood in a trench, or at least the remains of it. It was in a woodland, so peaceful and quiet with just the sounds of the birds in the trees. During the war there was no woodland, no trees, no birds, just mud and water and death. Under a bright sunlight sky it is hard to imagine the beautiful Flanders fields as anything different to how they are today. I think everyone should go just once, you can read all the books you like, and watch all the documentaries ever made but it’s not until you are actually there, that it sinks in quite how huge and terrible the First World War actually was.
I remember standing at Tyne Cot cemetery and looking at row after row of immaculately kept gravestones and thinking what a terrible waste of life. When you look at all those graves, in lines that seem to go on endlessly and you think that underneath each one, is somebody’s father, brother or son.
We went to the Last Post Ceremony at the Menin Gate, I remember that even Baby Boudica the Elder seemed struck dumb at the solemnity of it all. It was a beautiful moment and I hope the ceremony will continue to take place every evening, forever really.
“Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it” (Q: George Santayana/Winston Churchill) and this is something that can never be allowed to be repeated.
There are the names of 54,896 Commonwealth soldiers on the Menin Gate Memorial, who died in the Ypres Salient and whose bodies have never been found.
There are another 34,984 names on the Tyne Cot ‘Memorial to the Missing’ as the Menin Gate Memorial was considered to be too small to carry all of the names. Those are such huge numbers, it is inconceivable today that so many lives could be lost in action.
I know that WW1 was the catalyst for modern life, it allowed women so many more freedoms than we would otherwise have had if it had not happened. The world changed because of the the war but it came at a terrible cost for so many families.
I have researched the Boudica Family Tree a little and in my family alone, we have one casualty name on the Menin Gate Memorial, one casualty name on the Loos memorial and one grave in the Artillery Wood Cemetery.
Yet interestingly, this very personal post is not about those our family lost during the Great War, it is about the one who came home. The one who survived the war and has been of most interest to me. That man is my Great-Grandfather, James.
James was born in 1891 and joined the Navy in 1906 at the age of 15. He lied about his age when he joined, stating he was born in 1888 and was therefore 18 years old. I’m not entirely sure what age you had to be to the join the Navy at that time, however I’m told that it was not uncommon for boys to lie about their age.
James stayed in the Navy until September 1911 and was called up as a Reservist in July 1914 when my Grandfather (pictured as a young boy) was just 18 days old. He was a 1st Class Stoker and on the 29th July he was assigned to join HMS Cressy, an armoured cruiser that was built in about 1900, was crewed by reservists and cadets and was pretty much obsolete. HMS Cressy was a part of the 7th Cruiser Squadron, a home fleet used to protect ships carrying supplies, which was given the fateful nickname “The Live Bait Squadron”.
On the 18th September 1914, First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill agreed they should be withdrawn from service as “The risks to such ships is not justified by any services they can render”. Crucially it was agreed that the ships should remain on station until the new cruisers being built could replace them.
It was a decision that led to one of the largest Naval disasters in the world. It led to the loss of 1459 lives in an action that lasted just over an hour and a half in the cold waters of the North Sea.
On 22nd September 1914, HMS Cressy was on patrol, line abreast with two other cruisers, HMS Aboukir and HMS Hogue. At 6.20am German submarine U-9 fired a torpedo at HMS Aboukir, which struck on the starboard side. 25 minutes later she capsized and sunk 5 minutes later. Two torpedoes hit HMS Hogue while she was attempting to rescue stricken sailors from the Aboukir. She sank at 7.15am. The first torpedo hit HMS Cressy on the starboard side at 7.15am , the second hit her port beam at 7.30am. Cressy capsized and floated upside down until 7.55am, when she too sank beneath the waves just off the Dutch coast. Only 837 men survived the sinking of the 3 vessels and my great-grandfather was one of them.
I’ve never heard of this event being mentioned in any of the WW1 commemoration programs, they seem to concentrate solely on the trenches and seem to forget that huge numbers of lives were lost in other places and at sea. The only reason I know anything about this event at all, is that as I was growing up, we had a huge picture of the battle on our lounge wall. All I was ever told was that my great-grandfather was on one of the ships in the picture. It wasn’t until I started researching my family history that the details came to light.
James stayed in the Navy, finally leaving in June 1921. Sadly, he died in 1959, long before I was born so I never got the chance to talk to him about it. I’m very proud of my Naval heritage and I’m glad that he survived the war when so many others didn’t. It must have been an awful thing for him to live with the knowledge that he survived where so many of his friends and fellow crewmen were lost.
So why am I mentioning this now? On the 22nd September 2014 there is to be a Commemoration Event at the Historic Dockyard at Chatham. Numbers for the service are limited and priority is given to the relatives and descendants of those who had an involvement in the battle. A couple of weeks ago I applied for tickets to attend and today I learned that our tickets have been reserved, so having also booked a hotel, myself, Mr Boudica and the Baby Boudica’s will be going to Chatham to commemorate this huge Naval tragedy.
After 100 years, the war still affects families today. The biggest effect it has had on me, is to have brought me closer to my history, it has given me a greater sense of where I come from. I feel it’s important for me to take the Baby Boudica’s, to show them where they come from too. To give them a personal feeling for the war and how it affected their family, not just the ones on the television.