Exactly seven weeks into the First World War, the action of 22nd September 1914 saw three large but old British Royal Navy cruisers, manned mainly by reservists and referred to as the Livebait Squadron, sunk by just one German submarine while on patrol in the North Sea. In all 1,459 men were lost off the Dutch Coast, on the three ships HMS Aboukir, HMS Cressy and HMS Hogue. Of these, at least 31 men had connections to Ulster, most of them Stokers and three quarters of them part time reservists. Their average age was only 27 years old. 30 Ulstermen are buried at sea, with only 1 Ulsterman with a known grave.
The cruisers were part of the 7th Cruiser Squadron, which was assigned patrol duties in the North Sea. Although concerns had been expressed about the vulnerability of these old ships, no changes had been made. There was less concern about submarine attacks at this point in the war than later, despite the previous sinking of HMS Pathfinder.
The morning of 22 September found a single U-boat, U-9 passing through the Broad Fourteens on her way back to base. Surfacing after taking shelter from a storm, U-9 spotted the unprotected British ships and moved to attack.
She fired one torpedo from a range of 500m, which struck Aboukir, flooding the engine room and causing the ship to stop immediately. Aboukir capsized and sank within 30 minutes. It was assumed that the ship had hit a mine, and the other two cruisers closed in to help.
U-9 resurfaced to observe Hogue and Cressy trying to rescue men in the water, and fired two torpedoes at Hogue from a range of 270m. Despite the ship opening fire on U-9, the two torpedoes struck Hogue and within 15 minutes she capsized.
The last remaining cruiser Cressy was left to face U-9 alone but failed. Hit by two torpedoes, she capsized and floated upside down for 40 minutes before sinking.
One survivor explained how the men were;
‘much bruised and the skin was knocked off their bodies by the buffeting of the waves and contact with the wreckage’
Another man writing to his mother told of his experiences;
‘the sea was literally alive with men struggling and grasping for anything to save themselves. To add to the horror of the scene the Germans kept firing their torpedoes at us.’
He goes on to explain how he lost both of his brothers, all three of them serving on HMS Cressy;
‘I was just going to jump when I saw dear brother Alfred coming along the deck which was then all awash. Together we lingered for a moment, shook hands and told each other that whoever was saved to tell dear mother that our last thoughts were of her. We then kissed, wished each other goodbye, and plunged into the sea together, and we never saw each other again. Nor did we see any sign of brother Louis’
Witness reports of the time are inconsistent with survivors saying that anything up to 20 submarines where involved and that at least 2 were destroyed. In fact the only submarine involved, U-9 returned home the next day to a hero’s welcome with Commander Weddigen and his crew all receiving the Iron Cross. U-9 and Commander Weddigan would go on to sink HMS Hawke three weeks later with the loss of 524 men, over 40 of them from Ulster.
Despite rescue attempts by Dutch merchant vessels, of the combined crew of 2296 men there were only 837 survivors. 1459 men, mostly part-time men from the Royal Naval Reserve rather than regular sailors, had died. For weeks after this catastrophe bodies of British sailors were washed ashore on the Dutch coast, a few men buried at cemeteries in Holland.
The disaster shook British public opinion and the reputation of the Royal Navy. There were reprimands and criticisms for those in charge. The reputation of the U-boat as a weapon of war was established. Sceptics in Germany fell silent and the Royal Navy never underestimated the U-boat threat again. In later years, it is estimated that 15,000 seamen fell victim to torpedo attacks. In this first major incident alone one tenth of that number perished.
There were at least 31 casualties related to Ulster on board HMS Aboukir, HMS Cressy & HMS Hogue:
Stoker (1st) Norman Sidney Burrard, born Monaghan, died aged 20
Stoker (1st) Matthew Cleland, born Belfast, died aged 26
Stoker (1st) Hugh Donnelly, born Belfast, died aged 26
Stoker (1st) John Foster, born Dromore, lived Belfast, died aged27
Stoker (1st) William James Gordon, born Downpatrick, died aged 27
Stoker (1st) William Johnston Kerr, born Belfast, died aged 25
Stoker (1st) William Martin, born Belfast, died aged 22
Stoker (1st) Gilbert McBride, born Belfast, died aged 26
Stoker (1st) Francis Leonard McLoughlin, lived Ballycashon, died aged 21
Stoker (1st) Edward Thomas Quinn, lived Belfast, died aged 29
Stoker (1st) Hugh Sands, lived Belfast, died aged 24
Able Seaman Edward Henry Everall, born Annalong, died aged 26
Sick Berth Steward Reuben John Johnston, born Belfast, died aged 37
Able Seaman Frederick Charles Hamilton, born Lisburn, died aged 35
Stoker (1st) Peter Breslin, born Ardara, Donegal, died aged 27
Stoker (1st) Samuel Chancellor, born Belfast, died aged 22
Stoker (1st) Joseph McBride Hilland, born Belfast, died aged 24
Stoker (1st) Thomas Joseph Hughes, born Belfast, died aged 29
Stoker (1st) Alexander Jamison, born Doagh, lived Belfast, died aged 28
Stoker (1st) David Lewis, lived Belfast, died aged 25
Stoker (1st) John Logan, born Belfast, died aged 23
Stoker (1st) Isaiah Marshall, born Belfast, died aged 23
Stoker (1st) Henry McMurran, born Whitehead, lived Carrickfergus, died aged 27
Stoker (1st) Thomas Murphy, born Newry, died aged 31
Stoker (1st) Charles Neill, born Belfast, died aged 26
Stoker (1st) William Joseph Redmond, lived Belfast, died aged 29
Leading Carpenter’s Crew Joshua Singleton, born Hillsborough, died aged 37
Engine Room Artificer William Wright, born Belfast, died aged 31
Lieutenant Philip Arthur Graham Kell, linked to Portrush, died aged 37
Stoker William Clair, born Belfast, died aged 41
Stoker (1st) David Graham, born Whiteabbey, lived Whitehouse, died aged 36
Only one of these men’s bodies was recovered for burial, most remaining where they drowned. They are remembered at either Chatham or Portsmouth Naval Memorials. The wrecks of the three cruisers still rest on the seabed, the mass graves of so many men, although these are not protected and it is alleged that the wrecks are being salvaged for metal. The anniversary on 22nd September will be marked at the Historic Dockyard, Chatham with a Drumhead service and fall of 1,459 poppy petals, one for each life lost.
Research by Karen O’Rawe, Chair of History Hub Ulster.
Servicemen images courtesy of History Hub Ulster Member, Nigel Henderson at http://www.greatwarbelfastclippings.com