Ireland 1912-1923 An Island in Turmoil and Transition

Ireland 1912-1923 An Island in Turmoil and Transition: A series of talks and debates about the Irish Revolutionary period and it’s political and social aftermath.

Philip Orr and Tom Hartley talk, debate and discuss each of 7 themes as below.

Every Thursday from 25th September – 6th November at various locations across Belfast.

For more info contact Séanna Walsh at Coiste na nlarchimí by emailing



The Livebait Squadron: One of the largest Naval disasters in history with 31 of Ulster’s men lost to just one U-boat

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.

HMS Aboukir

HMS Aboukir

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.

HMS Hogue

HMS Hogue

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.

HMS Cressy

HMS Cressy

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


Ireland and the First World War 1914-1922, Banbridge

Shared History Lecture Series “Ireland and the First World War 1914-1922”

Chaired by Dr Éamon Phoenix (Political Historian, author and broadcaster)

Iveagh Movie Studios, Banbridge town.  Series commences on Wednesday 24th September for 7 weeks.  All talks commence at 7pm sharp on successive Wednesday evenings.  Admission is free and their is no need to book.

Wednesday 24 September

“Ireland and Europe on the Brink: from Home Rule to the Guns of August” – Dr Éamon Phoenix

Wednesday 1 October

“Volunteering: Carson’s Army from the Old Town Hall to Kitchener’s Call 1913-1916” – Alan Parkinson (author, lecturer, formerly of University of London Southbank) “The North Began’: The Rise of the Irish Volunteers 1913-1916” – Éamon Phoenix

Wednesday 8 October

“The Battle of the Somme” – Philip Orr (playwright, historian, lecturer)

Wednesday 15 October

“Irish Nationalists and the Great War” – Sean Collins (historian) “Airbrushed out of History? The Great in Modern Memory, North & South” – Jim McDermott (historian)

Wednesday 22nd October

“Women in Ireland, the Vote and the War” – Dr Margaret Ward (author on Irish Women’s History; Visiting Fellow in Irish History, Queen’s University, Belfast)

Wednesday 29th October

“Ireland 1918-1922: Revolution, Partition and Civil War” – Dr Éamon Phoenix

Wednesday 5 November

“Postcards and Memorabilia of Home Rule and The Great War” – Ashley Forbes (historian) “Researching Ancestors in the First World War” – Dr Gavin Hughes (military historian, Trinity College Dublin)


This programme is delivered by Banbridge District Councils Good Relations Programme, part-financed through OFMDFM.

Ulster links to HMS Pathfinder: The first ship sunk using a powered torpedo from a submarine

HMS Pathfinder

HMS Pathfinder

The first ship ever to be sunk by a locomotive torpedo fired by a submarine was HMS Pathfinder, a Pathfinder-class scout cruiser, on 5th September 1914.  She was sunk off St Abbs Head in the Scottish Borders while on patrol, by U-21 commanded by Kapitänleutnant Otto Hersing, taking with her 6 men from Ulster.  Despite the event having been easily visible from shore the authorities attempted to cover up the sinking and HMS Pathfinder was reported to have been mined.

Captain Francis Martin Leake, Royal Navy HMS Pathfinder

Captain Francis Martin Leake

The majority of crew below decks had neither the time nor opportunity to escape and went down with the ship.  There was some confusion at the time over the exact number of crew on board, but research indicates that there were 261 deaths and only 18 survivors. 

One of these survivors of HMS Pathfinder was Captain Francis Martin Leake who had started his career as a young Lieutenant on HMS Caroline.  Captain Leake stayed with his ship as she went down by the nose but was lucky to be picked up and saved.  

He writes in a letter to his mother; “The torpedo got us in our forward magazine and evidently sent this up, thereby killing everyone forward”.  He says of Pathfinder; “She then fell over and disappeared leaving a mass of wreckage all around, but I regret very few men amongst it, for at the time they were all asleep on the mess decks and the full explosion must have caught them, for no survivors came from forward.”

Another survivor was County Down man, Staff Surgeon Thomas Aubrey Smyth who gave an account of his experiences in a letter to his mother who lived at Bedeque House, Dromore.

Staff Surgeon Thomas Aubrey Smyth, Royal Navy HMS Pathfinder

Staff Surgeon Thomas Aubrey Smyth

“The explosion blew a great hole in the side of the ship.  I was at the time in the wardroom, but ran up on deck immediately, and it was then evident by the way the bow was down in the water that she would sink rapidly.  I should say the whole thing occurred in about ten minutes which time was spent in throwing overboard the few articles which would float (the reason there was not more of these was that in preparation for war all unnecessary woodwork is got rid of to prevent fire).  I was then thrown forward by the slope of the deck and got jammed beneath a gun (which I expect is the cause of my bruising) and while in this position was carried down some way by the sinking ship, but fortunately after a time I became released and after what seemed like interminable ages I came to the surface, and after swimming a short time I was able to get an oar and some other floating material with the help of which I was just able to keep on the surface. After holding on for a long time – I believe it was an hour and a half – I must have become unconscious for I have no recollection of being picked out of the water. You see we were alone when it happened, so it took a long time for the reserve torpedo boats to come out and it was too quick to get any of our own boats out, besides most of the few we had were splintered into pieces.” 

There were at least 6 Ulster casualties on board HMS Pathfinder:

These Ulster men were:

Ordinary Seaman HERBERT DALEY born in Lurgan, died aged 20

Stoker (1st class) CHARLES JOHN GORMAN born in Belfast, died aged 24

Leading Stoker JAMES HERBERT HILLIS born in Banbridge, died aged 26

Stoker (1st class) WILLIAM SWANN born Glasgow, lived in Belfast, died aged 23

Stoker (1st class) ANDREW WEST born Belfast, died aged 23

Stoker (1st class) GEORGE SINCLAIR BELL born Belfast, died aged 28    

None of these men’s bodies were recovered for burial and as such they still remain were they died.  All six men are remembered at Chatham Naval Memorial.  The wreck site of HMS Pathfinder is designated under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986.  The anniversary on 5th September will be marked by the British Sub-Aqua Club who will lay a wreath for the centenary of her sinking.

On the Centenary of HMS Pathfinder’s sinking on 5th September, HMS Bangor will arrive in Bangor, County Down. She will be open to the general public on the afternoons of Sat 6th and Sun 7th. HMS Bangor is a 600 tonne Sandown Class Minehunter, commissioned by the Royal Navy and launched by Lady Lisa Spencer in 1999 at Southampton Docks. She is named after Bangor and is the second Royal Navy vessel to bear the name. She is 52.5m in length and has a max speed of 13 knots.

Research by Karen O’Rawe Chair of History Hub Ulster.

Pictures courtesy of History Hub Ulster Member, Nigel Henderson at