1914

Churchill's Antwerp intervention had lasting and ultimately tragic consequences for one local man.

As the war progressed into its third month, the British Expeditionary Force was rapidly losing the greater part of its trained manpower through deaths and injuries.

As Territorial soldiers were not held in high regard by the senior commanders they were rushed out to the colonies and Regular garrison battalions brought back home to reinforce the BEF. As the Royal Navy had a surplus of reservists and RNVR volunteers Churchill — then First Lord of the Admiralty — got agreement to the formation of a number of Naval Brigades who would be trained to fight on land. These came to be known as 'Bluejackets' — because of their uniforms — and were to fight throughout the war in several theatres of operations including all the major campaigns on the Western Front.

In early October, as the Germans began to besiege Antwerp, the last major Belgian city and of strategic importance on the Scheldt estuary, Churchill got agreement to sending a force of Royal Marine Light Infantry and some men of his new Royal Naval Division (RND) to reinforce the defence of the city. In another controversial and colourful chapter of his life he took himself off to Antwerp and began to interfere and advise the military staffs on the tactics to be followed. He realised the importance of holding out as long as possible, as every day allowed time for the promised French reinforcements and some British Divisions released from the south to reach the channel ports area and hopefully prevent the Channel coast falling into German hands.

The sailor-soldiers were often raw recruits or reservists (many from Tyneside) with no training for fighting of any kind. A remark was passed that they were Winston's 'naval rabble' and should not be placed in harm's way. Some attempts were made to use them away from the front line at Antwerp but in any case the defence of the city had to be abandoned. There were few losses amongst the Naval Brigade but unfortunately as they retreated towards the coast along the Scheldt Estuary some strayed into Dutch territory — see map — and were interned for the rest of the war.

map_antwerpThe Dutch were keen to maintain strict neutrality and held several thousands of Belgian, British, French and German troops who came across their frontiers whether by mistake, or intentionally, to escape capture by their respective enemy.

One local man interned in Holland was Matthew Cranston of Dockwray Square, an Apprentice Plumber at Smiths Dock Company Ltd. and the son of a well-known local family, he was serving in the Collingwood Battalion of the RND. During the period of their internment, until the armistice in 1918, many of the internees were permitted by the Dutch to work in towns and on farms to replace their own men serving in their armed forces. It seems Matthew Cranston met a Dutch woman and they were married.

He returned with his new wife to North Shields but then went back to Holland and settled there. Unfortunately, as the Germans overran Holland in the Second World War (1940) he was again interned as an enemy alien (he presumably never took Dutch citizenship). Sadly, although his three sisters in England were able to re-establish contact with him after 12 years, through the Red Cross at the end of the war, he died on the 5 November, 1945, before they could meet up with him. His death was attributed to malnutrition and poor treatment in a concentration camp in Holland during the war.

October also saw the loss of another old cruiser, HMS Hawke crewed by many local reservists from Tyneside and young cadets. Like the three ships lost on the 22 September, in the area of the Dogger Bank (see News Guardian story 22 September, 2011) this was another disaster which showed how submarines were rapidly to become a major menace to surface ships. Four men connected to Tynemouth were lost when this ship was torpedoed on the 15th of October.

Cause of Borough's early casualties was subject of controversy involving Churchill.

The first major loss of life for the Royal Navy in the First World War, in September, 1914 sparked an investigation which was only the first of three controversial events to surround the actions of Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty and cabinet minister responsible for the defence of the British Empire's interests across the globe.

The sinking of three near obsolete cruisers, HMSs Aboukir, Cressy and Hogue, by the German submarine U9, with the loss of almost 1500 officers and other ranks was to arouse argument about why they were left in an exposed position in the North Sea with armament which could not match the latest capital ships of the Imperial German Navy lying in port not far away.

The crews of the British ships included young naval cadets from Osborne Naval Academy and local men, many of whom were reservists recalled to the colours on the outbreak of war. The ships were patrolling in the area of the Dogger Bank and when Churchill attended a meeting at Loch Ewe with the Grand Fleet commanders, to discuss tactics and matters relating to containment of the enemy’s powerful fleet he was, in his account of events, very concerned by remarks allegedly made by Commodore Keyes (hero of the recent engagement at the Heligoland Bight) that the ships were 'the live bait squadron' hoping to entice the German High Seas fleet into action. Churchill, on his return to London, suggested in a note to Prince Louis of Battenberg, First Sea Lord at the Admiralty, that they be withdrawn from such unjustifiable risk and transferred to the Western Approaches at the western end of the Channel, far from any known enemy surface ship threats.

aboukirPrince Louis agreed and gave orders to that effect but before they could be carried out, on 22nd September, HMS Aboukir was struck by a submarine-launched torpedo and capsized. As the Hogue and Cressy came to the aid of the stricken ship they lowered their boats to rescue her crew members and came to a halt. At that point they were also struck and all three ships were sunk. Merchant ships in the vicinity including Dutch fishing vessels saved over 800 men but more than1400 were drowned or killed. No other Royal Navy vessels were nearby, the escort flotilla for the cruisers having been confined to port by poor weather in the southern North Sea.

An Admiralty court of inquiry was ordered into the disaster but before it could report a virulent attack was launched on Churchill by a former colleague in Parliament. Thomas Gibson Bowles, then a journalist and writer, charging him with irresponsibility and delay in ignoring the advice and warnings of the naval high command and calls for the very action he Churchill had in fact initiated. The press took up the case and criticism rained on Churchill accusing him of interfering in operational matters and acting beyond his remit as a minister.

As Martin Gilbert (Churchill's official biographer) notes in the extensively documented biography Winston S. Churchill Vol. III 1914-16, the Court of Inquiry cleared him of responsibility in the matter but because of the operational sensitivity of certain aspects of the report, Herbert Asquith — the Prime Minister — did not want the details and verdict published.

The official enquiry held the two admirals of the cruiser squadron responsible for failings including disregard of advice that ships in the area being patrolled should steam in zig-zag patterns and that on the torpedoing of the Aboukir the two other ships ought to have steamed away in opposite directions rather than stopping to assist the stricken vessel. This advice was issued as an order for the future, cruel as it seems when faced with the sight of your comrades perishing in front of you.

Soon there were to be much two much more controversial military actions, with questionable tactical and strategic reasoning as well as costly failure laid at Churchill's door in this turbulent period of his long career.