Chapter 7

Death and frustration on the high seas.

In the North Sea, the blockade was threatening to be a failure. Of 25 ships stopped and searched by the 10th Cruiser Squadron that autumn, only one was detained. Other guilty ships were slipping smugly through legal loopholes to the Baltic and Holland loaded up with copper, grain, sulphur and coal for the German war effort.

Morale was suffering among the young men of the Royal Navy. It is no surprise that the highlight of August 24 for Jack was that he had been ordered to paint the ship light grey, work which was cut short by an evening gale. Painting the ship was just one of the lowly tasks handed out to boy seamen. Life for them on board was hard. Jack would have been forced to call senior ratings and able seamen : “sir.” Like all the other boy seamen, he was at everyone's beck and call.

Bullying carried on at sea. In the gun rooms of the fleet the elder sailors often victimized boy seamen. One particularly sadistic game, handed down through the years, was called: “Fork in the beam.” It went like this; when a fork was stuck into the wall of the gun room it was the signal for all boy seamen to scatter. The last one out got a dozen lashes with the scabbard of a dirk, or short knife.

Not a hint of this darker side of naval life made it through to Jack's terse diary. Maybe, in those days, people only wanted to hear the glory story. Or maybe he saw nothing unusual in it.

Jack had time to rest and send mail home after reaching Scapa Flow. In his diary, he noted several  “prize” ships were in dock as the Edgar coaled and awaited orders. These “prize” ships were merchant vessels captured red handed by the Royal Navy. The value of these ships was paid over by the government and split up between the crew. In short, a “prize” meant a nice pay day from the captain right down to the lowest boy seaman.

The Edgar steamed out of Scapa Flow on August 29 to patrol German waters. During the patrol, it heard news of the naval battle off Heligoland.

Several ships were held up by the Edgar, including Swedish and Norwegian cargo boats. Jack records he boarded a British ship of the Wilson Line and met some Russian reservists sailing home to join the colours. It was a cordial get together, after all the war was probably still seen as a bit of a short-lived game.

The Edgar then joined up with part of the main battle fleet, cruising alongside the Good Hope and Drake. Together they swept the North Sea and with them Jack celebrated one year since joining the Royal Navy in September 1913.

The weather took a turn for the worse. On September 12, the sea was so rough that Jack and his shipmates had to struggle for a day to get mail from a sister ship, Dryad.

The day after one of the roughest nights the Edgar suffered it was ordered back to England. On September 20, the Edgar set sail for Newcastle, via Cromarty, and it arrived on the River Tyne the next day. The aging cruiser went into dry dock and Jack and his shipmates began the job of scraping off the barnacles and cleaning the seaweed from the hull.

That night, the young matelots of the Edgar went out into Newcastle for a night on the town. That evening Jack recorded the only hint that that he ever let his hair down and enjoyed himself.

“A good concert in the evening,” he said.

The euphoria of the concert was short lived. Ship's company was up at dawn next morning and forced out cursing onto a route march. They returned to the draining job of coaling the Edgar.

Jack was back at sea the next day and ran straight into the teeth of a storm.The Edgar held up a Danish ship in very rough weather and sent it to port for scrutiny. From now on these stormy conditions would be Jack's daily grind. Driving rain and freezing fog would gnaw into the bones of the young seaman on deck as they struggled to board lurching merchant ships. Many young men, including Jack, would cling for dear life to ropes and rails, with hot cocoa one of the few comforts.

On October 7, came a boost for the men of the Edgar in the shape of a signal from the War Office. The signal said 180,000 German troops had been killed, wounded or captured in France. Maybe it could be over by Christmas? Maybe suffering in the cold of the North Sea was worth it after all. The Edgar docked at Cromarty and Jack spent the day working on the ships's main derrick and exercising with searchlights.

The Edgar steamed south to patrol. There were plenty of neutral merchant ships to be stopped and searched. On October 13, the Edgar met up with its sister ship, Hawke. The day after the weather was fine, they were collaring plenty of contraband runners. The day after, Jack celebrated the boarding of a Norwegian vessel by opening up a food parcel from the Navy League.The pears and apples inside could have been a welcome reminder of his far away Worcestershire home.

The horrors of war stalked the Edgar and the northern patrol. At three bells on October 15 the crew was scrambling for battle stations following a frantic wireless signal from another warship. A U-Boat had fired torpedoes at sister ship, Thesus. Gun crews were on stand-by and were further chilled by the news that the Hawke was missing. Scrimgeour records in his diary that the attack on the Thesus, was unsuccessful and seaplanes saw the U-Boat fleeing towards Cromarty. He also recorded, chillingly, that his ship, Crescent, sighted wreckage in the water, which they thought could be the remains of the missing Hawke.

At 10 AM on October 17, Jack and his shipmates received the bitter news. The Hawke was gone, torpedoed off Aberdeen by the U9. Many of Jack's training pals were drowned, a mere 49 survived. The lucky few were on a cutter lowered by the Hawke just before the torpedoes struck. They survived, but were forced to watch their comrades perish in the freezing waters.

Scrimgeour wrote bleakly in his diary of the sinking of the Hawke: “It is interesting to note that 2 hours before she went to sea on her last trip, Captain Williams came to board to ask for 2 days extra to repair his engines. This was refused as he could still do 10 knots. In order to obviate the danger of submarine attacks it is customary for all our warships to leave and enter Moray Firth at full speed minimum 17 knots.

The Hawke could not possibly, at forcing power, do more than just over half this speed. Captain Williams realized the extreme danger of this, hence his personal appeal to the Admiral. His last words to the flag lieutenant were: “It is pure murder sending the ship with over 500 officers and men on board to sea in this state.

His words proved correct in a disastrously short space of time. The story of the Hawke being stopped for boarding a ship, when hit by the submarine, was invented by the Admiralty to prevent unpleasant questions and a public outcry. She was attacked going out of the Moray Firth at maximum speed viz: 10 knots, and an extra 5 knots would have probably saved her. Those five knots could have been attained by an extra 2 days in harbour.”

Who was next? The danger and fear put the crew of the Edgar on full alert, but the anxious wave watching soon dissolved into boredom. It was back to cleaning and coaling as the ship lurched into the port of Buscavow.



written by Chris Bishop