Churchill heavily criticised after three cruisers are sunk by U-boat

A drawing of the sinking of the Aboukir.
A drawing of the sinking of the Aboukir.

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.

The sinking of three near obsolete cruisers, – Aboukir, Cressy and Hogue – by the German submarine U9, with the loss of almost 1,500 officers and other ranks, was to arouse argument about why they were left in an exposed position in the North Sea.

The crews of the British ships included young naval cadets from Osborne Naval Academy and the borough, 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 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his return to London, suggested in a note to Prince Louis of Battenberg, First Sea Lord at the Admiralty, that they be withdrawn from such unjustifiable risk and transferred to the Western Approaches at the western end of the channel, far from any known enemy surface ship threats.

Prince Louis agreed and gave orders to that effect but before they could be carried out, on September 22, 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 were sunk.

Merchant ships in the vicinity including Dutch fishing vessels saved more than 800 men but more than 1,400 were drowned or killed.

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, a journalist and writer, charged him with irresponsibility and delay in ignoring the advice and warnings of the naval high command and calls for the very action Churchill had 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, Prime Minister Herbert Asquith 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.

Soon there were to be two much more controversial military actions, with questionable tactical and strategic reasoning as well as costly failures laid at Churchill’s door.

The Tynemouth World War One Commemoration Project will be holding an open forum at 7pm on Tuesday, October 11, in the Linskill centre for all volunteers and anyone interested to learn about progress of the project and opportunities for any new volunteers who wish to participate in the three-year programme of work.

THIS week’s casualty list gives details of men from the borough who were killed or died in the month of September, 1914.

The following were lost in the sinking of the Aboukir, Hogue and Cressy on September 22.

Jennings, James, Stoker, RNR, 7 Linskill Street, included on the Chatham Memorial, HMS Hogue.

Loft, Alma James, Stoker, RNR, 3 Pant Street, Chatham Memorial, HMS Hogue.

Monks, Frederick Richard, Artificer Engineer, RN, Shotley Street, Mary Churchyard (RN section), Suffolk, HMS Cressy.

Osborne Frederick, age 32, AB, RN, (Royal Fleet Reserve), 8 Stephenson Street, son of Benjamin and late Rachel, of Bungay, Suffolk, husband of Edith Wealland (formerly Osborne), of 178 Hedley Street, Wallsend, Chatham Memorial, HMS Cressy.

Suttie, Henry, age 27, AB, RN, 23 Front Street, Milburn Place, son of George and Ellen, buried at ‘s Gravenzande General Cemetery, near Hook of Holland, Netherlands, HMS Cressy.

Welsh, David Ferguson, age 32, Engine Room Artificer, RNR, William Street West, son of Andrew Scott and Margaret Welsh, of Embleton, Lesbury, Northumberland, Chatham Memorial, HMS Aboukir.

Other casualties from September 1914.

These are the first military casualties of the war who are recorded on the Tynemouth Roll of Honour.

Hunter, Joseph, age 30, Private, 1st Battalion NF, KIA, 14th, 5 Elsdon Street, son of late Joseph, La-Ferte-Sous-Jouare Memorial.

Johnson, Charles Edward, age 30, Private, 1st Battalion NF, DOW received at the battle of The Marne, 18th, 21 Nile Street, husband of Alice, 16 Russell Street, buried at Preston Cemetery.

Spencer, Hugh, age 29 Sub-Lieutenant, RNVR, died, 18th, Marine Infirmary, Deal, son of late Alderman J P Spencer and Mary Elsdon Spencer.

Story, Matthew Arthur, age 29, Private, 1st Loyal North Lancs, KIA, 18th, 18 Prospect Terrace, La-Ferte-sous-Jouare Memorial

Warwick, Lewis, Driver, 37th Brigade, Royal Field Artillery, KIA, 15th, 29 Howdon Road, La-Ferte-sous -Jouare Memorial.


KIA – killed in action

DOW – died of wounds

LAS – lost at sea

NF – Northumberland Fusiliers

DLI – Durham Light Infantry

RND – Royal Naval Division

RNR – Royal Naval Reserve

RFA – Royal Field Artillery

n Anyone with information on this week’s list or who wants to find out more about the project, should visit, e-mail or write to Tynemouth World War 1 Commemoration Project, c/o Essell, 29 Howard Street, North Shields, NE30 1AR.