In today’s press you might expect to see a tabloid headline scream: “Mitcham Man Dies in Naval Disaster”. The reporting style may have been very different a hunderd years ago, but the disaster was very real. Tuesday the 22nd of September 1914 was to be a black day for the Navy.
By the second week of September the German advance had been stopped on the Marne and the “Battle of Aisne” developed as both British and French forces attempted to dislodge the Germans from their fixed positions on the heights overlooking the river. The conflict bogged down with the failure of frontal assualts and the remaining mobile forces of both sides moved north through Picardy, Artois and Flanders, in an attempt to outflank one another. This “race to the sea” was an obvious threat to the Channel Ports.
In repsonse to French requests, the Marine Brigade of the Royal Naval Division, with supporting forces, were landed at Dunkirk on 20th September 1914. The Admiralty were to rely on its Southern Force – a combination of Cruisers and destroyers – to protect these operations, and to patrol off the Dogger Bank and the Broad Fourteens. Bad weather hindered the patrols, and between 19th and 22nd was so bad that the Destoyer Flotillas remained at their Harwich base.
On the 22nd September 1914 the three ageing cruisers Aboukir, Hogue and Cressy were left patrolling an area between the German minefield and the Dutch coast alone, an area which left little room for variations of course. They were patrolling abreast two miles apart without zigzagging and at barely ten knots.
Disaster stuck at around 6.30am when the Aboukir was rocked by a violent explosion. It was first thought to have been mined and the Aboukir signalled the Hogue and Cressy to close, but it was soon realised it had been hit by a torpedo. In coming to the Aboukir’s aid, both the Hogue and Cressy were subsequently hit by torpedo and sunk. The losses were inlficted by a single German submarine, U9.
At home the general public are first alerted to the disaster when the news breaks in the evening papers of the 22nd.
The Admiltary had issued a comminque for publication:
“His Majesty’s Ships Aboukir (Captain John E. Drummond), Hogue ( Captain Wilmot S. Nicholson), and Cressy (Caption Robert W. Johnson), have been sunk by submarines in the North Sea. The Aboukir was torpedoed, and while the Hogue and the Cressy had closed in and were standing by to save the crew they were also torpedoed. A considerabel number were saved by H. M. S. Lowestoft (Captian Theobald W. Kennedy) and by dvisions of destroyers, trawlers and boats. Lists of casualites will be published as soon as they are known.“
Unseen by the general public is the message sent by the Admiralty to all ships a t 11 p.m. on the 22nd :
“ The serious lesson to learn from loss of Cressy and Hogue is that it must henceforth be recognised by all Commanding Officers that if one ship is torpedoed by submarine or strikes mine, disabled ship must be left to her fate, and other large ships clear out of dangerous area, calling up minor vessels to render assistance. This is further application of well recognised rule of war to leave disabled ships in fleet action to look after themselves. At the same time, it must be recognised that captains of Hogue and Cressy were on this occasion only complying with dictates of humanity.”
Fuller reports appeared in the press the following day. The London based Daily Mirror carried a photo feature on its front page on Wednesday 23rd September 1914 under a banner headline. Initial reports stated as many as five submarines had attacked the ships, and the Cressy had sunk two. These reports proved to be false. There was much praise for the discipline and conduct of the men who consisted mostly of cadets and reservists, many of the latter were maried with families. The heavy lose of life was not disguised. Of over 2,000 officers and men, only about a third had been rescued. Families faced an anxious wait to learn if their men folk were amongst the survivors.
Waiting for that fateful news is Annie Richardson with her two young children, Lottie and Frederick, and her older son by a previous marriage, Richard. Annie’s husband William was on the Aboukir.
William had been born on the borders of Balham and Clapham on 17 March 1877. William joins the Navy on 18th May 1893, and serves on the Defiance as boy 3rd class for two years. His adult service starts on 9th April 1895, when William signs for 12 years, after four years service William is invalided out. Just two years later William joins the Royal Fleet Reserve in 1901 as Able Seaman 173718, (RFR/CH/B/69). Class B reservists received a retainer of 6d. a day, and a gratuity of £50 when reaching 40 years of age and on completion of 20 years’ service in the Fleet and Royal Fleet Reserve combined. They were required to perform one week’s drill at the Home Ports each year.
In 1903, William marries Clapham born Annie Parish (orginally Annie Phoebe Bird). The couple settled in Streatham, off Mitcham Lane, where their two children are born.
In April 1907 William re-enrolls in the RFR for another five years. His daughter Lottie Frances is just two years old. William enrolls again in February 1911, his daughter is now 6, and his second child, Fredrick, is just three.
William is working as a storeman in a “Government Army Clothing Depot” when the outbreak of war brings normal life to an end. William joins the crew of the Aboukir on 2nd August 1914, he is 37 years old. Interviews of survivors and casualty lists appear in the newspapers in coming days, but William is not amongst the rescued.
Within a year of William’s death, Annie moves the family to Marian Road, Lonesome, Mitcham. Her oldest son Richard Parish aged 20 is conscripted on 1 November 1916, attesting at Kingston, he serves in the Royal Field Artillery. Richard remains in the Artillery at the War’s end, and serves in India. Richard is finally discharged on 31.3.22 at Woolwich.
William John Richardson is commemorated on the Chatham Naval Memorial, along with the hundreds of seaman lost in this disaster.
His name appears as “RICHARDSON W.J.” on the Mitcham War Memorial and as “RICHARDSON William J.” on the memorial in St.Marks Church close to where Annie and family lived.
Annie remains at 25 Marian Road, Mitcham after the War’s end. She dies in 1929, and is buried on 18 March 1929 at Church Road Cemetery, Mitcham.