Just as the Nation was coming to terms with news of the Jutland losses and the lack of a decisive Naval victory, they were stunned by yet more bad news on Tuesday 6th June 1916. Newspapers across Britain led with the story that Lord Kitchener had drowned when HMS Hampshire was sunk.
The information had been released by Admiral John Jellicoe of the Grand Fleet, at Scapa Flow:
Fulsome tributes to one of Britain’s best known war time leaders appeared on the newstands on Wednesday 7th June. Many papers produced special pictorial editions charting Lord Kitchener’s rise to fame and his contribution to the war effort.
He had produced perhaps the most iconic image of the war to date with his direct appeals for volunteers in 1914 and 1915.
Kitchener had been made Secretary of State for War, a Cabinet Minister, in 1914, and it was his foresight in predicting a lengthy war that led to the creation of the largest volunteer army that both Britain and the world had seen – Kitchener’s New Armies. In truth his power and influence had waned by 1916, he was blamed for the shortage of shells in the spring of 1915 – one of the events which led to the formation of a coalition government – and he lost control over munitions and strategy. But he remained a popular figure in the public’s mind. His memorial service at St.Paul’s Cathedral on the 14th June 1916 was attending by the King accompanied by the Queen dressed in mourning black. The sombre occasion had attracted dense crowds who had gathered outside in respectful silence.
Lord Kitchener had set out on a special mission to Russia. He left London on June 4, and went on board Jellicoe’s flagship Iron Duke at Scapa Flow on the following morning, and about four o’clock that afternoon he embarked in the cruiser Hampshire, which had returned from the Battle of Jutland just four days before. A gale was blowing and there was neither the time nor the conditions to sweep the proposed channel chosen for the passage of HMS Hampshire from the Orkneys.
The Hampshire hit a mine at about 8.45pm, British Summer Time, just off Marwick Head, Orkney. The mine had been laid by the German submarine U-75 in the previous month, prior to the battle of Jutland. The explosion holed the cruiser between the bows and the bridge and the lifeboats were smashed against her side by the heavy seas as the crew attempted to lower them. She went down in just 15 minute, there were only 12 survivors from a ship’s compliment of over 600.
Among those lost that day was a young lad from Merton, Able Seaman Walter Ewing. Walter had been born on 9th January 1898, and baptised soon after at St.Mary, Merton. He would eventually be one of ten siblings that survived infancy.
His parents James and Amy Hannah (nee Emery) had married on 29th January 1881 at St Mary, Wimbledon. Walter’s mother had been born and brought up in Wimbledon. His father, James Ewing was born in Essex but had come to Nelson Fields as a young boy when Walter’s grandfather had moved his family from Essex to ply his trade as a textile printer at the Merton Abbey Silk Print Works. Walter’s father, James, had chosen another skill to earn a living, he was a jobbing bricklayer all his working life, riding the fortunes of the booms and busts of the speculative building trade in late Victorian and early Edwardian London.
James and Amy Ewing had first set up home at 1, North Cottages North Road in 1881, but had returned to Nelson Fields by 1886 living at 2 Amelia terrace, High path. Around the time Walter was born they had moved to 4, Reform place, Abbey road (once known as Queen’s Place) and moved again to Leyton road by 1903, before settling at 49 Hamilton road by 1909, where they remained up to the outbreak of the Great War.
Most of Walter’s school days were spent at the Haydons Road Church of England Schools. He had started at the “Girls and Infants” School on South Road when nearly six years old, after transferring from Fircroft School, on the 1st December 1903. The Ewing family were living at 57 Leyton Road at the time. Two of Walter’s younger brothers, Fredrick and Leonard, would later attend the same school. At the age of eight, Walter moved to the separate “Boys School” on 23rd April 1906, it was St. Georges Day! His two brothers would follow, Frederick in 1907 and Leonard in 1910.
The site of “Girls and Infants” school dated from 1867, and the “Boys School” from 1893, and the schools had strong links to All Saints Church in Hubert Road.
The poverty in the surrounding area was reflected in the cases of malnutrition that were present in the school. Deprivation and disease went hand in hand, and cases of ringworm, scarlet fever and diphtheria kept many away from school. Tuberculosis was another scourge that ruined the health of many as they grew older. Despite the hardships, the children responded with enthusiasm to events organised via the Church, and Empire Day was always a special occasion at the Schools, with rousing patriotic songs, marching and saluting the flag. “Rule Britannia” was always sung with gusto.
At least two of Walter’s elder brother had joined the Army in the decade preceding the war – William Fredrick Ewing in 1902 and Edward Ewing in 1906 – both would serve throughout the Great War. But the young Walter Ewing chose to join the Navy as a boy sailor on 19 January 1914, just after his sixteenth birthday. Perhaps the Navy was the natural choice for Walter, a youngster brought up in an area steeped in the tales and history of Lord Nelson. He clearly thought he had better prospects away from South Wimbledon.
Within a year J2900 Walter Ewing had joined the crew of the cruiser HMS Hampshire on 6th February 1915. He was now rated “Boy Class I” and had progressed to Ordinary Seaman by 9th July 1915. Walter signed on for 12 years on the day of his eighteenth birthday, the 9th January 1916, when his character and attitude were noted as “very good” and “superior”. Walter Ewing had flourish in the Navy and he was rated Able Seaman on 2th March 1916 while still part of the crew of HMS Hampshire
Walter’s war time experiences are reflected in this summary of HMS Hampshire’s record:
When the war began, she was in Wei Hai Wei, and was assigned to the small squadron led by Vice Admiral Martyn Jerram, commander-in-chief of the China Station. She was ordered to destroy the German radio station at Yap together with the armoured cruiser Minotaur and the light cruiser Newcastle. En route the ships captured the collier SS Elspeth on 11 August and sank her; Hampshire was too short on coal by then to make the island so Jerram ordered her back to Hong Kong with the crew of the Elspeth. At the end of the month, she was ordered down to the Dutch East Indies to search for any German ships at sea, narrowly missing the German light cruiser Emden. The German ship had not been reported since the war began and she sailed into the Bay of Bengal and began preying upon unsuspecting British shipping beginning on 14 September. Hampshire was ordered there to search for Emden and remained there through October and November, together with the armed merchant cruiser Empress of Asia, looking for the raider until she was destroyed on 9 November by HMAS Sydney. Hampshire then escorted a ANZAC troop convoy through the Indian Ocean and Red Sea to Egypt. Hampshire was refitted in Gibraltar in December before returning home to serve with the Grand Fleet. She was assigned the 7th Cruiser Squadron in January 1915 and was detached in November to escort shipping in the White Sea. She returned home in time to participate in the Battle of Jutland on 31 May 1916 with the 2nd Cruiser Squadron. During the battle she was never actually engaged and only fired four salvos at the German II Scouting Group that fell well short of their targets in addition to shooting at illusory submarine periscopes throughout the day.
There was little time for Walter to dwell on his experiences at Jutland, or convey them in letters to home, as only a few days had passed before HMS Hampshire was ordered to carry Lord Kitchener from Scapa Flow on a diplomatic mission to Russia via the port of Arkhangelsk. A voyage that ended in tragedy.
Walter Ewing’s name does not appear on any Church Memorial in Merton, but he is not forgotten. An original large “roll of honour” plaque memorial named a staggering 550 old boys that had been recruited from this his old school:
In 1919 ,the Haydons Road Boys School WW1 Memorial was presented to the boys school by Lady Holland. Sir Arthur and Lady Holland were well-known in Wimbledon for their community minded work. It bore the inscription:
FOR GOD/ FOR KING FOR COUNTRY/ GREATER LOVE HATH NO MAN THAN THIS, THAT A MAN LAY DOWN/ HIS LIFE FOR HIS FRIENDS./ (NAMES)/ IN MEMORY OF THE HAYDONIANS WHO FELL IN THE/ GREAT WAR 1914-1918/ PRESENTED TO THE HAYDON ROAD BOYS SCHOOL/ BY LADY HOLLAND 1919.
Walter Ewing was one of 154 individuals named on the memorial. After the old schools were demolished, the memorial was moved and can be found in its current form in the car park of the modern All Saints Primary School in All Saints Road.
Walter Ewing also appears in the official “Wimbledon and Merton Roll of Honour”
and as reprinted in the 1921 publication:
His name is also commemorated on vast Portsmouth Naval Memorial
Footnote 1: At the time Walter Ewing was attending Haydons Road Boys School, my paternal grandmother Elsie Gallie was at the Girls School, and her older brother Philip at the Boys School. My grandmother would lose two siblings to the scourge of TB.
Footnote 2: A memorial to Lord Kitchener was unveiled at Marwick Head on the Orkney Islands in 1926.
A new memorial to mark the centenary of the Hampshire’s loss is being unveiled at Orkney. The low arc-shaped wall is engraved with the names of all 737 men, as well as the nine who died when HM Drifter Laurel Crown was lost on 22 June 1916 during minesweeping operations near Marwick Head when she struck another of the mines laid by U-75.