Life and death on the high seas for the Jutland heroes from North Herts
- Credit: Archant
Nobody would claim that North Herts has much of a seafaring tradition – but that didn’t mean that men serving king and country in the First World War didn’t end up on board ships rather than in the trenches.
And nor did it mean that they were any safer aboard a cruiser than if they had been than crouching ready for an assault across no man’s land.
The roll of honour of local men who served at the Battle of Jutland, the biggest sea engagement of the war which was fought 100 years ago this week, is testament to that.
The battle pitted the British Grand Fleet under Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, against the Imperial German Navy’s High Seas Fleet under Vice-Admiral Reinhard Scheer.
It was fought over two days, starting on May 31, 1916, near the coast of Denmark’s Jutland Peninsula. It was the largest naval battle and the only full-scale clash of battleships in the war.
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The two most famous combatants on the British side were Lord Kitchener and teenage Victoria Cross winner Jack Cornwell.
Jack, a 16-year-old aboard HMS Chester, battled on despite having shards of steel in his chest from shells exploding on deck. He stayed at his post after every other member of the crew assigned to the same gun was killed and, although mortally injured, managed to continue until his ship retired from the action.
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But there were many more to be remembered. Edwin George Harrison was a 31-year-old chief cook aboard HMS Hampshire, and hailed from Baldock.
His ship fought at Jutland but was sunk by a mine only a few days later, with the loss of 650 men, including Kitchener – the celebrated commander made famous by the ‘Your County Needs You’ recruiting posters.
Killed at the height of the battle on May 31, 1916, was 18-year-old Able Seaman Wilfred Ives, whose father worked as a shepherd at Weston Park.
He was on board HMS Defence which was hit by German shells and exploded immediately, going down with all hands.
A design fault in that type of armoured cruiser allowed the blast from a shell hitting a gun turret to be funneled down to the ship’s magazine with disastrous results.
A newspaper account published soon after his death was confirmed read: “The deceased seaman was very keen and enthusiastic in his naval work, a fact testified by all who knew him.
“It tempers the sadness of the blow to know that he was one who would bravely face the ordeal, and would thus make the great sacrifice unflinchingly feeling, as he would, that the honour and safety of those he felt dear, were at stake.
“He was proud of the navy, and those near to him were impressed by his fine qualities and uprightness and manliness.
“It was only a month or so ago he was at Weston on leave, rejoining his ship four weeks ago last Sunday.
“When home on that occasion he unexpectedly met his eldest brother Private Arthur Ives of the Beds Regt. who came home for his first leave from the trenches after 12 months.
“It was the first time they had met in uniform, and both arrived home the same evening within an hour of each other.
“Another son, Ernest, is waiting to get into the navy.”
There were others who fought at Jutland and survived, only to perish not long after.
One was Lieutenant Commander Donald Oswald, who was 28 when he died the year after the war ended.
He had lived with an aunt and uncle in Stevenage after the death of his mother in 1904, and was a keen sportsman, regularly hunting and playing cricket locally. He boxed for the navy, played cricket, football and hockey for united services teams and was great swimmer. He was also a skilled linguist and when war broke out he was in Germany working towards an interpreter qualification he was never able to complete.
He served on HMS Gloucester at Jutland and was still part of the crew when he died, claimed by the worldwide flu epidemic of 1919 which is believed to have killed more people than the war itself.
Frederick Aldridge, an ordinary seaman aboard HMS Vanguard, also had Stevenage connections.
His parents John, a Great Northern Railway porter, and Ellen lived in Huntingdon Road and he was their eldest child.
Frederick worked for WHSmith and then at the ESA furniture workshops before joining up in 1915 as a ‘boy’ recruit.
He was aboard HMS Vanguard, which was heavily involved in the action – records show it fired a total of 63 rounds.
One contemporary account told how the crew heard reports that a German light cruiser had been sunk, but when they reached the scene found the vessel was the British ship HMS Invincible, which appeared to have been broken in two.
There were no casualties aboard Vanguard, but the following year the vessel was at anchor in Scapa Flow when it suddenly blew up, taking 804 of her crew down with her – including Frederick, who was just 18.
It is believed that the cause of the explosion was the spontaneous detonation of cordite, which had become unstable. There were only three survivors and Frederick has no known grave.
Ernest Titmuss, whose parents lived in Fishers Green Road, Stevenage, is also known to have served at Jutland as a petty officer aboard HMS Attentive.
He had joined the navy in 1912 and when he died in 1918, aged 25, he had only been married to wife Hilda for 18 months and they had a young child.
He was another victim of the deadly global flu epidemic, dying in the Royal Marine Hospital in Deal in 1918 – he is bured in Stevenage’s St Nicholas Churchyard.