Gateway to the Classics: The World at War by M. B. Synge
The World at War by  M. B. Synge

On the High Seas

"Grey wakes the daybreak, the shivering sails are set

To misty deeps,

The Channel sweeps—

O Mother, think on us who think on thee,

Earth—home, birth-home, with love remember yet

Thy sons in exile on the eternal sea."

—Sir H. Newbolt (Outward Bound).

But before that first war-Christmas dawned, what had been happening to the Grand Fleet which had put to sea with the first whispers of the war? And what of the German navy that had been so feverishly building these last fifteen years or more?

In command of the British Grand Fleet was Sir John Jellicoe, a brilliant seaman of vast experience, who, on his flagship the Iron Duke, the largest Dreadnought afloat, had a task before him of colossal magnitude. Of Sir David Beatty, who had just received knighthood from the King on board the Royal yacht after the Review of the Fleet on 20th July, as Vice-Admiral, the public knew but little as yet. Commanding the German Fleet was Admiral von Tirpitz—a man whose energy and will-power had made the navy what it was—the second in the world. But it was untried as yet. And to keep this German battle squadron lying idle at its moorings behind Heligoland round about the mouth of the Kiel Canal was the task of the British at this point of the war.

"The Admiral of the Kiel Canal," as von Tirpitz was lightly named by his foes, was passively awaiting developments at this juncture. "If the German ships do not come out, they will be dug out like rats in a hole," said the British sailors.

It was near the end of August. The Expeditionary Force were in full retreat from Mons, and bad news of the German advance clouded the country, when Sir David Beatty led his ships into the Bight of Heligoland and took the enemy by surprise.

At midnight on 26th August, a small party of submarines under Commodore Roger Keyes crossed from Harwich for the Bight of Heligoland, the plan being to tempt out enemy ships to where British battleships awaited them. Though the morning was calm and still, and the rock of Heligoland rose out of a morning mist, the submarines succeeded in luring out some German destroyers and cruisers, while the British cut them off from their base. Before 8 o'clock in the morning a battle began, and during the long August day, when the early morning mist had given way before the hot summer sun, the battle continued. By 12 o'clock Sir David Beatty had sent some battle cruisers at full speed through a "mine-strewn and submarine-haunted sea." Their timely arrival decided the battle. In the early afternoon victory lay with the British, whose losses were slight. The Germans had lost three ships and a destroyer, while seven hundred of her sailors perished. Admiral von Tirpitz's son was saved from drowning, and made prisoner.

"As rose the misty sun

Our men the North Sea scanned,

And each rejoicing gun

Welcomed a foe at hand,

And thundering its delight,

Opened its mouth outright,

And bit them in the Bight,

The Bight of Heligoland."

Although the British had not fought since Trafalgar, the great spirit of the navy had never shone more brightly, and officers and men stood on their ships till they sank. And while it is true that most of the naval events of the war cluster round the waters of the North Sea, in addition to the Grand Fleet were other ships keeping guard in other waters throughout the world.

Especially dangerous were the ships of a German battle squadron in far Eastern waters under Admiral von Spee, a bold commander, an efficient seaman, a chivalrous foe. Until it was hunted down and put out of action, the Australian and New Zealand troops could not be transported with safety to the fighting fronts, where they were badly needed. It was the first duty of the British navy to free the seas of this danger and to keep open the trade routes.

In command of the North American station was Admiral Cradock with a small squadron, which included two old battleships—long obsolete—and some slow cruisers with guns of an old-fashioned pattern. With such equipment he took up the chase of von Spee with his four ships, all with powerful guns and fast of speed.

Off the South American coast of Chile, Cradock fell on his German foe. He knew but too well that the odds were against him, and that speed and equipment were bound to tell. But in a "spirit of devotion to a desperate duty," he set out to engage some of the best ships in the German fleet.

It was 1st November, late afternoon, a day of bright sunshine, but a high wind and a rough sea made all ships roll heavily.

"To the east was the land, with the snowy heights of the Andes fired by the evening glow. To the west burned one of those flaming sunsets which the Pacific knows, and silhouetted against its crimson and orange, were the British ships."

Cradock from the south, just round Cape Horn, and von Spee from the north moved towards one another, till by seven in the evening the ships were separated only by seven miles of foaming sea. The sun had gone down when firing began, and shell after shell hit the old battleship Good Hope, on which stood Admiral Cradock with his 1650 officers and men. Presently an explosion shook the ship, white flames "mingled with the stars" and leapt high into the air. The doomed vessel with its heroic Commander and entire crew went down. Not one was saved. Other ships came into action, but the victory was with von Spee. It has been said such a defeat was without parallel in British naval history. Cradock's instructions were confused. At the last he might have made his escape, but he was not that man, and perhaps the words chosen for his monument in York Minster furnish an explanation—

"God forbid that I should do this thing,

To flee away from them;

If our time be come, let us die manfully for our brethren,

And let us not stain our honour."

There was only one course of action open to the British—to retrieve the disaster of Coronel as soon as possible.

A new Commander was found in Admiral Sturdee. With two battleships taken from Admiral Jellicoe's Grand Fleet and other fast cruisers, Admiral Sturdee sailed, arriving at the Falkland Islands on 7th December. He decided to coal there and then go round Cape Horn in search of von Spee.

Early on the morning of the 8th, von Spee suddenly appeared from the direction of Cape Horn, quite unconscious of the nearness of the foe. By eight o'clock in the morning the Admiral had heard the news, orders were given to get up steam with all haste, and soon the British ships were pursuing the Germans with their vastly superior force. By mid-day the British ships were gaining, further flight was impossible, and von Spee made ready for battle—a battle the result of which was but too certain. "Ever since Coronel he had had a sense of impending doom, and had known that the time left to him was short."

By mid-day British guns were pounding the German flagship, which sank later in the afternoon, carrying down von Spee and his two sons. The bright morning had turned to a wet afternoon, and as the wet night closed in, the battle died away.

"The defeat of Cradock in the murky sunset off Coronel had been amply avenged "by the death of von Spee in the ice-cold waters off the Falkland Islands.

Both Admirals—English and German—had fought well. They had died as sailors die, without a thought of surrender. But naval success does not lie entirely with courage or even good seamanship. It lies, as the sea battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands show, with those "who think ahead in terms of mechanical force."

"So long as the sea-wind blows unbound,

And the sea-wave breaks in spray,

For the Island's sons the world still runs,

'The King and the King's Highway!'"

—Sir H. Newbolt.

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