Portsmouth’s WW1 sailors – some initial observations

The British Grand Fleet steaming in parallel c...

The Grand Fleet of WW1 (Image via Wikipedia)

Having completed the entry of Portsmouth Soldiers who were killed between 1914 and 1921, for the past few months I have begun entering the names of sailors from Portsmouth who were killed in the Great War. Having processed some 414 sailors and 82 Royal Marines, I have a pretty decent sample to make some interesting observations.

Thanks to the way that WW1 Naval service records are available online, we can see the exact date of birth and place of birth for virtually ever 1914-18 sailor. And the findings are striking. A very large percentage of Portsmouth sailors who were killed in the Great War were actually born here. I would have presumed that many more would have been born elsewhere but moved to Portsmouth in service. I wonder how many of them were second or even third generation sailors? It seems that the Navy did not actually expand significantly, in terms of manpower, between when most of these men were born in the late Victorian period and 1914. Certainly not as much as the Army expanded, in any case.

Of those who did come from elsewhere, most of them came from nearby maritime counties, such as Sussex or Dorset. A sizeable amount came from London, which also had a seafaring tradition. Others came from virtually every county in Britain, including some from Ireland, Scotland, and even two from Malta. One great surprise is the sizeable amount who came from the Channel Island – a place with a very small population, but obviously a great many young men familiar with the sea.

As with my similar research into WW2, it seems that most Pompey sailors were pre-war regulars, and often Leading Rates, Petty Officers or Warrant Officers. Long-serving sailors were clearly more likely to settle here, and most of them seem to have lived in areas close to the naval base, such as Landport, Buckland and Portsea. About 90% of CWGC entries for WW1 sailors include house numbers and street names, which gives great potential for some geo-mapping exercises. Oddly enough very few naval officers seem to have settled in Portsmouth – perhaps it was not quite fashionable.

Relatively few sailors in WW1 seem to have won medals compared to their counterparts in WW2. One exception seems to have been the submarine service, in which a number of Pompey sailors were involved. Several were awarded Distinguished Service Medals, at a time when submarines were very much in their infancy, and a very hazardous way of going to war.

The Navy did not actually expand that much during WW1. Obviously the only way you would really need to expand naval manpower massively is if you had new ships to crew, but in 1914 the Royal Navy was already easiest the largest in the world. The only ‘expansion’ involved the re-activation of some Reserve Fleet ships. One of these was HMS Good Hope, which was crewed almost exclusively by re-called reservists. In fact, when war was declared the Royal Navy received too many volunteers, and formed a Royal Naval Division for service on land. Several Portsmouth men were killed with the RN Division, at Gallipoli and on the Western Front.

Most sailors were killed in the large set piece battles, such as at Jutland or the Coronel. At Jutland HMS Invincible, Princess Royal and Black Prince were lost, and HMS Good Hope at the Coronel. A number of other ships were sunk by accidental explosions, such as HMS Bulwark and HMS Natal.

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11 Comments

Filed under Navy, Royal Marines, Uncategorized, World War One

11 responses to “Portsmouth’s WW1 sailors – some initial observations

  1. x

    This begs the question is it the same for Chatham and Plymouth?

    • James Daly

      Ineresting thought, x. It’s something I’ve often wondered, and really it would take someone to do a similar study of Plymouth and Chathams WW1 and WW2 dead to really draw some conclusions. I would love to do it, but thinking ahead after my WW1 book I want to try something a bit broader thats not necessarily a ‘local’ study – typecasting and all that.

      I suspect that the trends would be similar, but maybe on a smaller scale to Portsmouth. It would interesting to see if each of the manning ports had ‘catchment areas’ as such.

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  3. John Erickson

    From my limited readings, you are right on the mark with your description of Naval expansion. The Army always had small cadres that filled out exponentially, whereas the Royal Navy had to crew the ships, peacetime or war. And without the longer commercial naval battle or the amphibious assaults of WW2, the RN didn’t need as many “small boat men” in the Great War.
    I’d love to see similar reports on other port cities, as well. While we have some of that tradition here in the States, we also have long-standing naval families from such great coastal states as Kansas and Missouri! ;)

  4. James Daly

    I will take a look at some statistics for naval expansion from the mid to late nineteenth century – when most WW1 sailors were born – and 1914-18. In terms of hulls, tonnage and manpower. I suspect that the Royal Navy’s major expansion really took place when most of the Great War sailors’ parents were serving, bringing them to Portsmouth in the first place.

    It will be interesting to see if there was a tradition of naval service among Portsmouth families, I suspect so. There certainly was in my family. My great grandfather came here in the middle of WW1 from Birkenhead and served almost 20 years. His son, my great-uncle joined up in WW2 in 1940.

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