Portsmouth’s WW1 Sailors – some thoughts and findings

Having taken a more detailed look at Portsmouth’s Royal Marines of the Great War and come up with some pretty interesting conclusions, I thought it might be interesting to do the same kind of analysis for the men for whom Portsmouth is famous – the humble matelot. So far I have inputted sailors between A and N (inclusive). Out of those I have at least partly identified 930 on the CWGC. I have found 777 of them on the National Archives, which means that I have been able to chart their dates of birth and places of birth.

The findings are pretty interesting. Out of those 777, twenty were in their fifities. An extremely large percentage were in their 30’s and 40’s – many of them leading seamen, petty officers or warrant officers. It’s probably not surprising that many long-serving ratings found themselves in Portsmouth. Six were boy ratings under 18. The conclusion seems to be that the Royal Navy was not a service that called up many recruits in 1914 – many of its roles were skilled, and could not be performed immediately by hostilities only men. And actually, the navy’s role in wartime was only marginally more active than in peacetime.

Ordinarily, most regular naval ratings served via one of the three main manning ports – Portsmouth, Devonport or Chatham. Ships were crewed virtually entirely from one of these ports, even if they were overseas for years. And they frequently were, with naval fleets stationed in Australia, China and suchlike.

In the event of war the Royal Navy relied upon former sailors to bolster its ranks. In the main, their role was to crew ships re-activated from the reserve fleet. Obviously it would take too long to begin building new ships once war was declared, so obsolescent or surplus ships were heald in readiness in the event of war. 45 men who were called up from the Royal Fleet Reserve were killed.

On 1 November 1914 HMS Good Hope was sunk the in Battle of the Coronel off South America – 80 Portsmouth men are known to have been lost, many of them called up from the Royal Fleet Reserve. On 26 November 1914 the Battleship HMS Bulwark exploded in the Thames Estuary off the North Kent Coast. 63 Portsmouth men were killed.

The Battle of Jutland saw probably the largest loss of life of Portsmouth men in one event in history. 219 men were killed on 31 May 1916  on the ships Invincible, Black Prince, Queen Mary, Lion, Shark, Indefatigable, Princess Royal and Southampton. 25 men were killed in Destroyer actions the next day on 1 June 1916, onboard Tipperary, Ardent, Fortune, Sparrowhawk, Onslaught.

HMS Hampshire was sunk by a mine off the Shetland Island on 5 June 1916, carrying the Secretary for War Field Marshal Lord Kitchener to  Russia. 37 Portsmouth sailors were killed, some of whom are buried in Lyness Naval Cemetery near Scapa Flow.

6 men were killed fighting with the 63rd (Royal Naval) Division, at Gallipoli and in France and Belgium. Most of the RN Division were spare ratings who were in depots when war was declared, or some of the few hostilities-only recruits who joined up after August 1914.

69 Portsmouth submariners were killed. This is a pretty high number, considering that the Navy had only begun operating submarines just over a decade previously. It suggests that submarine service was dangerous and highly active. 8 won some kind of decoration – seven Distinguished Service Medals, one mention in despatches, and a French Medal Militaire.

By contrast, seamen in general were not very well rewarded medal wise, especially compared to my similar research for the Second World War. One Officers Steward was a CBE, and an Engine Room Artificer was a Companion of the Imperial Order of the Crown of India. Chief Bosun Ernest Griffin won the DSC, as did Engineer Lieutenant Joseph House, and there were 9 DSM’s – seven of them to submariners. As well as the French MM already described, there were also eight mentions in despatches. Leading Seaman Percival Frost was a holder of the Messina Medal, awarded to men who were present and gave assistance when a volcano erupted at Messina in Sicily in 1908. Canteen Manager James Cramb, who was killed on HMS Bulwark, was awarded the Royal Humane Society‘s medal, an award usually made for lifesaving.

But medal or no medal, where did these men come from?

  • 18 Scotland
  • 12 Ireland
  • 1 Bedfordshire
  • 2 Berkshire
  • 2 Ceylon
  • 11 Channel Islands
  • 3 Cheshire
  • 6 Cornwall
  • 3 Cumbria
  • 1 Derbyshire
  • 18 Devon
  • 11 Dorset
  • 6 Durham
  • 8 Essex
  • 7 Gloucestershire
  • 386 Hampshire
  • 1 Herefordshire
  • 4 Hertfordshire
  • 20 Isle of Wight
  • 34 Kent
  • 12 Lancashire
  • 3 Leicestershire
  • 4 Lincolnshire
  • 59 London
  • 3 Malta
  • 7 Middlesex
  • 1 Monmouthshire
  • 1 New Zealand
  • 5 Norfolk
  • 1 Northamptonshire
  • 2 Northumberland
  • 2 Nottinghamshire
  • 5 Oxfordshire
  • 2 Shropshire
  • 11 Somerset
  • 5 Staffordshire
  • 6 Suffolk
  • 15 Surrey
  • 49 Sussex
  • 8 Warwickshire
  • 6 Wiltshire
  • 10 Yorkshire

Interesting, huh? This would suggest that around half of all Portsmouth-based naval ratings came from Hampshire. Large contingents came from neighbouring maritime counties such as Sussex and Dorset, with a large proportion from the Isle of Wight. London, as a large urban area, supplied many men. Apart from that, recreuitment appears to radiate out like an onion skin. The figure for the Channel Islands is surprising – with such a small population, how come so many joined the Navy? But then, when you think about it, most young men in the Channel Islands would have known their way around a boat, and at the same time jobs prospects can hardly have been great.  Note also that three men were born in Malta – a key base for the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean – and two were born in Ceylon, another key base. One man somehow travelled from New Zealand.

These statistics suggest just how transient Portsmouth’s society was at the height of the Royal Navy’s power. If half of the Portsmouth-based seamen were coming from outside, that’s an awful lot of newcomers every generation. Over a hundred or so years, we can see that virtually all of Portsmouth families will have come from elsewhere. This migration resulted in notable diaspora in Portsmouth, such as Irish, Scottish and northern. It would be interesting to compare these findings to Plymouth and Chatham.

Given that for many of these men we even have street names and house numbers, I am looking forward to getting a large scale map of Portsmouth and plotting casualties geographically – it should give us a better idea than ever before of where naval families lived, and the effect of war upon Portsmouth society.

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24 Comments

Filed under Navy, portsmouth heroes, World War One

24 responses to “Portsmouth’s WW1 Sailors – some thoughts and findings

  1. I’m intrigued by the “age curve” bulge at 30-40 something. I wonder if those were civilians who moved into the Navy at an elevated rank (if possible – I don’t know too much about how promotions/rank work in the RN), or if they had joined during the turn-of-the-century actions (especially the Boer War) and stayed in?
    Great work, my friend!

    • x

      Well WW1 manning has to be viewed with reference to the Fisher reforms. This meant there were rafts of old ratings who were caught in the engineering branch reforms. Too experienced to get rid of, but with a demographic trough below them as the new structure came into being. All a bit too complex to relate here in a blog comment.

      As for civilians. Well that is interesting. But not for the reason why you ask. Until the General List came into being there was a sort of branch apartheid that meant engineers and surgeons as such though officers weren’t all subservient to the Executive or Seaman Branch. As Vice-Admiral Sir Louis Le Bailly related when he had to move to the “engineering branch” because of his eye sight he effectively became a civilian in uniform. Engineering officers could command stokers and artificers and mechanics etc. but couldn’t have sailors under their command. All this sort of broke down during WW2 were realities of high tech’ total war forced change (the General List.)

      And even further back in the days of the old sailing navy the status of the Mate (who actually was probably more responsible for driving the ship than the proper RN officers) and Pursuer were more akin to civilian than senior rates and WO1/WO2 we know to day.

      Actually there was still a civilian in a role/post/position well into WW1 that would today be considered an RN role in today’s modern navy. But for the life of me I can’t tell you what is was because I can’t find it in all my books, but it must be there somewhere…..

      As an aside quite recently a RFA officer took the PWO course and briefly (and I mean only for a watch I think) found himself the chief warfare of a NATO task group despite being only a civilian.

      (Apologises to anybody who is more knowledgeable. But I am bashing this out rather quickly. And I am really in need of some revision on all this stuff……..)

      • James Daly

        Technology certainly didn’t come easily to the RN – the late victorian and edwardian Navy didn’t take too kindly to engineering, electrics and the like. I can’t help but feel that many an officer who had been brought up on tales of Nelson thought of Engineering as fit for men with oily rags and cloth caps. Branch aparteid was a real phenomenon in the Navy, long before the Fleet Air Arm, submarines et al. It is something that I need to research in more detail to get up to speed on.

        On a similar level, I neglected to mention in the previous post about the occupations in the RN at the time. In WW2 you had ERA’s, Electrical Artificers, signals, stewards, cooks, general seamen etc etc – hardly any of the general tradesmen. Yet in WW1 we find 4 Blacksmiths and 2 Blacksmiths mates; one Chief Carpenter, 3 Carpenters and 3 Carpenters Crew; 2 coopers; 3 painters; 3 plumbers and 1 plumbers mate; and 2 sailmakers (both on capital ships!).

        And there are more Chiefs and Petty Officers than there were AB’s – obviously there were more AB’s than PO’s, but these figures would suggest that PO’s, by necessity tending to be long serving men, settled in Portsmouth whereas many AB’s lived elsewhere. Interestingly, whilst there are scored of ERA’s, there is only one Electrical Artificer – in ww2 there would be about as many electrical tiffys and ERA’s.

        • x

          Yes. There were some bizarre (for today!) trades and branches. As for sailmakers in the early 20th century well canvas was still a very common material onboard ship. Imagine in a large ship there would be 1000 plus hammocks, canvas dodgers, boat covers, sails for ships boats, chutes etc. etc.

          As for ABs well did your records turn up any examples of that mythical beast “3 Badger”? If so and they were resident in Portsmouth it would add weight (not that it is needed) to the idea that career men moved to live in their divisional port.

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