Tag Archives: royal humane society

Royal Humane Society Medals

Among the decorations won by Portsmouth servicemen in both world wars, I have come across several who have been awarded the Royal Humane Society‘s Bronze Medal for lifesaving. Having done a bit of research on them, I thought it might be timely to take a look at the history of the RHS, and how these brave men came to be awarded their medals.

The Society was founded in London in 1774 by two Doctors, William Hawes and Thomas Cogan. They aimed to promote the revolutionary new techniques that had emerged for resucitating people who were apparently dead. The Society presents awards for acts of bravery and lifesaving, and not surprisingly some servicemen find themselves in situations where they are called upon to save lives.

Here are a few details of Portsmouth men who won RHS Bronze Medals, from WW1 and WW2:

KIRKPATRICK, James Cramb; Canteen Manager, HMS Bulwark. Killed 26 November 1914, aged 45, remembered on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial. Born in Birkenhead on 18 March 1869, lived at 17 St Helens Park Crescent in Southsea, a Parishioner of St Wilfrids Church. He was an ex Chief Petty Officer. Sadly I have not been able to find the citation for his Royal Humane Society award.

SMITH, Samuel Charles Arthur; Gunner, HMS Comet. Killed 1 February 1915, aged 37, buried in Basra War Cemetery, Iraq. Lived at Eastfield, 3 Kewsick Avenue, Copnor. Smith was awarded the Bronze Medal of the Royal Humane Society in 1912. Whilst serving as the Gunner on HMS London, Smith was involved in the rescue of survivors from the SS Delhi, a wrecked merchant vessel. On 15 December 1911, as Lascars (foreign seamen) were being landed to shore, one of them was washed away in rough seas. Smith swam after him and got him back to the Delhi, where they were both hauled aboard. Smith was also awarded the Board of Trade’s Medal for lifesaving.

WOOD, Frederick James; Lieutenant, HMS Cerberus II. Died 16 January 1941, aged 48, remembered on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial. From Southsea. Wood’s RHS Bronze Medal was awarded in 1917, when as a Petty Officer, he and an officer rescued a man who had gone overboard in the Thames. Although the sea was choppy and the ship was travelling at 12 knots, they managed to keep him afloat until they could be rescued.

HEAP, Jack Edward; Aircraftsman 1st Class, 151 Maintenance Unit, RAF. Died 9 April 1945 aged 35, buried in Ambon, Indonesia. From Southsea. He was captured by the Japanese on 8 March 1942 and held as a prisoner at Java, Malacca and Celebes. He died at Muna. His RHS Bronze Medal was awarded posthumously in 1947 for an unspecified incident on 8 November 1944.

I find the RHS Medals quite humbling. The citations stand out amongst other military decorations, as they are explicitly for saving life. Whereas – obviously – many ‘mainstream’ medals are awarded for the opposite. Of course, in war killing is something of a necessary evil, but never the less, it is difficult not to be inspired by the humanity shown by some of these men.

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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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Lieutenant Frederick Wood

Frederick Wood, aged 48 and from Southsea, and died while serving at HMAS Ceberus II – an Australian shore establishment – on 16 January 1941. He is remembered on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial. He was a Lieutenant… hang on, isn’t 48 quite old for a Lieutenant?

After a little more digging, it transpires that Wood initially enlisted in the Royal Navy either prior to or during the First World War. Not only does this mean that he served in two World Wars, it seems like he was commissioned from the ranks. For somebody who was a Petty Officer in 1916, to be a Lieutenant by 1941 is quite impressive.

In 1916, as a Petty Officer, he saved the life of a man who had fallen overboard.

At 11.30 a.m. on the 20th November, 1916, a man fell overboard from his vessel in the Estuary of the Thames, the sea being choppy and the vessel going 12 knots. Frederick J. Wood, Petty Officer, and C.R. Walker at once jumped after him and kept him afloat till they were picked up.

For this brave act he was awarded the Royal Humane Society’s Bronze Medal.

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