Diary of the War: chronicling losses at sea off the English coast, 1914-18
To commemorate the centenary of the First World War, Wreck of the Week will devote one post a month to a wreck event from 100 years ago, to illustrate the impact of the war at sea from 1914 to 1918.
This project was inspired by the monthly ‘Diary of the War’ feature which evolved in the Times a century ago, summarising events a month in retrospect with the briefest of details.
Censorship had a profound impact on the documentation of wreck events and the information available to us today. Shipping losses had been a key feature of the press landscape since the 18th century, informing the recording of our wreck heritage. Early in the war, shipping movements and wrecks were reported as usual, but, as the war continued, this staple of news simply dried up. Reporting losses not only gave away something about crucial commercial shipping movements, but was also a blow to national morale, so that, with notable exceptions, shipwreck accounts were subject to censorship. We therefore have to turn to other sources for recording wrecks of all kinds from the First World War.
Our principal first-hand sources therefore are the terse handwritten ‘accounting ledger’-style entries of Lloyd’s War Losses for the First World War and the official HMSO publications, Navy Losses and Merchant Shipping (Losses), published in 1919, both available in facsimile editions. The first covers British, allied and neutral vessels; the second British vessels only. Further detail on non-British losses is available in the following typescript: Allied, Neutral, and Central Shipping Losses, L L von Munching, 1968.
More detailed accounts for individual losses survive in official records of British ships lost based on debriefing of survivors and eyewitness accounts, now in the National Archives under the ADM 137/ prefix.
The First World War reached beyond ‘Flanders fields’ to become a war with a global reach, one fought not only on the earth’s surface but in the waters below and the skies above, bringing conflict to the very coastline of England. It was not remote and ‘over there’: it was frighteningly real and present, within a few miles of seaside resorts, fishing villages, and coastal castles, built in an earlier age to counter invasion from wooden fighting ships. It was a war which also pitted innovation against obsolescence, with technology developing so rapidly that the Battle of Jutland in 1916 was the last classical sea battle in which two fleets directly engaged one another. Warships and weapons evolved: so too did strategy and tactics, putting civilian ships to new uses.
Each month Wreck of the Week will showcase a wartime wreck incident within English waters from the same month 100 years ago and recorded within the Historic England PastScape database. It might commemorate a noteworthy event, illustrate a ‘typical’ aspect of the war at sea, or record a ‘first’ instance of a tactical or technological development. Some of the lost ships will be well-known wreck sites, others simply preserved through the written record, but not yet located, despite their relatively recent date.
England’s First World War wrecks are part of an international heritage concentrated into a landscape of war, in which the English Channel and the North Sea became England’s front line. The wrecks chosen for this War Diary strand will also illustrate a rich social history, diverse in ships and personnel alike, from the smallest fishing smack to the mightiest warship, from civilian passenger to U-boat crew. Each story is intended to highlight the contribution of ships and people from all over the world to the conflict as fought on England’s shores.
We will remember them.
August 1914: Skúli Fógeti
September 1914: HMS Fisgard II
October 1914: HMHS Rohilla
December 1914: Elterwater, Vaaren, and Princess Olga
January 1915: HMS Formidable
February 1915: Andromeda
March 1915: U-8
May 1915: Horst Martini
June 1915: TB 10 and TB 12
July 1915: The Lowestoft smacks: Coriander et. al
August 1915: UB-4
September 1915: Africa
October 1915: Novocastrian and Texelstroom
November 1915: HMHS Anglia and Lusitania
December 1915: HMT Resono
January 1916: Algerian
February 1916: Franz Fischer
March 1916: Zeppelin L15
April 1916: Asger Ryg
September 1916: Ville d’Oran
October 1916: HMS Nubian
November 1916: Val Salice and Sibiria
December 1916: Quo Vadis
January 1917: Fernebo
February 1917: Esssonite