Vindex | Harwich Force | 25 Mar 1916


Here we have one marked “Things the Royal Navy Would Rather You Forgot About”. It begins with a funny name. HMS Vindex is not a chemical cleaning product; it’s an extensively refitted passenger liner that has been transmogrified into a seaplane carrier. In pictures, it looks rather like a steam barge with a large garden shed on the back. She’s currently attached to the Harwich Force; for the past year they’ve been trying to recreate the Cuxhaven Raid of 1914, and have mostly been thwarted by bad weather, Germans, or both. Today will see another attempt.

If that’s all it was, we could quite safely move on to the hilariously poor results of the raid, of which more in a moment. But for the last month or so, it seems as though someone at the Admiralty has been determined to poke the German bear. I’ve not yet found anyone attempt to explain why Admiral Beatty was ordered to leave port to support the raid with his Battle Cruiser Squadron . With the Grand Fleet remaining in port, it looks like nothing so much as climbing a scaffold, putting a leg up on the block, and inviting the executioner to have a free swing.

He nearly hit it. As the raid played out, the Harwich Force began tying itself in knots trying to rescue two destroyers which blundered into each other while trying to fight some interested German destroyers. In the always-foul North Sea weather, the British flagship Cleopatra sails to the rescue at ramming speed, literally cutting one of those German destroyers in half. A dashing manoeuvre, but extremely dangerous when conducted at night with nobody showing any lights, and very soon after Cleopatra is herself rammed by Undaunted. The force’s cohesion quickly breaks down as they attempt to un-fuck themselves.

For a moment, the entire naval situation peers quizzically over the edge of the cliff and ponders whether or not to teeter on the brink. The Germans have sortied the entire High Seas Fleet in response; the Grand Fleet is stuck up at Scapa Flow; the Battle Cruiser Squadron is still with the Harwich Force. And then the weather takes a turn for the even worse. Admiral Scheer, with no idea of the true situation, quite reasonably decides that little can be done at night in a severe gale, and sets course for home. The executioner has missed his swing; the situation in the North Sea remains unchanged.

As for the seaplane raid? Five planes went up. Three suffered engine failure after making it to the European mainland, crashed, and their crews were quickly taken off for an all-expenses-paid German adventure holiday. One reached the target, a Zeppelin shed near the Schleswig town of Hoyer, only to find that there is in fact no Zeppelin shed at Hoyer. (Appropriately, there isn’t even a town called Hoyer any more; it’s on the Danish side of the modern border and is now called Højer.) Another got slightly lost and ended up at Tønder (same deal), where the crew did manage to find a Zeppelin shed…except their bomb-release mechanism jammed. That’s not gone well.

After all that, I can only imagine a debrief in the Admiralty a few days later, concluding with the words “Thank you very much, gentlemen. Now, let us never speak of this again.”

The Grand Fleet at Scapa Flow

Maybe they just sent the Battle Cruiser Squadron out because they were bored. The squaddie in northern France may well develop a certain boredom, if he’s in a quiet part of the line, but you can never get too complacent about living in a trench. And there’s always the knowledge that eventually the Big Push will come, and you might just be part of it. If you really can’t go another minute without taking out your frustrations on the Boche, there are always patrols and raids to go on.

For the Grand Fleet, there’s none of that. After a highly active first few months of the war, they led a rather somnolent life, with little to do except admiring the fearsome weather at Scapa Flow. At any given time the Royal Navy has had between 60,000 and 100,000 men living afloat here. The two nearest towns are Thurso on the Scottish mainland and the Orkneys’ capital Kirkwall, and they’re barely worth the name. After it began to look like they might be there a while, Admiral Jellicoe’s had a regular programme of exercises and drills in place. But man cannot subsist on drills alone.

So, with leave impossible unless a ship goes into dock for repair or refit, they’ve been making the best of it. Football and rugby pitches have been carved out of the Orkney heather. The world’s worst golf course has been built, with battleships competing to lay out the holes. Pistol and rifle ranges have been set up, and the second year of the all-Fleet boxing championships has drawn beyond-capacity crowds. An old supply ship, originally sent out to store frozen meat, has been turned into a theatre. The revues and concert parties on board could easily match anything put on by the BEF.

It’s not a life conducive to thrilling memoirs; few enough have ever made it into print. But they’re there nevertheless, and we shall have a few more reasons to interrupt their round of training, theatre, and sport before the end.

Grigoris Balakian

Grigoris Balakian has now reached a town that at the time was known as Hajin or Hadjin. Here they see more destruction and neglect of lands that have been simply ignored after the removal of the Armenians. (It was later almost totally destroyed and rebuilt as Saimbeyli.) The town once was home to nearly 30,000, and is now all but deserted. A small population lingers, most of it attached in some way to the local government.

Dusk had already fallen when the mayor, accompanied by the Jandarma captain and a few local officials, told us that we would have to continue on our way, because there was no suitable place in town to accomodate a hundred people. It is impossible to describe our emotion. We didn’t know what to do. …
After a brief exchange between the captain and the mayor, the Jandarma began to attack us with whips and clubs. Blood flowed from our heads as a dozen men, among the jeering of the government officials, pursued us towards the bridge that led to the road to Sis. Under a torrent of blows and curses, we walked fast to get out of this place.

The walk goes on so long that it takes them into tomorrow.

E.S. Thompson

Now the potpourri of drugs has worked itself out of his system, E.S. Thompson is feeling a little better.

Woke up feeling a bit better but with pains in the kidneys. had some porridge for breakfast. Lay on my back most of the day. Rained in the afternoon and soaked us out of our shelter… . Felt very weak towards night but made myself comfortable as possible on the wet ground and slept like a log though it started raining again during the night.

That’s not a good sign. Could this be the weather breaking for the start of the long rains? If so, bang goes any hope of getting the 2nd Division to Kondoa.

Louis Barthas

Everyone’s favourite Eeyore, Louis Barthas, is still enjoying some quiet time at rest near the mouth of the River Somme. Of course, his idea of “quiet” is perhaps different to what we might imagine.

One day we were surprised at our exercises by the unexpected arrival of Colonel Douce. Lieutenant Grulois, nicknamed [Hangover], who commanded our company, obsequiously rushed up to the big boss.
“How many hours of drilling are these men doing?” asked the colonel.
“Eight hours,” replied Lieutenant Grulois, afraid that it wouldn’t be enough, “with ten minutes’ rest each hour.”
“Eight hours!” exclaimed the colonel. “I would be completely wiped out after that! Lieutenant, less drilling, and more rest.” And he disappeared.
After this visit, our rest breaks were ten minutes longer. That was ten minutes less of getting wiped out, as the colonel had said.

The colonel appears to be a decent enough man. When he puts in his complaint about his recent demotion, Private Barthas will probably get a fair hearing, at the least. Incidentally, if this company is being commanded only by a lieutenant instead of a captain, that’s a sign that the Army is once again short of officers.

Robert Pelissier

Robert Pelissier, recently out of the line after five weeks atop the Hartmannswillerkopf, is enjoying his rest rather more.

It is a fine sensation to be able to walk straight on a road after weeks of worming one’s self in and out of crooked, narrow trenches covered over with logs placed so low that you can’t stand upright. We are in a very pretty hill town, quite clean and containing a good many friendly inhabitants. For a wonder I was able to get hold of a room containing a real bed. We also have a dining room in a house and the use of a kitchen. In other words we live like kings. This cheerful state of affairs will last until the middle of April, at which date we may be expected to go back.

The trouble around Verdun seems to be over with or nearly so. It is a great relief to us to have proved that they can’t walk over us at will, as they did over Russia for a time. It looks now as if the time had come for them to stop sacrificing their men ruthlessly. They can’t afford to attack again as they just have and without results.

Yeah, about that…

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Siege of Kut
Battle of Verdun
Lake Naroch Offensive

Further Reading

Support the blog! Buy the book! The book of 1915 goes on sale in less than a week!

I have a Twitter account, @makersley, which you can follow to be notified of updates and get all my retweets of weird and wonderful First World War things. If you prefer Tumblr, I’m also on Tumblr.

The Daily Telegraph is republishing its archives from the war day-by-day. Worth a look. (If you find the olde-tyme style difficult to get along with, have a look at this reading guide.)

One thought on “Vindex | Harwich Force | 25 Mar 1916

Leave a Reply