Written by Dr Jack Binns
On Friday September 25, 1914, the Scarborough Mercury published photographs of three local Royal Naval seamen who were missing in action presumed dead. They were Leading Seaman Nicholas Odgers, First-Class Petty Officer Alfred Eaman, and Leading Seaman Harry Wilson. Odgers and Eaman had been onboard HMS Cressy and Wilson’s ship was HMS “Abourkir” (sic). Among the many inaccuracies of the report was the spelling of Aboukir, named after one of Nelson’s victories off the Egyptian coast in 1798 and perhaps better known as the battle of the Nile. The Admiralty, not the Mercury, was responsible for the misspelling of Crecy, the site of Edward III’s great victory over the French in 1346.
The Cressy, Aboukir and their sister ship, the Hogue, were three old armoured cruisers on patrol off the Dutch coast on Tuesday September 22. In line abreast and steaming at less than 10 knots to save coal, at 6.25am Aboukir was hit by a torpedo fired by the German submarine U9.
As his ship began to sink, Captain Drummond, senior officer of the squadron, summoned the other two cruisers to come to his aid and pick up survivors. He thought that the Aboukir had struck a mine and as yet was unaware of the presence of U9.
The captain of U9 could not believe his good fortune or the stupidity of his enemy. Within minutes his torpedoes had found both Cressy and Hogue. The latter was hit near the magazine, exploded and sank in six minutes. The Aboukir took half an hour to go down. Altogether 1,459 officers and crew died and, contrary to the Mercury’s wishful estimate, only 188 were rescued from the water.
Early press accounts, like that in the Mercury, indicated that the cruisers had been attacked by a whole pack of submarines, perhaps as many as five, and had sunk two of them! But the truth was that U9 had been acting alone and had torpedoed all three. On their return to Heligoland, Captain Weddigen and his crew were given a rapturous welcome. The Kaiser awarded Weddigen the German equivalent of the Victoria Cross, the Pour Le Merit medal.
There had to be an Admiralty inquiry. Stories of a mass U-boat assault and German losses were quickly discredited. Captain Drummond was reprimanded for presenting such an easy target. Given the danger of these waters, the cruisers should have zig-zagged their course and sailed faster and further apart. But the Admiralty itself was blamed for sending out slow, old ships, unescorted by destroyers, along predictable routes. There would be no more “live-bait squadrons” for the Germans to fish in the North Sea.
Of course, none of this was of any consolation to the families of Scarborough’s lost seaman.
No. 192106 First-Class Petty Officer and Gunnery Instructor, Alfred Eaman, had been born in July 1881, the second of the three sons of Joseph and Sarah. He was described as “a shop boy” when at the age of 16 he had enlisted in the Royal Navy for 12 years.
Before his service time had expired, Alfred had risen steadily up the ranks from Boy Second Class to Petty Officer and had decided to make the Navy his life career. According to the Mercury, in 1914 his home address was 45 Hoxton Road, though this might then have been wrong. The youngest of the Eaman brothers, Herbert, a joiner by trade, lived at 3 Derwent Street in Falsgrave in 1912, whereas two by the name of Mrs Eaman had addresses at 2 Victoria Street and 1 Somerset Terrace in the same town directory. Like so many of the missing, Alfred Eaman’s body was never found.
No. 179652, Leading Seaman Nicholas Odgers was born in Cornwall in 1878 and, described then as a labourer, he too joined the Royal Navy at 16. By 1906, he had graduated from Boy Rating to Leading Seaman and by 1914 had been posted to the Coast Guard and lived at Coastguard Cottages in Paradise. Though not a Scarborian by birth, his name was inscribed on the Oliver’s Mount War Memorial and the Roll of Honour in St Thomas’s in East Sandgate before it was transferred up the hill to St Mary’s parish church.
The second of two sons and two daughters of Joseph and Ellen, Harry Wilson was born at 40 Candler Street in March 1889. He was the youngest of the trio and only 25 at his death. At the age of five he went to Gladstone Road School and at 12 he won a prestigious scholarship to the Municipal School in Westwood. By that time his family had moved to 26 Trafalgar Street West. However, presumably for financial reasons, Harry left the Muni after only one year and, still only 15 in January 1905, he enlisted in the Royal Navy. After initial training at Chatham and Devonport, eventually he joined the crew of the Aboukir.
At his own death at 104 Moorland Road in July 1916, Joseph Wilson still did not know for certain that his son had been killed, and Harry’s mother was no wiser when she died 20 years later. However, she had at least the consolation of seeing Harry’s name inscribed on his father’s gravestone in Dean Road cemetery (Section K, Border, A, no.11) and on the Rolls of Honour in St Mary’s and St Columba’s churches.
The deaths of three Scarborough seamen were grim reminders of sombre truths. The North Sea did not belong to the Royal Navy; the Kaiser was not going to risk his precious High Seas Fleet in a clash of dreadnoughts; and his U-boats were a serious menace to surface warships, not just to merchant vessels and fishing boats. Perhaps Scarborough itself was not a safe refuge.
After further successes, Captain Wediggen, now of the U29, went down with all of his crew when they were rammed by HMS Dreadnought in March 1915.
U9 survived the war, was surrendered in November 1918 and destroyed with the remainder of the Kaiser’s submarine fleet in 1919.