Written by Dr Jack Binns
When one of the best battleships in the Royal Navy, HMS Audacious, was sunk by collision with a German mine off the coast of Northern Ireland on October 27, 1914, Asquith’s government suppressed the bad news. The Admiralty did not admit the loss until November 14, 1918, more than four years later and three days after the Armistice!
Yet, when HMS Formidable went down early on New Year’s Day 1915 off Portland Bill, the Scarborough Mercury was able to report the disaster later that same day! What was the difference? It is true that the Audacious was a super-dreadnought less than a year in service whereas the Formidable was “only” an old, pre-dreadnought launched in 1901. But this goes nowhere to explain the contrasting response of the Admiralty and the British government. The crucial distinction was that the Audacious had sunk slowly in calm, daylit sea so that virtually the whole crew was saved, whereas the Formidable went down in less than three hours of total darkness during a storm and as a result the loss of life was great. Of the entire complement of 780, 547 officers and men, including the captain, had perished. The Admiralty had sworn the survivors of the Audacious to secrecy: it could not conceal the deaths of such numbers aboard the Formidable.
Of the missing crew of HMS Formidable the Mercury noted that “at least two Scarborough men were on board”, but later it was discovered that there had been a third local fatality.
One of them was First Class Petty Officer, Henry Purcell Jaques. Born at 11 Barwick Street in December 1883, Henry had won a brilliantly successful career in the Royal Navy. From Boy Second Class at 15, earning sixpence a day, by 1911 he had been promoted to First Class Petty Officer, an enormous achievement. By 1915, his widowed mother lived at 39 Sandside, her original family home, and his father had been buried in Dean Road cemetery in 1908.
Like almost all the fatal casualties of the Formidable, the body of Petty Officer Jaques was never recovered. Nevertheless, his death was recorded on the Chatham Naval Memorial, the Roll of Honour in St Mary’s parish church, Scarborough, the gravestone of his father and the Oliver’s Mount War Memorial.
A second was stoker First Class Robert Smithson born at 46 Cambridge Street, in 1892. He was one of the six sons and two daughters of a “bird dealer and woodcarver” who had a shop in Victoria Road. Later, his father was described as a “milk dealer” of 56 Tindall Street. Robert had been a pupil at the Central School on Trafalgar Road West. His elder brother, Private Charles Smithson, born in 1890, was a soldier in the Second Battalion of the West Yorkshire Regiment. He was to be killed in action on the Western Front in March 1916. Both he and Robert had their names recorded on the Roll of Honour in what was then Hoxton Road’s Wesleyan chapel and the War Memorial on Oliver’s Mount.
Finally, the third missing Scarborian was Ordinary Seaman, Charles Frederick Smith. He had been born in 1896 at 42 Princess Street. By 1915 his father was living at Sussex Cottage, Swan Hill Road and said to be “an artist”. Unlike the other two Scarborians from the Formidable whose names were later inscribed on the Naval Memorial at Chatham, CF Smith appears on that at Plymouth.
So what sank HMS Formidable? At the time of the first explosion the seas were mountainous and it was pitch dark, so it was assumed that she had struck a mine. But on January 3, 1915, the German Admiralty announced that one of its submarines, U24, had sunk the Formidable with two torpedoes and this report conformed with the available evidence. It was certain that the battleship had been struck twice. The first explosion had torn a gigantic hole in the ship’s starboard flank and a second soon afterwards had hit the port side and thereby righted the vessel temporarily.
The first torpedo had destroyed the ship’s dynamo room thus robbing it of all electrical power for lighting and sending out distress calls by wireless. As the great vessel listed steeply to starboard those on the upper decks were swept into the raging sea and it proved impossible to operate the lifeboats on either side. When a second torpedo exploded on the port side the ship was briefly righted, but even then only three liferafts or boats could be launched after the captain had given the order to abandon ship.
As was the custom in the Royal Navy, the youngest boy and apprentice crew members were given priority into the life craft, but most men never reached the upper decks. In such hazardous conditions therefore it was amazing that 70 were rescued by a trawler and another 163 by British cruisers.
The captain, Arthur Noel Loxley, stayed on the bridge and went down with his ship.
At the Admiralty Board investigation that followed, Vice-Admiral Sir Lewis Bayly, commander of the Fifth Battle Squadron, was blamed for the catastrophe.
The verdict was that he had allowed Formidable to sail too slowly on a straight course and he was therefore deprived of his command and rank and dismissed in disgrace from the service. Evidently, at least one senior naval officer had not been fully alert to the new perils of submarine warfare: even in home waters the surface superiority of the Royal Navy’s battleship was no longer sufficient to protect them.