JavaScript disabled. Please enable JavaScript to use My News, My Clippings, My Comments and user settings.

If you have trouble accessing our login form below, you can go to our login page.

If you have trouble accessing our login form below, you can go to our login page.

Battleship view of the days the world changed forever, and a boy went to war

Date

Hugh White

War came so fast a century ago, and so unexpectedly, and everything changed so completely when it came, that it still shocks one today. It still seems extraordinary how swiftly the people of 1914 lost the world they knew, plunging headlong into a very different world, and for each of them a very different life.

Churchill later wrote of his fascination with the way ordinary people "first began to feel this overwhelming event lay its fingers upon their lives".

I have one account of those moments before me. In 1914, my mother's father, Patrick Trier, was an 18-year old midshipman – officer trainee – serving on HMS Centurion, one of the four super-dreadnought battleships of the Royal Navy's Second Battle Squadron. These were the newest and most powerful warships of the greatest navy in the world.

As a midshipman he was required to keep a log. It is a big stout leather-bound book, which now sits on my desk. Its dryly factual record of shipboard life is enlivened with his own impressions, and gives a vivid sense of what he saw as the war came. As it happened, he witnessed some of the dramatic scenes in those last weeks and days of peace.

At the end of June 1914, the Second Battle Squadron made a goodwill visit to the German navy's main base at Kiel. They were there for the annual summertime festivities of Kiel Week. The Kaiser was there too, enjoying the parties, racing in his yacht, and inspecting the British warships wearing, as he was entitled to do, the uniform of a British admiral of the fleet.

But on Sunday, June 28, a pall fell on the festivities, which my grandfather recorded in these laconic terms. "6pm half-masted colours and hoisted Austrian ensign at the dip on receiving news of the assassination of the Crown Prince of Austria and his Consort." The news had travelled fast: the Archduke was shot only a few hours before.

The next day the log records: "Noon. Fired a mourning salute. 4.10 furled awnings and prepared ship for sea. Kaiser struck his flag in [his yacht] the Hohenzollern and left Kiel for the funeral of the Archduke and his consort." The Kaiser was hurrying off to urge Austria to punish the Serbs for this outrage.

The following day, Tuesday, June 30, the Second Battle Squadron left, too, with no idea of what the assassination and the Kaiser's sudden departure would mean. On the contrary, as Centurion sailed home that day my grandfather wrote: "Proceeded out of harbour with remainder of squadron. As each German ship was passed the national anthem was played & 3 cheers given. Set course as requisite for Portland. Thus terminated a highly successful week ... The fact that the squadron has left so many quickly-formed but sincere friends speaks volumes for the manner in which Kiel received us."

Others thought so, too. The same day the squadron's commander farewelled their hosts in the German navy: "Friends in the past, and friends forever."

And so it seemed. For the next few weeks no one aboard Centurion gave much thought to the assassination in Sarajevo. They were too busy preparing for a long-planned fleet review and exercises.

On July 16 my grandfather's squadron joined the assembling armada. He described proudly how "the first four battle squadrons headed by the C-in-C of Home Fleets in the 'Iron Duke' steamed in single line ahead from Portland to Spithead making a very impressive sight".

Four days later the entire fleet was reviewed by the king, "each ship manning and cheering as they passed". Even at 15 knots it took six hours. Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, called it "incomparably the greatest assemblage of naval power ever witnessed in the history of the world".

They did not know that the fleet my grandfather saw that day was the apogee of British naval power. From that moment the long decline from that pinnacle would begin. On Thursday, July 23, while Centurion joined mock sea battles in the English Channel, Austria finally handed Serbia an ultimatum over the Archduke's assassination, and the swift slide into war began.

The next day, Friday the 24th, the exercises were over and the assembled British ships started to disperse back at their peacetime berths and jobs. Only late that afternoon did ministers in London learn of the consequences that were now flowing from the assassination three weeks before, when they read Austria's ultimatum – "an ultimatum such as has never been penned in modern times", as Churchill called it – and suddenly the dangers became clear.

Over the weekend, as his colleagues wondered what to do, Churchill took the first decisive steps to prepare the navy for what he feared was coming. On Sunday the 26th he halted the dispersal of the fleet, and ordered it instead to prepare for a real war.

My grandfather's log for the next day, Monday the 27th, conveys in clipped terms what that order meant – the bustle, excitement and anxiety as the Royal Navy readied itself for what they so suddenly and unexpectedly faced. They knew that, if it came, this would be the greatest naval contest since Trafalgar a century before.

"Monday 27th July: All general leave cancelled and all officers and men on short leave recalled owing to rumours of a European crisis. All ships prepared for coaling to fill up to war stowage.

"Tuesday 28th July: Coaled ship from lighters which had to be filled by ourselves owing to the large number of ships coaling. Took in 280 tons of coal. Coaled all night."

On Tuesday, as Austria declared war on Serbia and Germany rejected Britain's offer to mediate, Churchill took the final step to prepare the fleet for war. He ordered it to sail the next day in secret from Portland, pass through the Dover Straits under cover of night, and steam north to its war station at Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands.

Here is my grandfather's terse account:

"Wednesday 29th July: All 1st Fleet weighed and proceeded to sea under sealed orders. Exercised action to prepare ship for battle. Turrets were loaded with A.P. lyddite [armour-piercing high explosive] shells. Exercise night defence stations.

"Thursday 30th July: Prepared ship for battle.

"Friday 31st July: Carried on preparing ship for battle. 4-inch guns forward manned as a precaution against submarine attack. Fleet arrived and anchored at Scapa Flow."

With the passage from Portland to Scapa Flow, the navy's war, and my grandfather's war, had begun. Churchill described it in a famous passage: "We may picture this great fleet steaming slowly out of Portland Harbour, squadron by squadron, scores of gigantic castles of steel wending their way across the misty, shining sea, like giants bowed in anxious thought. We may picture them again as darkness fell, 18 miles of warships running at high speed and in absolute blackness through the narrow straits, bearing with them into the broad waters of the north the safeguard of considerable affairs. The king's ships were at sea."

Britain itself was not at war until midnight on Tuesday, August 4, after German forces had entered Belgium. In Centurion, my grandfather was already at sea again that night, on patrol from Scapa Flow, as he would be so often over the next four weary years. His log for once forgot the sangfroid of a naval officer and lapsed into capitals. "Midnight: WAR declared on GERMANY."

His life, his navy and his country would never be the same again.

Hugh White is an Age columnist and professor of strategic studies in the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University.

12 comments so far

  • I suppose you could blame Russia again for mobilising its support for little Serbia. Today we would see it as a necessary show of support for a small nation bullied by the brute force of Austria and Germany. Unfortunately mobilisation by Russia spooked Germany into action to preempt invasion by Russia and its ally France. What has this got to do the the sea war? Nothing. But ironically it is said that Britain's naval power, especially the building of the Dreadnought, far from securing Britain's peace, actually inspired the Kaiser to conduct a naval arms race that sewed the seeds of war.

    Commenter
    Peter
    Location
    vietnam
    Date and time
    July 28, 2014, 1:31AM
    • On a similar story. Had George W. Bush and the neo-cons been in the Whitehouse during the Cuban Missile crisis, we might not be commenting on Mr White's article right now. It would be a different world for sure. Likely back to the cave for many.

      So it's sad and scary to note that people with little or no military experience and in charge tend to show how TOUGH they can be by sending other people's son/brother/husband or father into danger but not their own family.

      'The Guns of August' by Barbara Tuchman is a chilling reminder of what ensued in August 1914. And here we are, 100 years later.... August 2014 with a former ... boxer in the driver seat in Canberra.

      Commenter
      Old & concerned Australian
      Date and time
      July 28, 2014, 8:37AM
  • Thank you, Hugh White - and a time for refection, as well.
    ‘They Were Here’
    Oh..
    Zephyrs scatter that distant noise of war,
    Where reigns despair and smell of death.
    Though never met, we know them well,
    Life’s end brings a visage shared by all.
    Oh.. .
    Before time, does cruel fate end that light,
    Unready souls, soon another journey start.
    Though silent now, they have been heard,
    In tribute to their worth, we weep for them.

    Commenter
    Howe Synnott
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    July 28, 2014, 5:55AM
    • An epiloque saluting the heroics of sailors below decks is simply not done amid the Hell Hole Glory of His Majesty's Dreadnaughts by jove m`lord.

      Commenter
      Geronimo
      Location
      Yippee Yi Yo
      Date and time
      July 28, 2014, 7:45AM
      • Reading the article sends something running up the back of my head.

        Desire to show one's determination in getting the bodies of Australians to bring them homes with many potential unknown risks is certainly not a wise thing to purse with aggressiveness.

        In comparison, nearly 1,200 fatalities on the road in Australia, year after year.

        It brings into contrast sharply the considerations taken by government to the dead Australians in Ukraine and those at home.

        While it might be a former boxer throwing a fake punch to expose opponent's, the conflict b/w Ukraine and separatists is NOT a boxing match. Somebody should tell him that to his face.

        Putting potential Australians lives in unnecessary danger, in a far flung place, to satisfy one's agenda will be exposed by passage of time.

        Commenter
        B.Adams
        Date and time
        July 28, 2014, 8:06AM
        • Interesting, enjoyable slice of history. Yes to 'Peter' above the naval 'arms' race was a source of tension. But there were perhaps 10-12 identifiable 'causes' of the First World War. Each taken in isolation can be argued as being material in ensuring the war took place.

          Commenter
          ynot
          Location
          Melbourne
          Date and time
          July 28, 2014, 9:27AM
          • What a great story, a quirk of history.

            Churchill certainly had a way with words.

            Commenter
            Simon
            Location
            Adelaide
            Date and time
            July 28, 2014, 11:27AM
            • There was an excellent doci-drama on SBS a few weeks ago (37 days) which folded out the lead up to this war. I am no historian and I am sure that some people will disagree with the story telling, but for me it was a real insight into how something can escalate out of control.

              In a few cases we have been lucky that cool heads have been present and prevailed (Cuban missile crisis). In this particular case a few men were hell bent on making something much more out of a silly political assignation than what the final outcome deserved.

              The drama did raise a couple of curly questions that still raise their heads today. How do you take a democracy to war - put it to parliament or let the Executive decide? How do you deal with bullies, other than be a bully yourself, or let them ride roughshod over their weaker opponents?

              An excellent drama that I highly recommend. 5 stars - D&M.

              Commenter
              Neil
              Date and time
              July 28, 2014, 12:32PM
              • It is the human element that makes us understand the gravity of aggression and war. Was it not 20 million dead on the Eastern Front. With the lessons of history available to us now, we are in a position to make conscious choices. Abstract concepts, propaganda and justifications for arms races and hot wars are no longer taken on face value. Besides, we have world-scale issues to deal with. Border conflicts will become an indulgence if, say, climate change becomes sufficiently dangerous, or something like ebola takes hold in epidemic proportions as it may do easily enough. Now is the time to insist on ceasefires everywhere, and to divert the massive resources, that would have been spent on interminable killing, to find, literally, the cures for our global ills.

                Commenter
                kim
                Date and time
                July 28, 2014, 3:29PM
                • An interesting article, made all the better with extracts from your grandfather's log, which, unless things have changed, midshipman are still required to maintain.

                  As for the assassination of Ferdinand it's interesting to contemplate whether WWI would've eventuated had it not been for his death.

                  He certainly didn't show much nous by going to enemy territory, in an open car, with apparently little security.

                  Commenter
                  Jason of Gold Coast
                  Date and time
                  July 28, 2014, 4:59PM

                  More comments

                  Make a comment

                  You are logged in as [Logout]

                  All information entered below may be published.

                  Error: Please enter your screen name.

                  Error: Your Screen Name must be less than 255 characters.

                  Error: Your Location must be less than 255 characters.

                  Error: Please enter your comment.

                  Error: Your Message must be less than 300 words.

                  Post to

                  You need to have read and accepted the Conditions of Use.

                  Thank you

                  Your comment has been submitted for approval.

                  Comments are moderated and are generally published if they are on-topic and not abusive.

                  Featured advertisers