Hms Formidable (1898)

HOW THE “FORMIDABLE” WAS LOST

[Just after the New Year, 1915, had broken the British battleship Formidable, successor of the famous ship with which the name of the gallant Rodney is so closely associated, was lost while steering westward in the Channel. In the official announcement it was stated that the cause of her loss was either mine or torpedo, but it was not known which. Later, however, it was stated in the House of Lords that she had been twice torpedoed. The Formidable  was a pre-Dreadnought of 15,000 tons and 15,000 horse-power. In herself she was not a serious loss; but she carried a crew of between 700 and 800 men, and of these only 201 were saved. Once more the unconquerable spirit of British seamen was shown, as will be seen from this story of the only survivor of his watch—William Edward Francis, who was a stoker in the lost battleship.]

I had  what I take to be a narrow escape of being lost when the three cruisers were torpedoed in the North Sea.

I had been called up from the Royal Naval Reserve and drafted to the Cressy, which, with her sister ships the Hogue  and Aboukir, was lost; but almost at the last moment I was transferred, with a chum, to another ship.

I was spared to take a part in the victory of Heligoland Bight; then afterwards, from a port-hole of my own ship, the Formidable, I saw her sister, the Bulwark, blown up, with the loss of nearly every man on board. We were moored close to the Bulwark  at the time, and it was a terrible sight to see her go like that. The Germans, however, had nothing to do with the loss of the Bulwark, which was destroyed by one of those mysterious accidents that are bound to happen in a war like this.

Then, on Christmas Day, we had an amusing experience. A German airman came and had a look at things, including ourselves, and he hovered over us, but bolted without even dropping a bomb. No doubt he went back and spun a wonderful yarn of the way in which he had thrown us into a panic, when, as a matter of fact, we only laughed at him.

On the last day of the year 1914 the Formidable  was one of the units of a Channel squadron.

She was an old ship, as warships go, but there was a lot of life left in her, especially when bad weather had to be met, and she showed that in the Channel on New Year's morn, for we had run into tremendous seas and a heavy gale of wind was blowing. On the last day of the Old Year the Formidable, like the rest of the British ships, was taking green water on board and she was properly washed. But that was a mere nothing—the British Navy is used to it, and not to hiding in a canal.

That was the way the Old Year went out and the New Year came in—carrying on. It was a stormy ending to a stormy year. Night fell, but there was moonlight, and there was nothing to be heard except the roaring of the wind and the thudding of the seas as the brave old Formidable  crashed into them and drove through them, going west.

Go where you will, in any part of the world, you'll find that Englishmen don't let the Old Year die without some sort of feeling and regret, and so it happened that those of us who were not on watch sat in our messes and talked about our homes and those we had left behind us, and of the big things that had taken place in the dying year. The Old Year had truly seen some stormy times, and it was going out in a living gale.

At about twenty minutes past two in the morning I went into the stokehole. The ship was, of course, rolling and pitching and there were plenty of big heaves, but almost as soon as I had got below I felt a heave which I knew could not be caused by any ordinary roll. This heave was immediately followed by a distinct tremble over the whole ship, a shivering which lasted for about ten seconds.

A stoker who had been in one of the bunker-holds ran out and said that water was coming in, and this fact was at once reported to the bridge. It was clear that something very serious had happened, but what it was there was not any means of knowing just then.

Captain Loxley, who was commanding the Formidable, was on the bridge—his little dog was with him—and as soon as he realised what had taken place he did everything he could to try and save his ship and her company. He issued orders calmly and deliberately, and shouted, “Steady, men, steady! There's life in the old ship yet!”

The water-tight bulkhead doors were closed, and a signal was flashed to the other ships of the squadron that the Formidable  had been struck; but, as every one knows by this time, orders were given by the Admiralty after the loss of the three cruisers that when a ship has been torpedoed other ships are not to stand by to give assistance. There was reason to believe that the Formidable  had been torpedoed, and accordingly the remaining ships were warned to keep off, and they were soon lost to view in the wild night.

After being struck the Formidable  became practically motionless, and very soon steam gave out and she was little more than a huge rolling mass on the heaving waters.

At this stage I visited the engine-room and found that the dynamos were just giving out, which meant that the ship would be plunged into darkness, and so add to the difficulty and danger of the situation. But there was nothing like panic on board. Commander Ballard had told everybody to keep cool, and had said that the first thing to do was to get the boats out.

All hands mustered on deck and efforts were at once made to launch the large boats, but owing to the failure of the steam these attempts failed. The ship had been struck on the starboard side, forward, and by three o'clock she was listing heavily and settling by the bows; and it was hard to keep a place on deck.

It was very soon after this that a submarine was discovered near the ship, and I need not say how grieved and furious we were when it was realised that it was impossible to train a single gun on the craft.

After tremendous and extraordinary efforts two boats were lowered and they pulled away into the darkness, crowded.

In the meantime all the tables, chairs and things that would float had been thrown overboard, so that the men who found themselves in the water should have a chance of clutching at something that would help them to keep up, and in addition to this there were the inflated collars which have been provided for the crews of warships since the war began.

Meanwhile the submarine had vanished, but very soon another shock was felt, this time on the port side of the Formidable, so it seemed as if the craft had gone round to make matters even.

“There goes another at us!” some of the men shouted, as an explosion tore the decks and killed a number of the survivors.

“The cowards!” I heard one of my pals growl; “aren't they satisfied at finishing us with one shot?”

It was a natural enough thing to say, but war is war—and British warships are not a canal fleet; they keep the seas and take their chances, and don't slink in hiding.

The lights of a small vessel had been noticed about six hundred yards away, and careful inspection left little doubt that she was a fishing-smack. She did not move and did not make any answer to the appeals for help. Afterwards she slipped away and disappeared, and I'm pretty certain that she covered the movements of the submarine.

Things, however, were not by any means all bad. Four or five miles away more lights were visible, and these came nearer at about four o'clock, when we found that they belonged to a light cruiser.

When the cruiser drew near, Captain Loxley, thinking only of his duty, and wishful that no other ship should share the fate of his own, signalled to her to keep away, saying that the battleship had been struck and that the cruiser might be struck also; but the cruiser swept around the Formidable  in wide circles, nobly handled, and showed every sign of being ready to lend assistance.

The effect of the second explosion was to restore the battleship to something like an even keel; but having been torpedoed on each side she naturally sank lower and lower in the water, and it was soon clear that she would founder. Indeed, the first explosion was so terrible that there was little doubt that the ship was doomed, especially in such a sea as was then running. It was perishingly cold, with snow and sleet, and, to make matters worse, a good many of the ship's company were only slightly clad.

Of course there was not the least intention of abandoning the ship until it was perfectly clear that she could not keep afloat, and every effort was made to save her. There was hope that she might be kept going until the day broke, and that then it might be possible to get her into a Channel port; but she had been too badly damaged for such a hope to be realised and she listed terribly.

As the Formidable  had been struck on each side water was rushing in very rapidly, through huge gaps, but the ship listed more and more. A fine attempt was made to train the big guns on the beam, and as these represent a very heavy weight, no doubt some good effect would have been brought about, but again there was not the necessary power available, and the effort had to be given up.

Listing more heavily as the moments passed, the battleship at last was almost lying on her side and there was no hope of saving her.

Shortly before this had happened, and when it was known that nothing more could be done, the survivors mustered on the quarter-deck, and it was very strange to see how coolly they accepted the situation—such is discipline and the usage of war, and such is the result of the splendid example which was set for us by our captain and the officers.

The captain remained on the bridge, smoking a cigarette, and some of the men smoked too, while others broke into song.

We had our life-saving collars on, and there we were, waiting for the moment to come when the ship would make her last plunge.

It was at this time that the chaplain, with his hands behind his back, walked up and down the deck, encouraging the men and comforting them—and all the time the most tremendous efforts were being made to launch the boats. This was a task that was both difficult and dangerous, and of four boats that were got out one, a barge, capsized and several men were thrown out and drowned. I might say here that another barge managed to get away with about seventy men, who were picked up by the cruiser, while a pinnace, with a good number of men, reached Lyme Regis, but that was not till more than twenty hours had passed and a score of men had perished through exposure. The fourth boat, a launch, with about seventy men, was knocked about for nearly twelve hours, then they were rescued off Berry Head by the Brixham trawler Provident and taken into Brixham.

But I am getting on a bit too fast—I must return to the quarter-deck of the sinking battleship.

There was near me a little fellow who, a few days before, when the Formidable had sailed, had said good-bye to his mother.

I have six children of my own, and my heart went out to the lad, so I took him by the hand and told him to carry out my instructions.

There was a log of wood floating near, and thinking that this was a favourable opportunity to try and save the youngster, I told him to jump and swim.

The plucky little chap obeyed, but in that heavy sea and the bitter cold he missed his chance, and shortly afterwards he was swept away. It was very pitiful, but there was nothing for it but to take a heavy risk that night.

I saw that there was not long to wait now until the very end came, and so I said to a chum of mine, who was standing near me, “Shall we jump now?”

“I think I'll wait,” he said.

I looked around, I saw that there was nothing to be gained by waiting, and so I said, “I'm going. Good-bye,” for by this time it was every man for himself.

“Good-bye, Bill,” said my chum, and there was a grip of the hand.

Then I dived into the heavy icy sea and made a struggle for it.

The water was bitterly cold, and in a very curious way I suffered intense pain, because the inflated collar prevented me from dipping my head to the breakers and they caught me full on.

Very soon after I reached the water I looked back and saw the Formidable disappearing. She had made a good fight for it, and had kept afloat for a considerable time after being struck by the first torpedo.

When the battleship had vanished the sea was covered with men who were struggling for their lives; but soon the number was lessened, because in that bitter weather only the very strongest could live. One by one men disappeared, numbed and unconscious, while others, like myself, managed to keep afloat and alive.

I was encouraged by the thought that there was a chance of salvation through the cruiser, and I kept on swimming towards her as hard as I could.

For one long dreadful hour I was in that icy sea, battling all the time, until I got up to the cruiser and managed to make them hear my shouts.

Lines were thrown overboard in the hope that survivors like myself could catch hold of them, and I managed to seize one of these and to hang on to it with the energy of despair until I was drawn up near enough to be gripped by some of the cruiser's people—and once they got a grip of us they didn't let go.

I was hauled up on to the cruiser's deck, and a good many of my companions were also rescued by her, so that with the survivors she carried to port and the men who were rescued by the trawler, and in other ways, a round two hundred of the crew of the Formidable  were saved. The rest perished.

There is no doubt that the loss of life would have been far greater if it had not been for the skill and bravery of some Brixham fishermen. There happened to be in the Channel that night, not far from the spot where the battleship sank, a little Brixham smack called the Provident, manned by her skipper, William Pillar, and three hands.[1] She was under storm canvas, and was doing her best to seek shelter when the battleship's cutter was seen. The cutter was riding to a sea anchor and was in great peril, while the survivors who were in the little vessel were suffering terribly through exposure.

[1] The mate of the Provident was lost, in another vessel, about a year later, in a heavy Channel gale.

No sooner did the smack see the cutter than an effort was made to save the men; but in such a sea and at night it was the hardest thing imaginable to undertake a rescue, and it was not until more than two hours had passed and the smack had been handled as only a smacksman can handle such a craft, that a line was made fast between the cutter and the smack and the men were got on board, after a long struggle. They were all transferred to the Provident  by about one o'clock in the afternoon of New Year's Day, and they were landed at Brixham, where they were most generously treated, and clothes and drink and food were given to them. At other places on the coast of the Channel other survivors were landed, and very soon we were able to leave for our homes for a little spell of rest.

It is well to remember the very fine life-saving work that was done by fishermen when the Formidable  was lost, just as it was done by fishermen in the North Sea when the three cruisers were torpedoed. In their life-saving work at the loss of the Formidable, deep-sea fishermen added one more to the many splendid things they have done for the Navy since the war began.

One result of the failure of the steam was that the wireless could not be worked, so that not much could be done with the sending out of calls; but there was the Morse to fall back on, and so into the night the lamp signals were flashed, warning the other ships of what had happened and telling them to keep clear. They had to obey, having no option in the matter, and it must have been hard for them to leave the old ship to her fate, though I daresay they were comforted by the knowledge that her company were sure to meet their end like good Englishmen.

The Morse signals were understood by the other warships, but it seems that there were one or two other fishing vessels about which would most surely have given help if they had realised what had happened and had understood the nature of the signals. The Provident  was packed, having only a very small cabin and her hold and fish-room, but once on board of her the survivors were safe, though as far as room and comfort went, we who were saved by the cruiser were a good deal better off.

I do not want to dwell on the finish of the battleship, and the terrible hour or so I spent in the icy cold of the Channel seas in the very heart of winter. The disaster was so sudden and tremendous that it had a numbing effect on you, and many a poor fellow died through exposure, either in the water or in the boats, which were constantly swept by the freezing seas, so that there was little difference between being in the boats and in the water.

Captain Loxley went down with his ship, you might almost say as a matter of course, his first and last thought being for the safety of his people. Many of the officers went with him, and as for those who were saved, they were all, except one or two who had been ordered to the boats to take charge of them, rescued from the seas into which they had plunged or had been thrown to take their chance just like the men.