Philip Malet de Carteret – Volume 2
Volume 2 of War Letters 1914–1918 is based on the First World War (WW1) letters of sixteen-year-old Royal Navy midshipman, Philip Malet de Carteret who sailed with HMS Canopus and includes his experience of Coronel, the Falklands and extensive time at the Dardanelles before he died in the Battle of Jutland. It is available at Amazon for £3.00. (At the request of Philip’s family, 50% of all profits from this book are being donated to the Royal Navy and Royal Marines Charity.)
The following is a short selection of material from the book. You can read more at Amazon. (No purchase or login required.)
On Sunday 1 August 1914, four days before war was declared, a thick summer fog had descended on the west coast of England. In the grounds of the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth, a group of young cadets were playing cricket when suddenly, as one recalled, ‘We were startled by people charging through the fog and shouting orders to mobilise, whereupon everyone dropped their cricket gear and fled for the college, cheering like hell.’ 1
From all corners of the college, boys ran to their rooms, ‘some with mouths still full from the canteen, others clutching cricket pads and bats, and yet others but half-dressed, with hair still dripping from the swimming bath.’ 2
‘It had come at last,’ wrote one boy, ‘our dreams were realised. It was war!’
Philip Malet de Carteret, a cadet at the college, was just sixteen years old at the time. Many of his fellow cadets were even younger. Although born in Sydney, Australia, Philip’s father was from Jersey, and the family had returned there not long after Philip was born. In 1911, when he was thirteen years old, Philip had won a place at the Royal Naval College, Osborne, on the Isle of Wight, an essential first step to a future career as a naval officer and possibly, one day, a ship’s captain. Leaving his parents, his older sister, Ellie, and younger brother, Guy, he sailed across to England to take up his place at Osborne. 3
Opened in 1903, the college was part of a major reform of navy education introduced by the then Second Sea Lord, John ‘Jackie’ Fisher, and the First Lord of the Admiralty, Lord Selborne. 4
When Philip began at Osborne, boys started studying at the age of twelve to thirteen, and after two years went to the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth, where they spent another two years. Lord Selborne considered twelve to thirteen years old to be the ideal age to start a naval education because, he argued, it was the age at which ‘the history of the Navy shows that boys have been most successfully moulded to sea character …5
[The rest of introduction in the book continues until …]
… The Canopus sailed the next morning accompanying the squadron’s two collier ships. Four weeks later, sitting in the gunroom, Philip began to write home to his father. When he had been selected as a cadet, the navy had said they were looking for the type of boy who gave the ‘promise of being responsive and observant, closely in touch with his surroundings but master of himself.’ Despite being just sixteen years old and having been at sea for nearly four months, Philip showed no signs of homesickness or anxiety. Instead he wrote with a calmness and maturity the navy must have been hoping they would find in their young officers. 22
[The following are the first two letters Philip wrote home. The first letter includes the accompanying notes.]
November 20th, 1914
My dear Dad,
Perhaps you would like an account of our late doings, so I will tell you what happened since we were at the Falkland Islands.
We left the Islands on October 23rd and made for the Straits of Magellen which we entered the next day. Although the mountains on each side were not very high, the tops of them were covered with snow, and they looked quite like Swiss mountains. The sea was as calm as anything, and the scenery was for all the world like the lake of Geneva from Lausanne.1
Of course it was very cold. I took several photos of both Tierra del Fuego and the American side, but they did not come out very well. We got out of the Straits on the evening of the 27th and proceeded northwards up the coast of Chile, well out of sight of land. We had two store ships in company which we were escorting.2
It was about 5.30 p.m. of a Sunday evening, November 1st, that we got a wireless signal from the Glasgow saying that she had sighted some of the enemy’s ships. The Glasgow did not give her position for some considerable time but sent out such signals as “Enemy has been sighted.” “Two armoured cruisers and three light cruisers.” “I am being chased,” and so on. All this time we had heard nothing of the Good Hope or Monmouth until dark when the Good Hope made a signal to raise full speed and concentrate on the Glasgow.3
It was during this night that we lost touch with our convoy as we increased speed. The captain spent a long and anxious time until he learnt they had reached port safely and his responsibility was over. All night we could hear the German wireless going but we “jambed” by means of meaningless signals which made it impossible for the German operators to distinguish their own signals from ours. The crew slept at their “action” stations ready for a fight at any minute.
Later the Glasgow signalled to us, “Fear ‘Good Hope’ lost – our squadron scattered”. The Glasgow then left the scene of action and joined us at a prearranged rendez-vous. All this time we had heard nothing of the Monmouth.
We finally got an account of the action from the Glasgow. She said they had met the Germans at 5.30, but they (the Germans) declined action till the sun had set and the moon had come up. They then manoeuvred into such a position that the British ships were between them and the moon, thus offering an excellent target, while they themselves were invisible in the dark. It was a very subtle move and they were more than repaid for their cunning.4
The Germans opened fire at 14,000 yards and the third broadside hit the Good Hope. A mast, a funnel and a gun were seen to blow sky high. Immediately after she caught fire and was enveloped in flames over 200 feet high. When the flames reached the magazine she exploded with a deafening roar and sank. It must have been awful for the people on board. The Monmouth also sank. They sunk with all hands. We were all frightfully sick at missing the action.
We and the Glasgow then proceed South again. On the evening of November 3rd we entered a channel called Messier Channel which runs parallel to the Chilean Coast and joins the straits of Magellen East of the ordinary entrance. We had no charts of this Channel, but luckily we had an officer on board who had been through it 31 times and practically knew the navigation of it by heart, and he took us through without charts. In some places this channel was no more than 200 yards across! However nothing happened and we reached the Straits on the 5th.5
We had orders to proceed to Monte Video but we simply had to stop at the Falkland Islands for a day to coal which we reached on the 8th. When we had finished we proceeded to Monte Video. But when we were half way there our orders were suddenly cancelled and we were told to return to the Falkland Islands which we reached on the afternoon of the 12th. We have been there ever since.6
There is one great advantage in staying at one place and that is that we will probably get our mails fairly regularly. I hope everyone at home is quite well. I have got hold of some month old newspapers and am very pleased with life.7
With much love to all,
December 4th, 1914
My dear Dad,
I wish you a very happy Christmas! We are still in the Falkland Islands and are organising a proper defence in case the enemy meditate an attack. The only thing worth having is the wireless station which is invaluable to us as it is the only British wireless station in these parts.
It is quite respectable being here although it is rather cold. What it will be like in winter I don’t know, as of course this is mid summer. There are heaps of birds hereabouts – sea birds of course – duck geese, shags etc. I have bought a small Winchester rifle and go about potting at them whenever I can. The great feature about my rifle is that unscrewing a screw it can be taken in half, and stowed away out of sight under one’s clothes and taken out in the steam boat when going for a long trip and one can have pots at birds on the way. It is quite fun. There is also a rookery of penguins near here which is very amusing to watch, and there are heaps of porpoises and seals in the water.
Eight people were drowned while crossing a creek in a punt three days ago. The punt capsized and none of them could swim so they were all drowned. They were not men from the ship but from the shore. They grappled, dredged and dived for their dead bodies and succeeded in recovering seven. I had to convey them to the town in my boat. It was nasty, ghastly work.
As for the Canopus, we have run her hard and fast on to the mud (on purpose) so it looks as if we were going to stay here till the end of the war – whenever that will be. Our poor dilapidated old engines have at last got a rest after tramping up and down the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean for weeks on end with scarcely an interval. She was originally built for work in China, but she never got past Aden on account of engine troubles, so of course it was considered a great feat by the engineering staff to have brought her right out here. We can hardly hope to get back in her, but we hope of the best.
Although the Canopus seems to have taken but small part in the war yet, she has really done more than any other ship hereabouts and a good deal more than most ships in the Navy, for although we have not fought an action yet we have kept all the trade routes clear and unmolested and frightened away any marauding German armed merchantmen or cruisers that might have been skulking around.
With love to all from your affectionate son,
Notes to Introduction
[These are the notes to the first part of the introduction.]
1a. ‘we were startled by people charging through the fog …’ The description is given in a letter home from H.W. Williams, a fifteen year-old cadet at Dartmouth and a contemporary of Philip’s. It is quoted in Thompson, J., The Imperial War Museum Book of the War at Sea 1914–1918, p. 57.
1b. ‘orders to mobilise …’ A test mobilisation of the Third Fleet had begun on 15 July 1914. This was followed on 17 and 18 July with a grand review of the whole fleet at Spithead. ‘It constituted,’ said Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty, ‘incomparably the greatest assemblage of naval power ever witnessed in the history of the world. Churchill, W., World Crisis, p. 201, http://archive.org/stream/worldcrisis00chur#page/201/mode/1up
On 26 July 1914, concerned at the turn of events in Europe, the decision was made not to disperse the fleet. As events unfolded, this meant that the navy was in a state of high readiness when hostilities commenced. As First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill clearly wanted to take some credit for the decision, saying that Prince Louis of Battenberg, the First Sea Lord, had given the order for the fleet not to disperse ‘in accordance with our conversation’. Ibid., p. 209, http://archive.org/stream/worldcrisis00chur#page/209/mode/1up
Prince Louis, however, would claim the decision was solely his, saying that in their conversation Churchill had told him, ‘I [Prince Louis] was in charge of the Admiralty and should act without waiting to consult you [Churchill].’ The Times Documentary History of the War, Vol. 3, p. 4, http://archive.org/stream/timesdocumentary03londuoft#page/4/mode/1up
Nearly 100 years later the question of who gave the order for the fleet not to disperse would still cause debate amongst historians as can be seen in the exchange at http://www.gwpda.org/naval/mobrn01.htm
2. ‘From all the corners of the college boys ran to their rooms, “some with mouths still full from the canteen”…’ A vivid description of the excitement in the college when the call to mobilise came through can be found in Forester, W., From Dartmouth to the Dardanelles, pp. 24–33, http://archive.org/stream/fromdartmouthtod00unse#page/24/mode/1up
3a. ‘Philip’s father was from Jersey …’ Philip was the eldest son of Jurat Reginald Malet de Carteret, Seigneur of St Quen’s Manor, Jersey.
3b. ‘the Royal Naval College, Osborne, on the Isle of Wight …’ The college was located in the converted coach house, stables and grounds of Osborne House, the royal residence where Queen Victoria had died in 1901.For a detailed history of the college see Partridge, M., The Royal Navy College Osborne: A History 1903–1921
3c. ‘possibly, one day, a ship’s captain …’ Several of the boys in Philip’s term at Dartmouth who survived the war would go on to have successful naval careers, including Philip’s friend, Robert K. Dickson, who served with him as a midshipman on the Canopus and later went on to become a rear-admiral.
4a. ‘Second Sea Lord … First Lord of the Admiralty …’ The Admiralty was the department of the British government responsible for the administration of the Royal Navy. The Admiralty itself was run by the Board of Admiralty and included the First Lord of the Admiralty, who was a civilian politician and member of the Cabinet, and four Sea Lords, all admirals. The Board also included a small number of other members. Despite their titles, members of the Board did not need to be peers. There is a useful explanation of the structure and function of the Admiralty as it was in 1914 in The Times Book of the Navy, pp. 129–144, http://archive.org/stream/timesbooknavy00beregoog#page/n179/mode/1up
For the names and dates of those who served in the key positions at the Admiralty from 1904 onwards see http://www.admirals.org.uk/appointments/board/index.php
4b. ‘Second Sea Lord, John ‘Jackie’ Fisher …’ A colourful and controversial character, John Arbuthnot Fisher is one of the legendary figures of British naval history. Likened in many aspects of his personality to Winston Churchill, he is generally credited with dragging the British navy into the 20th century and modernising it in readiness for war. For a good, short biography of Fisher see Halpern, P., ‘Fisher, John Arbuthnot, first Baron Fisher 1841–1920’, http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/33143. (Free access requires a British public libraries lending card.)
Two important books by Fisher himself are: Fisher, J. A., Memories, http://archive.org/details/memoriesbyadmira00fishuoft and Fisher, J. A., Records http://archive.org/details/recordsbyadmira00fishgoog
Two volumes of Fisher’s official papers have been digitised by the Royal Navy Records Society and can be purchased as PDF at £20 for each volume. http://www.navyrecords.org.uk/pages/printed-publications/volumes-works/?work_id=63
4c. ‘First Lord of the Admiralty, Lord Selborne …’ Lord Selborne was First Lord of the Admiralty from 1900 to 1905. For a biography see Boyce, D. G., ‘Palmer, William Waldegrave, second Earl of Selborne (1859–1942)’, http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/35373. (Free access requires a British public libraries lending card.)
Lord Selborne was also the father of Robert Arthur Palmer whose letters feature in War Letters 1914–1918 Vol. 4.
4d. ‘part of a major reform of navy education …’ This was widely known as the Selborne Scheme or sometimes as the Fisher-Selborne Scheme. The Selborne Memorandum, outlining the plan for reform, was published on 25 December 1902, and is generally considered one of the most important documents naval documents of the pre-war period. The Times, 25 December 1902, p. 4. (The 9 MB PDF of the article needs to be magnified to at least 400% its size but is perfectly readable.)
5a. ‘boys started studying at the age of twelve to thirteen …’ This was the age of entry in 1911 when Philip started, with entry three times a year in January, May and September. In 1913 a new set of regulations was introduced that increased the minimum starting age by nine months.
Under the new regulations the boys had to be between thirteen years four months and thirteen years eight months old on the first day of the month preceding their entry. The Entry and Training of Naval Cadets, p. 52. If a boy, for example, entered in September 1913, he would need to be the required age on 1 August 1913.
5b. ‘Royal Naval College, Dartmouth, where they spent another two years …’ Naval cadets had previously been trained on the ship Britannia, moored in the River Dart, until the Royal Naval College, which is still in use today, was built and opened in 1904. There is a useful timeline of the college’s history taken from Harrold, J., & Porter., R, Britannia Royal Naval College, Dartmouth: An Illustrated History at http://www.britanniaassociation.org.uk/timeline/
A detailed description of daily life at Dartmouth in the pre-war years, written by a contemporary of Philip’s, can be found in Forester, W., From Dartmouth to the Dardanelles, pp. 1-11, http://archive.org/stream/fromdartmouthtod00unse#page/1/mode/1up.
There is also a fascinating film of a cadet’s life at Dartmouth made in 1941. Although over twenty-five years after Philip attended, many of the customs and routines remain little changed from the days before the First World War. http://film.britishcouncil.org/dartmouth
5c. ‘Selborne considered twelve to thirteen years old to be the ideal age to start a naval education …’ See the Selborne Memorandum, 1902 discussed in note 4d above.
Notes to Letters
[These are the notes to Philip’s first letter. All the letters in the book are similarly annotated.]
1. ‘the scenery was for all the world like the lake of Geneva from Lausanne …’ Before starting at Osborne, Philip had attended the Ebor Preparatory School in Lausanne, Switzerland, which would account for the reference.
2. ‘We had two store ships in company which we were escorting …’ The ships were the colliers Benbrook and Langoe.
3. ‘The Glasgow did not give her position for some considerable time but sent out such signals as “Enemy has been sighted” …’ The unclear signals led to a period of uncertainty on the bridge of the Canopus. Captain Grant said that between 5–6 pm he had ‘grave doubts in what direction to shape course. Whether our squadron were in chase of the enemy, or whether the Admiral was attempting to concentrate on Canopus as was his intention if the enemy was met in force.’ Grant, H., ‘HMS Canopus … II’, p. 327 http://www.naval-review.org/showissue.asp?Year=1923&Iss=2 (PDF p. 153) (8.88 MB)
Grant’s statement underlines that Cradock had, when they were both on the Falklands together, clearly given the impression that he still intended to use the Canopus in any confrontation with a significant number of enemy ships.
4.‘We finally got an account of the action from the Glasgow …’ There are numerous online accounts of the action at Coronel. The most comprehensive is in Bennett, G., Coronel and the Falklands, pp. 24–42, http://hdl.handle.net/2027/mdp.39015029515064?urlappend=%3Bseq=28
Churchill gives a summary of the events from the official record in Churchill, W., World Crisis, pp. 457–60, http://archive.org/stream/worldcrisis00chur#page/457/mode/1up
The first report of the battle by the Admiralty, based on the account it received from Captain Luce of the Glasgow, can be read in The Times Documentary History of the War, Vol. IV, pp. 4–6, http://archive.org/stream/timesdocumentary04londuoft#page/4/mode/1up
The original log of the Glasgow for the day of the battle can be accessed at http://s3.amazonaws.com/oldweather/ADM53-42828/ADM%2053-42828-102_0.jpg
For a first hand account from an officer aboard the Glasgow see The Times Documentary History of the War, Vol. VII, pp. 86–9, http://archive.org/stream/timesdocumentary07londuoft#page/86/mode/1up
Even though the Canopus did not actively take part in the battle, the account given by Captain Grant still makes for interesting reading. ‘There was an overwhelming feeling of depression among us all at the fate of our comrades,’ said Grant. ‘There was also intense disappointment that we had not been able to be with them in their gallant fight; and it was quite open to consideration if we had been in company with Admiral Cradock, whether Admiral Von Spee would have attacked as he did.’ Grant, H., ‘HMS Canopus … II’, p. 328, http://www.naval-review.org/showissue.asp?Year=1923&Iss=2 (PDF p. 154) (8.88 MB)
For the relevant logs of the Canopus see: http://oldweather.s3.amazonaws.com/ADM%2053-69505/ADM%2053-69505-032_0.jpg ;
The British casualty lists for what Churchill later called ‘the saddest naval action of the war’ can be read at http://www.naval-history.net/WW1Battle1411Coronel.htm
For the German account of the battle, see the letters of Admiral von Spee. The Times Documentary History of the War, Vol. IV, pp. 9–12, http://archive.org/stream/timesdocumentary04londuoft#page/9/mode/1up
5. ‘We had no charts of this Channel, but luckily we had an officer on board who had been through it 31 times …’ They had decided to attempt a passage through the narrow Smyth’s Channel in order to shorten the distance. According to Grant, the passage had never been attempted by a ship of the Canopus’s size before. ‘The situation was a precarious one,’ he said. ‘There was barely room to turn the ship; the land was steep-to on both sides; the water was too deep to anchor in, and it was pitch dark.
‘I doubt,’ he added, ‘if the difficulties of the navigation and the weather we were to experience had been foreseen, whether I should have attempted it.’ Grant, H., ‘HMS Canopus … II’, p. 328 http://www.naval-review.org/showissue.asp?Year=1923&Iss=2 (PDF p. 154) (8.88 MB)
The navigating officer was Lieutenant Harry Bennett who was described by Grant as being ‘without exception one of the best and coolest navigating officers I have served with.’ Ibid.
6. ‘we were told to return to the Falkland Islands …’ The order came from the Admiralty. Churchill says, ‘We learned that her continuous fast steaming had led to boiler troubles in the Canopus and we had to direct her to the Falklands.’ Churchill, W., World Crisis, p. 470, http://archive.org/stream/worldcrisis00chur#page/470/mode/1up
7. ‘There is one great advantage in staying at one place and that is that we will probably get our mails fairly regularly …’ The Canopus hadn’t received any mail since 18 August 1914, but on 21 November, the day after Philip began this letter, the Crown of Galicia store ship arrived at the Falklands with 50 bags of mail. Grant, H., ‘HMS Canopus … II’, p. 335, http://www.naval-review.org/showissue.asp?Year=1923&Iss=2 (PDF p. 161) (8.88 MB)