Local men would occasionally write to the Poole and East Dorset Herald newspaper about their experiences of being in the First World War. A Culture volunteer working on the First World Project has looked at one man’s experience of being on HMS Grafton.
HMS Grafton was an Edgar-class cruiser and was launched in London on January 30 1892. She was commissioned in 1895 and operated off China until 1899. Following this tour of duty she became the flagship in the Pacific. At the beginning of the First World War, HMS Grafton was part of the 10th Cruiser Squadron whose role was to blockade German ports. This type of ship was quickly found to be unsuited for this work and, following a withdrawal from service, Grafton was later transformed into a bombardment ship and was used in the Gallipoli campaign.
The Poole and East Dorset Herald reported in its November 26 1914 edition on an interview with Mr H.G. Lucas who was on HMS Grafton at the time it was involved in blockade work in the North Sea. Mr Lucas lived at ‘Dreadnought’, Longfleet Road, Poole and was a member of the Poole Board of Guardians. He was part of the Royal Navy Fleet Reserve and was called-up on August 2 1914. The newspaper interviewed him when he was home on leave for a couple of weeks. He said that there were nearly 70 men from Dorset on the Grafton including Messrs Short and Baker from Poole and Mr Brown of Broadstone. Lucas was on the Grafton from August 3 to November 15 and he reckoned he must have sailed nearly 30,000 miles as the Grafton searched shipping and hunted for submarines. He said that they stopped all types of merchant shipping from numerous different countries. This happened day and night which he said was “terribly trying”.
In the interview he said that the Grafton was the first British vessel to take down a German ensign after the declaration of war when it captured a German ship. He said they also had some luck. The cruiser Hawke came on station at 4am to allow the Grafton to take on coal – not long afterwards the Hawke was torpedoed. He comments in his interview that various ruses were used by the enemy to entice the ship to investigate, such as throwing debris in the sea, but the sailors soon realised that if they were not careful they would be sunk by a torpedo from a waiting submarine. While life on the ship was ‘very strict’ the men were ready for anything and were eager to protect the coast of Britain. Lucas also talks about other aspects of ship life. A sprig of white heather was kept on-board for ‘good luck’ and the ship’s elderly cat, called ‘Jack Johnson’s pupil’, would chase about the deck while the fife and drum played a tune each morning.
- The British blockade of German North Sea ports began on August 12 1914 with the aim of stopping merchant ships reaching Germany. By 1916, over 300 deaths a day were being attributed to starvation, there were food riots in many German cities and on June 28 1916 around 55,000 German workers went on strike because of the conditions. It has been argued that the naval blockade was a significant factor in Germany’s surrender.
- Lucas makes no mention if ‘prize money’ was received for the captured German vessel. It was not uncommon for captured shipping to have the original crew taken off and replaced by a ‘prize crew’.
- The North Sea was extensively mined by both sides. In contrast to the German policy in which shipping had to take their chances, the British policy was if a merchant ship put into a British port it would be searched, any illegal cargo confiscated and then the ship would be escorted through the coastal minefields.
- Jack Johnson was a famous American boxer of the time.