Eyewitness to Armistice, 1918

When Old Bunts picked up Hendrick

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They seem very badly off for clothes. Some have jumpers and some haven’t – any old sort of thing does for caps and even trousers. Only one man had a pair of leather boots on that could be called boots and that was the captain, who had the Iron Cross on…

This week I have something very personal to share, in the week of Remembrance Day and Remembrance Sunday.

Both sides of my family must count among the lucky ones in that few relatives suffered seriously in either of the world wars. But of course, that doesn’t change the impact these events had on everyone.

When my mother died three years ago, it fell to me to go through the many documents and family photos she had accumulated. Among her papers I found two remarkable treasures – I shall save the other one for another time (although it, too, relates to 1918), but here I’m honoured to share an Armistice diary which as far as I can tell was written by my grandfather (he was certainly present at the events the diary describes). Until I came across it, this diary was unknown to me, and indeed to my mother’s sister.

The diary is only short, covering just a couple of weeks – but it nevertheless offers a fascinating eyewitness account, from the Firth of Forth, of the surrender of the High Seas Fleet of the German Navy at the end of World War One.

My grandfather, George Marcus Butcher (known as Mark), was born in Essex in 1898; sadly he died a few years before I was born, so I never knew him. I knew he had spent his youth as an electrical engineer in the merchant navy, a career he then continued with on land for the rest of his working life. But I didn’t know about his brief stint in the Royal Navy. (He left in the spring of 1919.)

Mark’s naval service record reveals that he joined up on 31 May 1918 (the record refers to ‘hostilities’, but these are not specified). He is listed as serving on HMS Vernon – in fact a ‘stone frigate’ or shore establishment, in this case for training the Torpedo Branch, in Portsmouth; and also on HMS Victory II. This, too, was a training establishment – the name was used for what also became known as ‘HMS Crystal Palace’, in the London park, but it too was used to describe training facilities at Portsmouth, so I suspect this is where Mark continued to train.

From 8 October 1918, Mark was then based at HMS Columbine, this time the Torpedo Branch training facility at Port Edgar in the Firth of Forth in Scotland, and more specifically on HMS Whitley, a destroyer. I assume that his diary recounts his experiences on board the Whitley (originally called the Whitby but then renamed because of a typo!). The Whitley had only been launched that April, and was officially commissioned only three days after my grandfather went to Columbine, so it was basically a brand new ship.

Now I’ll let him speak for himself.1 Mark’s descriptions of the German sailors are particularly interesting.

11 November

Armistice signed by the enemy and our ship lying in pens along with about half the 13th Flotilla. Great event of day: signal from C in C [i.e. Commander in Chief], ‘Splice the Main Brace’. Responded to with gusto by the boys. I enjoyed wine and felt as if I could push a hole in ship’s side. Some fun caused by blowing sirens and firing Very’s lights and rockets [Very lights were a type of flare]. Ours the quietest ship in flotilla. I managed to get one blow out of the siren before Engines turned off steam. The ‘White Hat’ also played his part in taking our only two Very’s lights aft before we started. Had to content ourselves with ringing our bell as hard as we could go. One ship had a model Kaiser strung up at the yardarm which was set on fire later.

12 November

All over and carry on as usual. Hands painting ship. Ship company inspected by doctor.

18 November

Under sailing orders but still a bit foggy. However we go out on striking force. See no signs of convoy but carry on patrol till about 3am Tuesday when we drop hook by May Island.

19 & 20 November

Fog continues but get signal to remain under 5 minutes’ notice. We are to escort Hun fleet across.

21 November

Get under way at 3.30am. Join up with flotilla piped action stations at 6.45, belayed and piped again at 7am. Sighted the Hun ships about 7.50. Big ships come first. Our own big ships escort them. We carry on and pick up our place in rear of their destroyers. Arrive off May Island about 3pm. The whole lot being in Largo Bay ready to go, some to Scapa and a few destroyers too up the Firth. (One of our aeroplanes had a smash and fell in the drink…). Party told off to inspect a German destroyer, with instructions not to speak to or take anything from the Hun crew. I am not one of the party and am rather disappointed. Suppose I shall have to make the most of it (picked up by the Seymour).

22 November

Same old fog but clearing off a little. Boarding party mustered, no arms carried. They set off in motorboat with the Skipper, Engineers, […], White Hat, 1 E.R.A. [Engine Room Artificer, a skilled senior member of the lower deck], J. Holloway, Joe Moriarty and A. Grainger, 2 stokers, Bungy Williams and two or three more seamen.

Waiting for their return. They return at last after being away about three hours. The boat they went on was the V46 [a German torpedo boat launched in 1914, and which had taken part in the Battle of Jutland] – from what they say about it, it must be a regular pig sty. The decks all covered with some sort of tar and no bright work showing anywhere except the after wheelhouse. The mess decks so small that you have to walk in sideways and if you are anything above 5’8” you have to stoop. Each man has his own scran [food] locked up in his locker. They seem very badly off for clothes. Some have jumpers and some haven’t – any old sort of thing does for caps and even trousers. Only one man had a pair of leather boots on that could be called boots and that was the captain, who had the Iron Cross on. He also wore one gold ring with crown and eagle above and informed our skipper that he was a Commandant. I suppose he meant Commander. The men had (at least those that had anything on at all) wooden sandals with just a bit of thin leather over the top and a strap to keep them on. Two of them had private sea boots (a bit the worse for wear).

No sign of any ammunition or shells of any description. The sights and range finders were also removed, and the fish tubes empty and with back doors taken off. One of our stokers cracked old ships with one of the crew – they had been in the Merchant Service together. Of course there was not much notice taken about the order forbidding our men to speak to the Huns and some who got in conversation with ’em say that in Germany a suit of clothes cost £25 and a pair of boots £5. The reason why they look so dirty they say is because they cannot get soap or anything in that line and a pound of soap costs as much as 40 shillings in Germany. Our chaps did not get much in the way of curios as our skipper had his long nose stuck into everything and wherever they went he followed. However the total bag between ’em was a couple of cap tallys and as the Germans are only allowed one each I expect somebody found his tally… We got more by staying aboard as some of the wreckage from the V30 that got blown up. Old Bunts got a cat o’ninetail marked ‘Hendrick’ and several others got odds and ends. One got a pair of wooden sandals.

23 November

We are running short of provisions and feed on biscuits and beef with some rice. We are only allowed 7oz of biscuits so shall not be sorry when we get in harbour again and get some supplies.

24 November

Steam up at 7.30am up hook at 8.00 with about 50 flunkeys and mess men from the boats lying near. We are to go into the pens for oil and provisions. Some buzz that we are going somewhere.

25 November

We returned yesterday with the supplies about 6pm and dropped anchor, the other boats sending for their own stores. All ready this morning for anything that comes along. It’s a fine morning and we anticipate having it a bit easy.

Get a steaming signal after a visit by Cap. D. We leave at 11.30 for Scapa escorting the ‘Lion’ and the German battleships.

With thanks to Stephen Dent for additional research and advice.

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The text, which is my copyright, has only been lightly edited for spelling and punctuation.