The first Christmas of the First World War has become something of a byword for truces in the trenches and the somewhat controversial subject of football. Yet Britain’s contribution to the war was not merely confined to the trenches of the Western Front. It is easy to forget the tens of thousands of men serving across the globe in the ships of the Royal Navy and what Christmas had in store for them.
Christmas in the Royal Navy was already a time honored tradition by the start of the First World War. Where possible it was a light duty day, the staples of which included decoration of the ship, Divine Service, an extra tot of rum, a full Christmas dinner served to the crew by the officers, and some sort show or other entertainment. However, all of these traditions were trumped by one other, which is that all things are deemed subject to the requirements of the Service.
There were routine movements. Ships to be moved across oceans to where they were needed and regular patrols to be carried out. From the great battlecruisers H.M.S. Invincible and H.M.S. Inflexible steaming peacefully up the coast of South America, as they returned from victory at the Battle of the Falkland Islands, to the multitude of cruisers and other vessels patrolling the World’s sea lanes, protecting British trade while destroying that of Germany. This latter task was seen by many at the time to be Britain’s main strategic role and greatest contribution to the war. Among those performing it were numerous Armed Merchant Cruisers – great passenger liners taken into Royal Navy service, armed with a few old guns and manned mainly by reservists.
These ships performed a vital, but seldom remembered service, many on the harsh Northern Patrol line in the storm tossed waters between Britain and Greenland. It was at the same time difficult and dangerous, yet dull and repetitive work, sailing up and down a patrol area, taking to small boats and stopping and checking all passing merchant vessels for goods bound for Germany, at any time, in any weather, with all the attendant risks of accidents, mines and U-boats. Frequently, they saw nothing for days on end, but these patrols had to be maintained every day of every week of every year for the blockade to be effective. On any given day, including Christmas Day, up to half the ships assigned to the blockade would be out enforcing it. Smaller ships had their own, unenviable Christmas duties too. For example, at the outbreak of war the Royal Navy had similarly taken into service many trawlers with their reservist crews. They were mainly used as minesweepers, charged with keeping the harbours and fairways of Britain clear of these deadly weapons.
There were also operations. On November 3rd German battlecruisers bombarded Great Yarmouth, causing public and political outrage, and dark predictions from the Admiralty of further bombardments, raids and even full scale invasion. These fears, combined with concerns about the security of bases such as Rosyth, and even the main fleet base at Scapa Flow, against U-boat attack, meant that the Grand Fleet was frequently out sweeping the North Sea, particularly at times when the danger was felt to be highest. By the start of December the Navy’s leadership believed that one of these times would be Christmas. “I shall be out with the whole fleet I hope from Dec. 22nd to 26th…” wrote Admiral Sir John Jellicoe “as they may move then expecting the Britisher to be drunk…” The ‘baby killers of Scarborough’ bombardment on December 16th, and intelligence seemingly pointing to a Christmas bombardment of Folkestone and Portsmouth, only hardened matters. The full might of the Grand Fleet, around one hundred ships and some 40-50,000 men, sailed from its bases on December 23rd and 24th.
Charged with the country’s air defense the Royal Navy also looked with alarm at the new threat from the air. Germany’s Zeppelin forces not only seemed to give them a reconnaissance edge at sea, but moreover had already been used to bomb Belgian cities, and could reach Britain. This new threat required a new solution. So it was that before dawn on Christmas Day, a small force of ad-hoc seaplane carriers, got within twelve miles of the German coast and launched seven aircraft in the Royal Navy’s first shipborne air strike. Their mission: to bomb the Zeppelin sheds at Cuxhaven, destroying the new threat in its base. All the while, to the north of them, the men of the Grand Fleet watched, and waited by their massive guns. Was the High Seas Fleet coming out for a bombardment? Would it be drawn out by the British force just off the coast? Were they about to fight a new Battle of Trafalgar?
It was not to be. Instead, the Germans responded fittingly to this dawning of a new era, as their own seaplanes and Zeppelins made the first ever bombing attacks on British ships at sea. In the end, neither was ultimately successful. All British ships and pilots made it home safely (three after hair raising rescue by submarine, and one, Flight Commander Francis Hewlett, after an adventurous escape via neutral Holland). Their bombing efforts, however, were largely thwarted by fog, though possibly Hewlett did come close.
In a tragic epilogue, at around the same time the seaplane carriers were leaving the German coast, a massive explosion rang out off Scarborough. One of those many minesweeping trawlers, H.M.T. Night Hawk, which had spent the morning working off the recently mined port, had struck one of the very things she had been sent to clear. Within seconds she was gone. Five of her thirteen-strong crew were never seen again. A sixth died before he could be taken to shore. Perhaps remarkably, they were the Royal Navy’s only combat casualties of Christmas Day 1914.
Christmas Day 1914 was, in many respects, a curious one for the Royal Navy. In terms of operations and ships at sea, it had been incredibly busy for many. Yet in material terms, seemingly little had been achieved for the effort. The Cuxhaven Zeppelin sheds still stood. There had been no great battle. Instead, the real results were less tangible. The vital, but slow burning blockade had been enforced for yet another day, as it had to be. What is more, both sides had offered a glimpse of a new era in naval warfare and what might be possible in the future.
Philip Weir is a naval historian. Follow him on Twitter @NavalHistorian.