The calm before the storm

HMS Agincourt
HMS Agincourt

As we continue to mark the centenary of the Battle of Jutland, reader David Hickman has been in touch to tell us about his grandfather, who fought in the conflict – before later being evacuated from Dunkirk.

David explains: “My grandfather, Mr William Henry Cunningham, was born in South Shields in 1897.

“He was brought up and went to school in the town. When he left school, at the age of 13 years old, he started work at St Hilda’s Colliery, which was situated near the town centre.

“After a number of years working at the colliery, he also enlisted in the RNVR Tyne Division, and just before the outbreak of the Great War, he and other members of the Division were called up into the Royal Navy.”

Mr Hickman reveals that in August of 1914, his grandfather and other members of the Tyne Division joined the brand new battleship HMS Agincourt, which was then fitting out on the Tyne, and nearing completion.

“An interesting battleship,” says David, “she was originally ordered and built for Brazil but because of a programme of austerity cuts, the Brazilian Government decided not to continue with the order, and Armstrong’s, who were building, her looked for another buyer which they found in the Ottoman Empire, that was Turkey.

“Because the Turks looked as thought they were going to throw their lot in with the Central Powers, who were Germany and Austro/Hungary, completion of the new battleship was delayed, and eventually the vessel was commissioned into the Royal Navy on August 7,1914.

“Agincourt, along with the rest of the Grand Fleet were based in Scapa Flow, at the northern tip of Scotland, and she was a member of the 4th Battle Squadron.

“My grandfather always told me that Scapa Flow was a wild and desperate anchorage with only the minimum of comforts ashore in the shape of large wooden buildings that served luke-warm beer, and football pitches that were often unplayable during the winter moths because of water-logging. He often used to tell me that it was more comfortable on board ship, as the Agincourt, being built originally for foreign powers, had much more comfortable lower mess decks than other ships in the Royal Navy.

“In fact her nickname around the fleet was the Gin Palace.

“Much of the early war years were spent on exercise patrols and sweeps of the North Sea, and my grandfather said that it was very monotonous, and often his shipmates and himself spent time cleaning ship, training, playing cards (which was frowned upon), washing and repairing kit or writing letters home to parents or sweethearts, which in my grandfathers case was his sweetheart Nora Ada Davidson, who also lived in South Shields.

“The boredom was however broken on May 30, 1916, when the Grand Fleet put to sea to intercept heavy units of the German High Seas Fleet.”

l Tomorrow: David continues his fascinating account of his grandfather’s life.

l The Battle of Jutland, between the might of the British and German navy, lasted just 36 hours, but along with the terrible death toll, its impact on the First World War was significant.

Both sides claimed victory at Jutland, but whilst the Germans lost fewer ships, after the battle the British could put as many as 24 dreadnoughts to sea, in comparison to Germany’s 10 ships fit to fight.

The Germans failed to significantly challenge the British again at sea throughout the rest of the war.