Life Story of Philip Henry Stewart Reid

Chapter 6. First World War

In January 1917, three days after his sixteenth birthday, Philip went to sea. His father saw him off at Gloucester station, where a sea-chest dismayed the war-time women porters. Now Philip had his first sight of Scotland - the snowy scene which his ancestors must have dreamed of, sweltering under the punkah. At Rosyth, he found that the squadron had sailed to Scapa Flow. It was a cold journey through the Highlands, with deer feeding close to the railway lines. He crossed in the King Orry to the Orkneys where his ship, HMS Valiant, lay with the Grand Fleet.

Eight months after the Battle of Jutland, the Grand Fleet had greatly increased in strength. Workmen were constantly on board fitting deck armour and protection against cordite flash. The Barham, Malaya, Valiant and Warspite formed the Fifth Battle Squadron. Training took place in aggressive tactics, night fighting, and the concentration of gunfire. Everyone longed for another great battle, but the Germans avoided action, and it never came.

The Captain of HMS Valiant, Maurice Woolcombe, was a formidable figure - tall, with a deeply lined face the colour of a brick, firm mouth and iron-grey hair. He was a Gunnery Officer of the days when all orders were shouted, and made a brave noise hailing the forecastle from his high bridge.

At the after end of the Mess, dilapidated basketwork chairs for the sub-lieutenants were grouped round a coal stove. Forward was the buttery, with hatches opening into the pantry. Junior midshipmen read or did their work at the two long dining tables.

On Sunday morning they cleaned the brass rims of the scuttles. Philip's hands smelled of Brasso on Sundays, and his locker did so all the time. The gramophone was nearly always in use - Tonight's the Night, with Leslie Henson, pictured left, singing Three Hundred and Sixty Five Days, was the latest thing. Wireless broadcasting was unknown.

The midshipmen's sea-chests were stowed, and their hammocks were slung, in the middle cabin flat. This was a space down below aft, where the air got very thick when ventilation was shut off in rough weather. The canvas hammocks were comfortable, with mattresses, pillows, and blankets. In harbour, the midshipmen did physical drill before breakfast. The day was spent under instruction, running picket boats or keeping watch. In the evening they rehearsed theatricals or wrote up their notebooks. Their instruction covered a wide field. For example the textbook 'Queries in Seamanship' advised on how to deal with the following situation: You are Officer of the Watch on Easter Day. Russian officers come aboard to call and say to you 'Christ is Risen!'. What would you reply, and what action would you take in the matter?

The ship carried two 56 foot picket boats, got in and out by the main derrick - a great steel stick hinged to the foot of the main mast. Their crew was a coxswain, three seamen, an engineer and a stoker, with a midshipman in charge. The midshipman steered, though some of them were barely tall enough to see over the spray shield. When hoisted out, these boats were moored up to the lower booms - wooden spars that stuck out on either side of the ship, about fifteen feet above the water. Manning the boats over the boom in rough weather was a tricky business.

A ship in each squadron towed a captive balloon manned by gunnery spotters. As an experiment, the Valiant carried a little Sopwith Pup fighter biplane on her forward turret. the pilot flew off boldly with no definite plan for landing.

Trips to sea were restricted by an oil fuel shortage, caused by the German submarine campaign. Such trips usually lasted three days. While at sea half the armament was continually manned; men off watch slept in the turrets and batteries. On winter nights at sea Philip wore a flannel shirt and long drawers over his pyjamas, thick socks, grey flannel trousers, long white sea-boot stockings, two sweaters, a woollen muffler, a monkey jacket, sea-boots and Balaclava helmet, with a 'lammy suit' on top of all. The lammy suit was a thick blanket affair with wide trousers and a hooded coat. He had a Gieve's life-saving waistcoat, to be blown up through a rubber tube.

In the spotting top, Philip worked an optical instrument. The control Officer ordered 'Shoot!' the fire-gong went 'Ting Ting' - then, after a second's pause that seemed much longer, the ship jumped and quivered, the mast on which they were whipped like a fishing rod, a hot blast fanned their faces, and the tremendous noise of big guns fired together was followed by sour clouds of yellow smoke that blanketed them.

Towards the end of the war an increasing amount of time was spent at Rosyth; the squadron usually moored just east of the Forth Bridge. Philip's messmate, Bob Stuart, was an Edinburgh boy; his family lived by the Dene Bridge, and were extremely good to Philip. One went from South Queensferry to Edinburgh by bus with a gas balloon on top of it. Aunt Nini had charge of a Church Army hut at Rosyth, and Philip used to see her there. Her old Sheffield maid, Walker, was on the staff. Philip sometimes dined in the Malaya - the next door ship - with his St.Vincent Term friend Andrew Yates. They played pool on a small billiard table, and the slight roll of the ship was excuse for missing a shot.

It must have been difficult to keep a huge fleet keen and happy during long dull periods in harbour, and the Commander in Chief, Sir David Beatty, deserves much credit for this. He visited once a year, when he gave away the prizes for the pulling regatta. Each time he said 'This year, I am convinced, we shall see the whites of their eyes!', and everyone was re-filled with enthusiasm, though nothing of the sort had been sighted in the interim.

Philip experienced no battles or horrors. Just before midnight one summer night at Scapa Flow HMS Vanguard, the next ship in the line, blew up and disappeared, but Philip knew nothing of it until the next day. Over 800 of the Vanguard's crew were drowned. The cordite in one of the Vanguard's magazines had exploded, probably as a result of the heat from a undetected fire in an adjacent coal bunker. HMS Vanguard is pictured below.



In November 1918 Philip's batch passed for sub-lieutenants. A few days later the Armistice with Germany was signed, and the war ended. The ships let off their stock of fireworks and blew their sirens, whilst all hands shouted and cheered. 'Splice the Mainbrace!' was ordered, and everyone got tipsy - excusable only at the end of each war.

The surrender of the German High Seas Fleet, photographed above, was the most remarkable thing that Philip ever saw. One had been out so often to look for them, and their appearance was so familiar from the little black silhouettes stuck up in the gun control positions. On a calm, grey November morning the Grand Fleet steamed out to meet them, and in they came - German battleships, cruisers and destroyers, in long lines, keeping perfect station.


Next: Chapter 7: Between the Wars

Return to: Table of Contents

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This website is published by Alex Reid, 27 Millington Road, Cambridge CB3 9HW. Telephone: +44 1223 319733. Email: aalreid(at)gmail.com. It is an electronic scrap book, containing family life stories, casual articles, and family memorabilia.

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