Filson Young

Filson Young: The first media man (1876-1938), by Silvester Mazzarella

Table of contents

24. Buggins’s turn

The next chance to have a crack at the ‘Sausages’ came on 24 January 1915, when the Admiralty got wind of a plan for Hipper’s ships to make a short reconnaissance sortie as far as the Dogger Bank, an area of shallow water about 60 miles east of the Northumberland coast. Beatty was ordered to intercept. Nine days earlier the Admiralty had taken a step which was to have significant consequences – they had divided the Battle Cruiser Squadron in two. Beatty retained under his direct control the three newest and fastest ships, Lion (flag), Princess Royal and the newly completed Tiger. Two older and slower ships, New Zealand (flag) and Indomitable now formed the Second Battle Cruiser Squadron under a new officer appointed by Fisher, Rear-Admiral Sir Archibald Gordon Moore, who also became Beatty’s second-in-command. Moore was a man of somewhat different character from Beatty, and he had no experience of battle cruisers and no knowledge of Beatty’s thinking about how they could best be employed. Beatty was puzzled and depressed by the sudden appearance of this untrained and unwanted second-in-command. He smiled grimly when Filson reminded him of an aphorism Fisher liked to use when referring to the traditional system he was trying to break, in which promotion was by seniority rather than merit: ‘Some day we shall lose the Empire because it is Buggins’s turn’. But now, having rendez-voused with some cruisers and destroyers, Beatty set off in pursuit of Hipper. The First Battle Cruiser Squadron, in the lead, worked up a speed of 27 knots and Moore’s two ships, incapable of this speed, gradually fell behind. Hipper, apart from his own light cruisers and destroyers, had four big ships: Seydlitz (flag), Moltke, Derfflinger and Blücher, on paper an inferior force to Beatty’s, especially as Blücher was small, slow, weakly armed, and in fact not really a battle cruiser at all. Hipper decided to avoid action and make for home as fast as possible but was hampered by Blücher which couldn’t do more than 23 knots. Gradually Beatty gained on him.

As the great ships raced across the North Sea, Filson knew he was taking part in the making of history. Never before had ships of such size and power been in action against one another; never before had such large guns been fired in battle by ships moving at such speeds; never before had ships fired at each other at such immense range. When Lion opened fire at 8.52am the enemy were still twelve and a half miles away, four triangles of smoke on the horizon, lit by stabs of white flame when their guns fired. Half an hour later the range had closed 4000 yards to under ten miles, and on Lion the Admiral’s staff moved to the conning tower. This was overcrowded, so Filson and the 2nd Flag- lieutenant were sent up the mast to watch the battle from the foretop, an exposed steel platform high in the air. Frozen by the January wind, encumbered with life-jackets and oilskins, they struggled up what even in ordinary circumstances was never an easy climb. The wind shook them and tore at the weak grasp of their numb hands on the steel rungs; Filson was afraid he would disgrace himself by falling off the mast before the battle had properly started. A terrific blow and vibration told them Lion had been hit. Worse still, from the point of view of the two men clinging to the foremast, the manhole in the foretop floor above them was closed and Filson couldn’t make the man inside hear. Below him on the mast, the Flag-lieutenant yelled that he couldn’t hang on much longer. The manhole opened just in time. In the foretop the wind was so strong they couldn’t stand and had to kneel on the steel floor, constantly shifting to get their suffering kneecaps off rivet-heads, with their elbows on the rim and their heads and binoculars over the edge. In this exposed and uncomfortable position Filson watched the battle.

The German battle cruisers concentrated their fire on Lion, the leading British ship, because she was the only one they could see clearly through the smoke (not, as Filson and his friends thought at the time, from a deliberate policy of trying to disable the British flagship, though this is what they in fact achieved). Beatty, on the other hand, ordered each of his ships to engage her opposite number in the line. This order was misinterpreted by Tiger which joined Lion in firing at the German flagship Seydlitz, thus leaving the second German ship, Moltke, free to indulge in uninterrupted target-practice on Lion. In any case, Tiger had been rushed into service before she was fully ready, and the gunnery of her inexperienced crew was so erratic that she may well have failed to make any hits at all. Thus with the slower New Zealand and Indomitable a long way behind, the brunt of battle at this stage fell on Lion and her sister-ship Princess Royal, which lay third in the British line behind Tiger. At 9.45 Lion had a narrow escape when a shell penetrated one of her magazine trunks but didn’t explode: if it had the whole ship would have blown up. Five minutes later a British shell pierced the deck of Seydlitz killing 159 men and destroying her two after gun turrets.

Beatty could not be prevailed on to stay in the relative safety of the conning tower, but went up with his staff to the compass platform where, at some risk from flying steel splinters, he could get a better view. During a lull between salvoes he hailed the foretop and asked Filson and his companions how they were enjoying themselves. Filson, though he wouldn’t admit it, was cold and frightened as well as fascinated. Not long after this Lion took such a tremendous blow it was thought at first she had been torpedoed. The mast rocked like a tree in a storm and Filson and his companions looked at one another, prepared to find themselves in the sea at any moment. The ship shuddered, then seemed to pick herself up and go on. Filson looked down: smoke was drifting round the compass platform and the four figures he had last seen there were gone, leaving only four tumbled smudges of blue on the deck. When the smoke cleared these proved to be empty greatcoats, and a moment later Beatty and the other three officers reappeared munching sandwiches. A shell had driven in several plates of the ship’s port side armour, letting in sea water which now began polluting the fresh water tanks that fed her boilers. This would eventually stop first the port engine, then the starboard one, but for the moment Lion raced on at full speed.

By now Blücher was on fire, and Hipper decided to leave her behind and race for safety with his other ships. Though seriously damaged, his flagship Seydlitz was not losing speed. Lion was hit repeatedly by 11-inch shells from Seydlitz and Moltke, and at 10.41 those in the foretop again thought her last moment (and theirs) had come when a message came up the voice pipe from the conning tower to say that one of the magazines was burning. Filson knelt in the terrible din waiting for one ‘last gorgeous explosion and the eternal silence that would follow’. When one compartment was plunged into darkness by a German shell, an officer remarked, ‘This means either kingdom come or ten days’ leave.’ The fire in the magazine area was successfully put out, but Lion was losing speed and it was clear she would have to drop out of the chase. Beatty signalled to his other ships to keep attacking. By 10.52, still taking punishment, Lion was listing ten degrees to port with one engine stopped, all lights out and her wireless dead.

The events of the next fifteen minutes are complicated. In essence, what happened was that Beatty, having lost his wireless, tried to signal with flags to Tiger, Princess Royal and New Zealand to press on at full speed and try to destroy the three larger German ships while Indomitable, last in line and slowest of the squadron, should stay behind to finish off Blücher, which was by now a burning wreck though still firing defiantly. Unfortunately he also signalled that the whole squadron should change course temporarily in the direction of Blücher. This was to avoid suspected submarines, but he could not explain this with the semaphore flags that were the only means of signalling left to him. Lion now drew aside to let the others pass. As luck would have it, they were not in the most effective order. First came Tiger, a raw ship with a raw crew. As she passed Filson was alarmed to see a great fire raging on her after deck; luckily this proved to be nothing more vital than wooden lifeboats. Next in line was the dependable Princess Royal under an able and experienced captain, and finally New Zealand, flagship of Rear-Admiral Moore, on whom command automatically devolved now Beatty was hors de combat. With his ship last in line Moore, through no fault of his own, was in the worst possible position to see what was happening and lead the squadron. To Beatty’s consternation he took all his ships to finish off Blücher and let the rest of the Germans escape. With Lion falling ever further behind Beatty wanted to hoist as a last signal to his ships the one used by Nelson at Trafalgar: ‘Engage the enemy more closely’, but it was no longer in the signal books and he had to be content with a feeble modern substitute: ‘Keep nearer to the enemy’. Who was to blame for this debacle? Beatty for turning the whole squadron to avoid submarines when he had no clear evidence that there were any submarines about? Beatty for hoisting ambiguous signals? Moore and the captain of Tiger for following the letter rather than the spirit of Beatty’s orders? Moore for being over-cautious, as Filson thought? As soon as he saw what was happening Beatty summoned a destroyer alongside the stricken Lion. Filson saw one of Lion‘s stokers slap him on the back and shout ‘Well done, David!’ as he boarded it. But, as the Flag-lieutenant put it, it was like trying to win the Derby after falling at Tattenham corner. When Beatty’s destroyer caught up with the main squadron all he could do was order them home and arrange for Indomitable to take Lion in tow.

When Lion drew out of the battle line at twelve o’clock she was thought to be sinking. Filson and his companions climbed down from the foretop leaving behind their oilskins and other gear so as to be free in the water, as the end could come at any moment. Men swarmed up from below, collecting splinters and fragments of shell from the deck as souvenirs. The ship had been hit seventeen times but, amazingly, only one man had been killed and about fourteen wounded (106). The Admiral’s quarters had been damaged and Filson’s greatcoat, left there before breakfast, had been torn to shreds by flying splinters. There was no electric light and no fires for cooking and the Admiral’s steward could find nothing to serve for lunch but champagne and paté de foie-gras. The Admiral’s staff tucked in, their cordite-blackened faces illuminated by candles and lanterns. At three o’clock Beatty returned in the destroyer and described the destruction of Blücher and the escape of the other German ships. It took two hours to rig up hawsers between Lion and Indomitable, and two nights and a day for the slow journey home surrounded by destroyers as a protection against submarines.

It was indeed a strange evening and night. Perhaps the silence of the ship was the strangest element of all – the absence of those buzzings and whinings that come from the innumerable dynamos, ventilating fans, refrigerating machines and motors that are never silent while there is mechanical life in the ship, and the sound of which one hardly notices until its cessation makes audible other and fainter sounds – the echo of voices through the long steel alleyways, the strange gurgling of water where no water should be. Most of us had headaches; all of us had black faces, torn clothes and jangled nerves. The ship was as cold as ice, all the electric radiators by which the cabins were warmed being out of action. Blows and hammerings echoed on the decks down below where the carpenters were at work. The sick bay, into which I looked before turning in, was a mess of blood and dirt, feebly lighted by oil lamps, from whence moans proceeded. The Admiral had gone back to the Princess Royal, but the remaining staff managed, nevertheless, to have quite a cheery little dinner with Captain Chatfield, whose galley and pantry were fortunately in commission. But there is nothing so cold as an unwarmed steel warship in the winter seas; the only place to get warm was in bed, and I turned in after dinner and slept like the dead. (107)

Next day Filson wrote to his mother:

This is just a hurried line to tell you that I am all right – after the most hellish experience of my life. … we are now being towed home with a magnificent escort of about 90 destroyers spread all round the horizon – like dear little black angels to whom the poor old Lion has been given in charge. … My ears are still singing, and everything tastes of cordite. My cabin was wrecked, my overcoat is torn to ribbons, but the great thing is that we did our job, that I am alive and well, and that I witnessed the first great action between superdreadnoughts – and I was one of the only four in the Lion not behind armour! … All this was while you were in church on Sunday morning … (108)

On the way home there was plenty of time to discuss the battle, and the chief topic of conversation was whether the British or the German gunnery had been the more effective. Filson’s opinion was that at first the German fire had been better, and the Germans had been quicker in getting onto their target, but that later the British fire improved while the German fire deteriorated. There was time, too for each man to analyse his own reactions to the experience of being under fire. Filson remembered that, kneeling in the foretop, he had sometimes been able to watch a shell coming, a black speck in the smoky atmosphere which would gradually increased in size:

in that case one knew that the direction of the shot was accurate, exactly between one’seyes, and the only possibility of escape from it was that it should be either short or over. The time of flight averaged about twenty-three seconds, which often seemed curiously long when viewed as the possible remainder of one’s life. (109)

He also remembered

the smell and taste of cordite smoke, as the wind drove it back upon us from the mouths of our guns; the great sounds about us, which I must admit to be among the noblest sounds I have ever heard, so enormous were they, so deep and trembling. No sharp or musically distressing note had place in that orchestra; it was as if the whole heavens were rolling up in a scroll of thunder. I remember also the silences; lulls that came in the very heat of the battle, when sometimes for five or ten seconds there would be no sound but the brushing of the wind and its harp-like harmonies in the rigging, until a salvo from our guns would split the heavens again and, like its echo, the hollow growl of the enemy’s guns would fill the gap between it and the next. One could clearly see the flashes of salvos from the Seydlitz and Moltke, both of which were firing at the Lion, and, timing their flight on a stop-watch, know to a second when their arrival would be signalled either by an explosion and a shake which rattled the teeth in one’s mouth, or by the uprising of a group of lovely and enormous fountain blossoms; where the water slowly rose in columns two hundred feet high that mushroomed out at the top, stood for five or ten seconds, and then as gracefully subsided, deluging our decks with tons of water in their fall. And it was strange to think, observing those flashes and the little black second-hand ticking steadily round the dial of the watch: ‘I have perhaps twenty-three seconds longer to live; when the little hand reaches that mark, then – oblivion.’ Strange, but not terrible, although even then one was conscious of its being a very, very curious way for a sane human being to be spending a winter morning, with the world full of loveliness about him and all his faculties alert, yet all under sentence of death, with reprieve from minute to minute. This imminence of death, and the tremendous drum-rolls that gave it voice, did not distract one’s attention. They became monotonous, at times almost narcotic in their effect. Certainly I could not discover that it had any effect whatever on the nerve of a highly trained ship’s company. Many of them obviously enjoyed it; enjoyed it at the time, which is a very different thing from enjoying it afterwards, as I did. Sometimes the whole emotion of battle seems like a kind of insanity; and yet I remember observing in the Admiral and the Flag-Captain – who enjoyed this performance more than I have ever seen anything enjoyed by anyone – a child-like blandness of demeanour which I had at no other time observed in either of them, but which had nothing whatever of insanity in it. And so, in their degree, with other men cast in the same strange mould. The officer in charge of the fore-transmitting station, after the explosion of a shell in the lobby above, followed by an outbreak of screams and cries, was heard to observe, ‘That either means Kingdom Come or ten days’ leave’ – the inference being that the damage was so serious that it would mean the explosion of a magazine or a long refit. There was no insanity there; and the mind that could so think in such a moment must have been functioning with a calmness that reduced everything to the absolutely normal. He and his kind were not terrified. On my part, I had spasms of terror which passed off and left a calm and sometimes pleasant reaction; enough to make me realize that, with a little practice, terror and enjoyment can exist together. The body may quake, and the belly fall, and the muscles shrink from the screaming messengers of death; but the fighting mind may and does rise above all that, sitting enthroned above the terror and commotion in serene vision and assurance that in the midst of death we may be in life. (110)

The Lion reached the Firth of Forth early on the morning of 26 January, two days after the battle. Tugs took over from the Indomitable. Beatty came on board and took his usual place on Lion‘s bridge, and the ship’s band played ‘Rule Britannia’. As they passed under the Forth bridge Filson could dimly discern through the fog cheering crowds above them and on the island on which the central pier of the bridge stands.


106 In With the Battle Cruisers, p 202, Filson claims that none were killed, though one man may have died later of wounds. On the other hand the Lion‘s captain, Chatfield, states in his autobiography The Navy and Defence (1942), p 136, that there were two dead and eight wounded.

107 With the Battle Cruisers (American title With Beatty in the North Sea), 204-5.

108 FY to Sarah Young, 25 Jan 1915.

109 With the Battle Cruisers 205-6.

110 With the Battle Cruisers 215-17.

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