I’m not wearing a poppy or bowing my head at the dictated angle, but at 11 a.m. today I am remembering my great uncle, Nicholas Cleary.
A merchant seaman born and raised in Co. Wexford, Nick was also a member of the Royal Fleet Reserve which meant two things – he was paid a small allowance to attend training and he was on standby to serve with the Navy in time of war.
This picture of reservists at ‘swordplay’ training was taken in Tramore, Co. Waterford, just a few miles from where Nick lived. I have no idea if he is one of these bearded or moustachioed, slightly half-hearted (he was a republican after all) participants, but I like to think he is.
With the war just weeks old Nick may well have thought he was safe from the call up for yet awhile. But by October 1914 he had travelled from his home in south east Ireland to Donegal in the far north west and was aboard his first Royal Navy ship, HMS Audacious.
On 27 October 1914, Audacious was one of seven ships to sail from Lough Swilly in Donegal to conduct gunnery exercises. 25 miles off the coast, she ran into a German mine. Thinking this was a submarine attack, the Captain hoisted the submarine warning which saw the other ships steaming away to safety. With water flooding the engine rooms, Audacious broadcast distress signals by wireless. The Naval commander, Admiral Jellicoe refused to send battleships to tow her because of the apparent submarine threat. Meanwhile, the White Star liner Olympic, elder sister of the Titanic, arrived on the scene with some of its trans-Atlantic passengers capturing the whole incident on camera.
After struggling to keep Audacious afloat for 11 hours, the crew were finally ordered to abandon ship. She sank shortly afterwards.
According to the records, “Jellicoe immediately proposed that the sinking be kept a secret, to which the Board of Admiralty and the British Cabinet agreed, an act open to ridicule later on. For the rest of the war, Audacious ’ name remained on all public lists of ship movements and activities. Many Americans on board Olympic were beyond British jurisdiction and discussed the sinking. Many photos, and even one moving film, had been taken. By 19 November, the loss of the ship was accepted in Germany.”
Four years later, on 14 November 1918 a notice officially announcing the loss appeared in The Times:
A Delayed Announcement.
The Secretary of the Admiralty makes the following announcement:—
“H.M.S. Audacious sank after striking a mine off the North Irish coast on October 27, 1914. This was kept secret at the urgent request of the Commander-in-Chief, Grand Fleet, and the Press loyally refrained from giving it any publicity.”
I wish the story ended there. All hands safe, the Olympic captained by the comically named Captain Haddock, Government attempts to conceal the truth, and an early example of news verification via members of the public sharing pictures. It’s a good story.
Sadly, Nick’s war didn’t end with his lucky escape. By December 1914 he was back at sea as Petty Officer on HMS Clan MacNaughton, a pre-war merchant ship requisitioned from Clan Line Steamers Ltd of Glasgow four weeks earlier and converted to an Armed Merchant Vessel by the addition of guns on deck. The crew was a mix of seasoned seamen like great uncle Nick and young cadets, including 50 boys straight out of training.
She sailed from Tilbury for patrol duties in the North Atlantic a few days before Christmas 1914, but had to put into Liverpool on the way. She returned to Liverpool certainly once, perhaps twice because of handling problems.
On the morning of 3 February 1915 she was in radio contact at about 6 a.m. and reported terrible weather conditions. Nothing further was ever heard from her or the 281 men and boys aboard.
Many commentators at the time believed the loss was due to the guns on deck affecting the ship’s centre of gravity in bad weather. In contrast to the secrecy around Audacious, on 3 March 1915 (just four weeks after she was lost) Mr Bertram Falle, MP for Portsmouth North asked in Parliament
‘If His Majesty’s ship “Clan MacNaughton” was surveyed after her guns were put aboard; and, if so, was she passed and by what authority?’
The response came from Dr Thomas Macnamara, MP for Camberwell North.
The “Clan MacNaughton,” a nearly new vessel of the Clan Line, classed by the British Corporation Registry, was fitted out for His Majesty’s service at Tilbury under the supervision of naval, constructive, and engineering officers deputed to act for that purpose. The armament placed in the vessel was light in comparison with her size, and all necessary stiffening to take it was fitted. Investigations as to the loading and the stability of the vessel were made at the Admiralty, and instructions were issued to the commanding officer of the ship. The Admiralty are satisfied that the vessel was in good condition and seaworthy, and that she possessed ample stability.
Macnamara was also Parliamentary and Financial Secretary to the Admiralty. So… he would say that, wouldn’t he?
Whatever the cause, somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean off the north coast of Ireland there is a shipwreck that serves as great uncle Nick’s grave.