Tag Archives: World War I

Remembering Britannic

HMHS Britannic seen during World War I.
Image:public domain

On 21 November 1916, HMHS Britannic was sunk by mine near the island of Kea in the Aegean Sea. The ship sank in 55 minutes and 1,035 people were rescued, only 30 perished. Britannic was the third and last ship of the Olympic class liners built by White Star Line. The other two were Olympic and Titanic. Britannic was launched in February 1914. Many design changes were made prior to launch due to lessons learned from Titanic. Those changes were:

  • Double hull along the engine and boiler rooms raising six of the watertight bulkheads up to B deck.
  • More powerful turbine installed due to increase in hull width.
  • Watertight compartments were enhanced so that the ship can stay afloat with six compartments flooded.
  • Motorized davits to launch six lifeboats (only five out of eight were installed before war service). Manual operated davits were used for the remaining lifeboats. The new design also allowed all lifeboats to be launched even if the ship was listing. There were 55 lifeboats with capacity for 75 each so that 3,600 people could be carried.

When World War I broke out, the ship had to be retrofitted as a hospital ship. Most of the furnishings were stored in a warehouse to be placed back aboard after the war. The Britannic began service as a hospital ship on 12 December 1915. She was sent to the Aegean Sea to bring back sick and wounded soldiers. Her first tour of service was ended on 6 June 1916 and she was sent back to Belfast to be refitted back as a passenger liner. As this was underway, the ship was again recalled to military service on 26 August 1916 and was sent back to the Mediterranean Sea.

On the morning of 21 November 1916, the Britannic under the command of Captain Alfred Barnett was steaming into the Kea Channel when at 8:12 am a loud explosion shook the ship. The explosion, unknown at the time whether it was a torpedo or mine, damaged the first four watertight compartments and rapidly filled with water. Water was also flowing into the boiler room. Captain Bartlett ordered the watertight doors closed, sent a distress call, and ordered the lifeboats be prepared. Unfortunately, while they could send messages, damage to the antenna wires meant they could not hear the responses back from ships responding to their SOS.  Britannic was reaching her flooding limit and open portholes (opened by nurses to ventilate wards) were bringing more water in as well.

As the ship was still moving, Bartlett did not order lifeboats be lowered but two lifeboats were lowered anyway. They were sucked into the ships propellor and torn to bits killing everyone in those two lifeboats. Bartlett ordered the ship stopped to assess the damage. The ship was listing so badly that the gantry davits were inoperable. Thinking the sinking had slowed, he ordered the engines back on to try and beach the ship. The flooding increased as more water was coming in aided by the open portholes the nurses had opened to air out their wards early in the morning. Bartlett ordered the engines stopped and to abandon ship. She would sink at 9:07 am, 55 minutes after the explosion. Thankfully the water temperature was high (70 F), they had more lifeboats than Titanic, and rescue came less than two hours. Nearby fisherman were able to help and at 10:00 am, the HMS Scourge arrived and later the HMS Heroic and later the HMS Foxhound.

1,035 survived. Of the 30 lost, only five were buried as their bodies were not recovered. Memorials in Thessaloniki and London honor those lives lost. Survivors were housed on the warships and the nurses and officers were put into hotels. Most survivors were sent home, and some arrived in time for Christmas. Speculation about whether it was a torpedo or a mine was resolved when it was learned that a German submarine (SM U-73) had planted mines in the Kea Channel in October 1916. The loss of two Olympic class ships was a major blow to White Star Line. They would get, as a result of the Treaty of Versailles, the German ocean liner Bismarck (renamed Majestic), which replaced Britannic. They also got Columbus which was named Homeric.

Britannic has been largely forgotten except when news of expeditions were made to the wreck site over the years. The wreck itself was bought by noted author Simon Mills, who has written two books on the ship. An expedition in September 2003 located by sonar mine anchors confirming German records of U-73 that Britannic was sunk by a single mine. The expedition found several watertight doors open making it likely the mine strike was during a watch change on the ship. One notable survivor was Violet Jessop. She had been on Olympic as stewardess when it collided with the HMS Hawke, aboard Titanic in the same capacity when it sank, and then aboard Britannic as a stewardess with the Red Cross.

Sources:
Britannica
Thoughtco.com
Wikipedia

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Remembering History: The Bolsheviks Seize Power in Russia

Lenin making a speech in the Red Square, May 1919
Public Domain (Wikipedia)

On 6 November 1917*, the Bolshevik Party led by Vladimir Lenin (real name Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov) launched a coup d’ Etat against the Russian provisional government. With their allies, the Bolsheviks occupied key government buildings in Petrograd (formerly St. Petersburg) and formed a new government within two days with Lenin heading the new state. Bolshevik Russia, later to be formally called Union of Soviet Socialist States, was the first Marxist state in history.

Russia had allied with Britain and France in fighting Germany and the Central Powers in World War I. The war had gone very badly for Russia. They had sustained massive casualties and the economy had been devastated by the war effort. Food and other necessities had become scarce leading to unrest. Troops had been demoralized by defeats and ineffective military leadership. With riots breaking out and unrest spreading, trust in Tsar Nicholas II had evaporated even among the ruling class. He was forced to abdicate on 15 March 1917 (called the February Revolution since it took place in February under the Julian calendar). A Provisional Government was put in place which shared power with councils of soldiers and workers committees. However, the new government choose to keep Russia in the war setting the state for the next phase.

Russia in the 19th and early 2oth centuries tried to portray itself as emulating Europe with its art, science, and music. However, this culture represented a small fraction of Russian society at the time. Three quarters of the population were agrarian and lived in a whole different world that had little or no contact with Western civilization. They were not all farmers, but land was important to each of the communities. They were tied to the Russian Orthodox Church and to the monarchy. Nor did they believe they were oppressed. They were not fertile ground for revolution as the they wanted to be like their wealthy neighbors.

Industrialization began late in Russia in the 1890’s. This helped form the social democracy movements that would arise the address this issue. Russia was moving fast and would soon acquire capitalism. Violence had failed to topple the regime (it actually made people turn against them) so the movements focused on peaceful and focusing on industrial workers. The goal was to first get rid of the aristocracy and create a weak government. Then the second goal was to overthrow this government and implement a socialist regime. The movement split into two factions: the Mensheviks who believed this could be achieved without violence and the Bolsheviks (Lenin’s group) who believed in revolution. The two factions would never reconcile.

Lenin was born in 1870 to a conservative family. His father was devout Orthodox and a school inspector. The high rank of his father qualified both him and his offspring for membership in hereditary nobility (this was not uncommon in old Russia). Many children during this time felt guilt over their status and became radical in college. Lenin’s brother Alexander was executed in 1887 for his involvement to assassinate Tsar Alexander III. Lenin’s sisters got into trouble as well and went to prison. As the brother of an executed terrorist, Lenin was expelled from the University of Kazan. His anger and hatred at the regime that had executed his brother and imprisoned his sisters would drive him to want to bring it down.

He was able to attend school again in 1890 and obtained a law degree. Moving to Petrograd, he associated himself with revolutionary Marxist circles. He worked to organize Marxist groups and enlist workers. But in December 1895, he and other leaders were arrested and jailed. And then he was exiled to Siberia for three years. After that between 1900-1917, he would spend most of his time abroad working further develop his revolutionary ideals and fight those internally who opposed his goals.

One hurdle that Lenin had to overcome was standard Marxist doctrine that mandated stages in which the final revolution would take place. Russia was barely an industrial state compared to the West. Marx argued that you needed a “bourgeois” stage in order for the revolution to occur. Lenin argued this was unnecessary and that Russia was already in the throes of capitalism. This change would encourage revolutions much later in countries that had little or no industrial sector. He also formed alliances with groups he would not normally align with to bring about the revolution in Russia.

Winter Palace in Petrograd after Bolshevik Seizure of Power in 1917
Public Domain

With the outbreak of World War I, Lenin opposed citing it as an imperialistic war. The abdication of Tsar Nicholas II opened the opportunity to take Russia out of the war. Germany allowed Lenin and his lieutenants passage through Germany in a sealed railway car from Switzerland to Sweden. The thinking was by allowing anti-war Socialists to Russia would help undermine the Russian war effort. Lenin immediately called for the overthrow of the Provisional Government and was called a German agent. He had to flee to Finland but the call for “peace, land, and bread” was very popular. And it resulted in the Bolsheviks getting more support and a majority in the Petrograd council (called soviet). He returned secretly to Petrograd on 6 November led the coup that overthrew the Provisional Government.

Aftermath

Lenin would the supreme leader of the first Marxist state in the world. Russia, despite objections from Britain and France, made peace with Germany. The new state would nationalize all industry and seized all land (the peasants had everything seized, including farming tools, and had to get permission from the commissar to do anything on their former farms). Civil war erupted in 1918 against Tsarist forces that ended in 1920 with their defeat. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was proclaimed in 1922. The USSR did promote revolution activity in India and Afghanistan but were thwarted by British agents. Russia suffered a devastating famine from 1921-22 due to the Russian Revolution and Civil War. Russia had to accept help from European and American relief efforts to help alleviate the severe conditions the famine caused. When Lenin died in 1925, Stalin became leader and would remain so until 1953. The Communist regime did not fulfill the Marxian hope of government withering away to allow people the fullest possible freedom. Instead it became an oppressive totalitarian society complete with massive internal police to monitor its citizens. During Stalin’s tenure, the infamous purges and show trials took place. It was no joke to wonder if you might be picked up and never return home at the end of the day.

*Russia was still using the Julian calendar at this time, so it took place on October 25, 1917 in Russia. That is why it is also called the October Revolution.

Sources:
This Day in History (History.com)
Russian Revolution (Brittanica.com)

 

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Titanic News: Deep Sea Tourism, Remembering Lusitania

Bismarck, 1940 Photo:Bundesarchiv, Bild 193-04-1-26 / CC-BY-SA
Bismarck, 1940
Photo:Bundesarchiv, Bild 193-04-1-26 / CC-BY-SA

1. The Titanic centenary allowed people with lots of disposable income to fork over €45,000 (approximately $50,000) for take an 8 hour dive down to Titanic and back. Now that same company is planning a trip to see the remains of the World War II battleship Bismarck. The Bismarck was located in 1989 by Robert Ballard.
Source:Touristic Expedition To Titanic’s Remains(5 May 2015,Epoch Times)

Engraving of Lusitania Sinking by Norman Wilkinson, The Illustrated London News, May 15, 1915 Public Domain(Wikimedia)
Engraving of Lusitania Sinking by Norman Wilkinson, The Illustrated London News, May 15, 1915
Public Domain(Wikimedia)

2. On 7 May 1915, RMS Lusitania was sunk by a German U-Boat 11 miles south of Ireland. She sank in 18 minutes taking with her 1,191 souls. Only 764 of the 1,962 passengers and crew survived. According to Sluggerotoole.com it will be remembered.

There will be a memorial service at the Old Head next Thursday, led by Simon Coveney, Ireland’s defence minister, including a two-minute silence at 2:10pm (the precise moment the torpedo struck the Lusitania). Additionally, the Lusitania Museum and Old Head of Kinsale Project are organising the restoration of the Old Head’s Signal Tower, a task that they are hopeful will be finished in time for the commemorations. The Project also have planning permission to plant a Lusitania memorial garden, and are aiming to have a sculpture incorporating the names of all of the Lusitania‘s souls on board. Finally, they hope eventually to set up a Lusitania museum by the Signal Tower. Such a museum would, however, have to be partially submerged in the ground, so that it does not obscure the view of the Tower.

Source: Co. Cork and a Tale of Two Sea Tragedies(1 May 2015,Sluggerotoole.com)


Effort Underway To Declare Sunken World War I Ships As War Grave

Sketch of HMS Cressy sinking by Henry Reuterdahl Image:public domain (Wikipedia)
Sketch of HMS Cressy sinking by Henry Reuterdahl
Image:public domain (Wikipedia)

On 22 September 1914, three British Royal Navy Cruisers–HMS Cressy, HMS Aboukir and HMS Hogue–were sunk while on patrol near Ostend. One German U-boat, the U9, sank all three. From all three ships 837 men were rescued and 1,459 men perished ( 62 officers and 1,397 enlisted men). There was a huge outcry at the time at the large loss of life caused by a U-boat, which up till then were not taken that seriously as a threat. It hurt the reputation of the Royal Navy and forced them to implement stringent anti-submarine tactics after that. The German U-boat commander was given a hero’s welcome and the submarines would prove to be a threat to British shipping. In 1954 the British government sold salvage rights to a German company which eventually ended up being acquired by a Dutch company. And that company has been salvaging metal from the ships since 2011.

This has caused in uproar in Chatham, where a large number of those who perished came from. Now there is demand from local leaders for the government to declare the wreck site as a war grave under the Protection of Military Remains Act. The argument is that if Titanic is a grave, then the remains of three Royal Navy cruisers ought to be as well. So far there is no reaction from the British government and the company that has the salvage rights would likely fight any attempt to interfere with their ability to salvage.

Sources:
1. Site Where 1,500 Chatham Sailors Lost Their Lives Needs Same Protection As The Titanic, Say Campaigners(22 Oct 2014, Kent Online)
2. HMS Cressy (1899)(Wikipedia)
3. Action of 22 September 1914 (Wikipedia)


Titanic’s Sister Ship HMHS Britannic Was Launched 100 Years Ago Today

HMHS Britannic seen during World War I. Image:public domain
HMHS Britannic seen during World War I.
Image:public domain

HMHS Britannic was the third ship in the Olympic class ocean liner built by White Star Line, and the sister ship of RMS Olympic and RMS Titanic. Due to World War I, she was never used as a transatlantic passenger liner and ended being used as a hospital ship in 1915. On 21 Nov 1916, the ship was sunk likely by an underwater mine off the Greek island of Kea. Of the 1.066 people aboard, 30 lost their lives. Since it sank in shallow waters, the wreck is easily accessible to divers and numerous expeditions have taken place. Although the wreck is in Greek waters, the British have designated it as a war grave and both governments must approve expeditions to the wreck. In 1996 the wreck itself was sold to author Simon Mills whose desire is to leave it as is.

Sources:
1. HMHS Britannic(Wikipedia)
2. Nova Online: Titanic’s Lost Sister