The Scene: A heaving unsettled sea, and away over to the western horizon an angry yellow sun is setting clearly below a forbidding bank of the blackest of wind charged clouds.
Extract from Whispers From The Fleet by Rear-Admiral Sir Christopher Cradock, KCVO, CB. 1908
The above words almost describe the prelude to the Battle of Coronel, a naval battle fought between British and German forces on 1st November 1914 off the coast of Chile. This has a link to a previous blog – about HMS Gloucester and her involvement in the pursuit of the German warships Goeben and Breslau. Although these incidents may appear unrelated, they are not, for the first actually had a direct bearing on the latter.
The Battle of Coronel took place between the German Navy’s East Asia Squadron, under Vice-Admiral Maximilian von Spee and the Royal Navy’s South Atlantic Squadron commanded by Rear-Admiral Sir Christopher ‘Kit’ Cradock.
The German squadron was a formidable fighting force of five modern warships – the armoured cruisers SMS’ Scharnhorst (von Spee’s flagship) and Gneisenau and the light cruisers SMS’ Dresden, Leipzig and Nürnberg. Cradock’s force was far weaker, comprising the out-dated, under-gunned armoured cruisers HMS Good Hope (Cradock’s flagship) and Monmouth, the modern light cruiser HMS Glasgow and a converted merchant liner HMS Otranto. The crews of the ships also differed for the German crews were the cream of the Kaiserliche Marine, whereas the British were largely inexperienced reservists, having been called up in the pre-war mobilisation in July.
When the opposing forces met, it was a complete disaster for the British. Cradock’s force was slower, in a poor strategic position (silhouetted against the setting sun, while the Germans were hidden in the darkness against the coast) and could not fire all their guns due to the heavy sea running. Within 3 hours, the battle was over; HMS’ Good Hope and Monmouth had been sunk, although the Glasgow and Otranto had escaped.
Coronel was the first British naval defeat since the ‘War of 1812’ and it sent shockwaves around the world. Historians have long puzzled over why Cradock – a skilled sailor and tactician – decided to attack a force that was vastly superior to his own. The answer lies with the Goeben/Breslau incident for the commanding officer of the British forces hunting these ships was also a close personal friend of Cradock and, at the time of Coronel, was awaiting a court-martial ‘for failing to engage the enemy’. Rather than risk a similar fate – and the public humiliation that went with it – it seems that Cradock had decided to fight at any cost.
It was however a heavy price to pay, for 1,571 Royal Navy personnel lost their lives (the Germans suffered just 3 men wounded). There were men from Gloucestershire onboard the Good Hope and Monmouth, including the Monmouth‘s Captain, F Brandt, and two Gloucester brothers, Edward and Henry Turner of Gloucester on the Good Hope. There were many others and as always, the pages of the Cheltenham Chronicle & Gloucestershire Graphic provide poignant images of these brave men.
Gloucestershire Archives’ Learning and Outreach Officer, on behalf of ‘Gloucestershire Remembers WW1′.
To find out more about the Project, and access resources and guidance to help your school, community or group commemorate WW1 in your area, please visit http://www.gloucestershire.gov.uk/archives/WW1.
Part of the 2014 Archives Awareness campaign.