This week in history: Jutland and my great uncle’s navy mess fork

It’s the anniversary of the Battle of Jutland this week – the clash of British and German fleets on 31 May-1 June 1916 – and one of the tangible connections I have to it, aside from my professional historical work, is through my great uncle’s old navy mess fork. It was issued to him when he joined the Royal Marines, initially still in his teens, and he took it with him through his First World War career, serving in fire-control on the super-dreadnought HMS Orion and the battlecruiser HMS Repulse. Today, I have it.

Uncle Bert’s navy mess fork, which I photographed on my first-edition copy of Admiral Sir John Jellicoe’s memoir, The Grand Fleet 1914-16: Its creation, development and work (Cassell & Co, London 1919).

The mess fork meant quite a lot to Herbert Wright (1897-1997) because of the memories he associated with it. Uncle Bert told me many stories about his navy life, including the time they were patrolling the North Sea and he went on deck after lunch. Nobody was about, so he sat down between the two 13.5-inch guns of ‘Q’ turret, which was trained to the beam for some reason. He had only just opened a book when the guns went off, with Uncle Bert sitting directly between them near the breech end. Wham! He’d forgotten they were going to firing practise.

I couldn’t locate a close-up of Orion’s Q-turret. These are the aft gun mountings of HMS Marlborough, which were very similar. Note the barbette (the platform they’re sitting on, actually the top of an armoured tube reaching down into the ship) and how it was possible to sit between the two guns under the ladder. The guns are trained down the centre-line in this photo. Sailor on the left gives scale. Photo: IWM SP 1745.

I do geek pretty well – here are the numbers involved. The 13.5-inch Mk V L naval guns on Orion used a 133 kg charge to send a 574.5 kg shell hurtling away at 787 metres per second, out to a maximum range of about 21.7 km – essentially, over the horizon, even seen from the spotting position atop the tripod mast. Doing that took a lot of energy by domestic human standards. What didn’t go into propelling the shell went instead into a shock-wave around the gun. The effect near the muzzle was capable of concussing men in adjacent structures, even through metal protection. Although much of the energy was pushed in the general direction the gun was pointing, part of the shock wave spread behind it, and US studies indicate that a typical ratio between the blast forces ahead of and behind a heavy naval gun is about 10:1.

I suspect this is what saved Uncle Bert. He was unprotected and leaning against the barbette in front of the gun-house. He was only about 10 metres from the two gun muzzles. The energy of the blasts was easily enough to blow him overboard. It didn’t; but it was, he told me, enough to tear the book his hands. He was deaf for three weeks afterwards.

HMS Orion during the First World War. ‘Q’ turret amidships, where Uncle Bert was sitting when it went off, is just visible. Public Domain, via Wikipedia.

Later, Uncle Bert went through the Battle of Jutland. I can only imagine his feelings as he sat in Orion‘s Forward Transmitting Station, listening to bearings coming in on his Graham Navyphone and relaying them to the men working the Dreyer Fire Control Table and Dumaresq – the electro-mechanical gadgets that calculated firing solutions with cogs and bicycle chains. But not, Uncle Bert told me, quite in real time – in a fast-moving battle the fire-control solutions it gave became increasingly late, and they had to compensate with manual calculation.

When he emigrated to New Zealand in 1922 he brought his mess fork with him. Later he gave it to my Dad, his nephew. When my parents passed away and my family were cleaning up our old home, I found it. I still have it.

Uncle Bert’s fork tells me that history is about more than just things and events. It’s about people. And sometimes it’s about people we know, giving us a personal connection to the moment. Everybody carries such stories with them – and it is the sum of such tales that make up the human side of the historical experience. At times it can reflect great events; at other times, the banal. But the common factor, always, is the people.

Check out some of my professional work on that battle in Blue Water Kiwis, available in paperback and on Kindle. Click to buy.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2019

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3 thoughts on “This week in history: Jutland and my great uncle’s navy mess fork

  1. The stories are what’s important because they show us what the men were thinking, feeling and seeing. Not to mention having a relic from that time – priceless!!

    1. Thanks! And absolutely true – the stories are what bring the history alive. My great uncle’s mess fork is special: I have many stories and memorabilia, too, from my grandfather’s service with the British army, pre-WW1 and through to 1915 (when he was machine-gunned – he survived, otherwise I wouldn’t be here, but that ended his military career). My other great uncle in the RN, Bill, is more distant – he never emigrated to NZ and although he apparently lived to over 100, I never met him.

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