Friday, 20 May 2016

Durham Boy Sailors in the First World War

This week's blog post comes from volunteer David Donkin.
Navy poster for boys and men with image by Leonard Raven-Hill, IWM Non Commercial Licence © IWM (Art.IWM PST 12137)
Navy poster for boys and men with image by Leonard Raven-Hill, IWM Non Commercial Licence © IWM (Art.IWM PST 12137) 
Records show that a very sizeable proportion of sailors in the Royal Navy during the First World War were serving under the age of 18 years old. Unlike recruitment to the Army, where the legal combat age was 18, these boy sailors did not lie about their age in order to serve their country. While there was considerable publicity about the scandal of under age boys serving and losing their lives in the Army, there seemed to be a more general acceptance that boys would serve in the Navy. Research so far has found 22 boys in the Royal Navy or Merchant Marine during the First World War who were born in Durham and died before their 18th birthday. 

Francis Carney, a bus conductor from Gateshead, lied about his age to join the Northumberland Fusiliers on 29 July 1915. He claimed to be 19 years old when in fact he was only 15 years and two months old. When his deception was discovered he was discharged from the Army on 27 September 1915 for being under age. Francis joined the Navy on 6 April 1916 and was able to declare his true date of birth. On 9 July 1917 he was serving aboard HMS Vanguard at Scapa Flow, Scotland, when she suffered an explosion in one of her magazines. The ship sank almost immediately and Francis was one of 804 crew members who died. He was just over 17 years old when he died.

For boys from a privileged family background there was a well established route to an education that would prepare them for a career in the Royal Navy. First they spent two years at the Royal Naval College at Osborne on the Isle of Wight. This was followed by a further two years at the Britannia Naval College, Dartmouth, Devon. Cadets at these two colleges were not actually in the Navy but wore naval officers' uniforms and the colleges ran along naval lines with naval officers in command. The bulk of the teaching was the responsibility of a civilian headmaster and teachers and pupils' parents paid fees at the level of a good public school for this education. On completion of their education boys could be posted to sea as a midshipman, the lowest naval officer rank, and work their way up to the higher ranks.

Midshipman Ernest Geoffrey Cadle was born in 1898 and lived in Pimlico, Durham City. He was posted to HMS Formidable in August 1914 and appointed midshipman on 1 September 1914. HMS Formidable was part of the fleet that patrolled and protected the English Channel. On 1 January 1915, when Ernest was a few months from his 17th birthday, HMS Formidable was on exercise off the South Devon coast when the ship was struck by two torpedoes in a submarine attack. Survivors faced darkness and bad weather and over 500 crew members were lost. Ernest was amongst those lost along with five other cadets who had left Dartmouth with him at the start of the war and had also been commissioned as midshipmen.

Another Durham boy who served as a midshipman in the First World War was Nicholas Eden from Windlestone, Durham, who was the younger brother of Anthony Eden who became British Prime Minister. On 1 January 1916, at the age of 15, he became a midshipman on HMS Indefatigable a Royal Navy battlecruiser. Nicholas died aged 16 when his ship was sunk on 31 May 1916 during the Battle of Jutland in the first minutes of the opening phase of the battlecruiser action. Only two of the ship's crew of 1,019 survived.

Boys who wanted to join the Royal Navy as ratings could enter a training ship as a boy 2nd class between the ages of 15 and 17 years old. Such entry was conditional on a boy's adequate physical height, weight and medical fitness, and evidence of being of 'good character'. The boy's parents or guardians would sign a declaration that the boy would serve in the navy for a minimum period of 12 years on reaching his 18th birthday.

George Arthur Lucas from West Hartlepool joined the navy as a Boy 2nd class on 5 May 1915. He entered HMS Ganges II, a training ship and shore establishment on the Shotley peninsular south of Ipswich, Suffolk. Unfortunately George contacted cerebro-spinal meningitis shortly after his arrival. In under seven weeks he died aged 16 in Shotley Sick Quarters on 20 June 1915. He is buried in Shotley Churchyard, near Harwich, Suffolk.

A boy in the Navy aged 16 to 18 who had served as Boy 2nd class for at least six months, and who had shown sufficient proficiency in seamanship, and accumulated at least one good conduct badge could become a Boy 1st class. His rate of pay was increased on being promoted. At this rank he could be posted to a ship at sea.

Three Durham boys served as Boy 1st class aboard HMS Clan MacNaughton. They were Alfred Vincent Brown from Sunderland, and Robert Ersham Matthews and Charles Whitfield - both from Stockton on Tees. All three joined the ship on 11 December 1914. HMS Clan MacNaughton was a pre-war merchant ship requisitioned by the Royal Navy in November 1914. She was converted to a warship via the addition of guns on the deck, and sailed for patrol duties in the North Atlantic a few days before Christmas 1914. On the morning of 3 February 1915 she was in radio contact and reported terrible weather conditions off the north west coast of Scotland. Nothing more was ever heard from the ship and she was lost with all 281 members of her crew. Alfred and Robert were 16 years old when they died, while Charles was one year older at 17.
HMS Indefatigable, sunk during the Battle of Jutland, 31 May 1916, photo by Symonds & Co, IWM Non Commercial Licence © IWM (Q 39216)
HMS Indefatigable, sunk during the Battle of Jutland, 31 May 1916, photo by Symonds & Co, IWM Non Commercial Licence © IWM (Q 39216)
The worst single day for losses was during the Battle of Jutland on 31 May 1916 when six Durham born lads died. They were Boy Telegrapher Wilfred Henry Smith (16), Midshipman Nicholas Eden (16) and four Boys 1st class; John Alfred Osguthorpe (17), Joseph Simpson (17), Robert Robinson Smyth (16) and John Hall Waters (17).

The youngest Durham born casualty identified to date was not in the Royal Navy but in the Merchant Marine. He was John Alfred Roch a 14 year old boy from Sunderland. He came from a tradition of service at sea on both sides of his family. On the 16th February 1917, SS Lady Ann, a British merchant ship built in 1882, was 3 miles east by south from Scarborough. It was on a voyage from Sunderland to Rochester carrying a cargo of coal. It is believed she was torpedoed without warning and sunk by German submarine UB-21 with the loss of 11 lives including John who was serving as a Deck Boy.

The majority of the 22 Durham boys who died in naval service under the age of 18 were killed in action or lost at sea when their ships foundered. However there were also deaths from disease, drowning and a gunshot wound. To honour their bravery in serving at such a young age a story will be added to the Durham at War pages for each of the boys identified so far.

Durham Born Boys Who died in Naval Service before the age of 18 years old.



  1. John Alfred Roch was a relative of mine, I have a photo if you like. Regards Chris

    1. Hi Chris, that would be lovely. You can email it to with any other information you might have and would like to share.