LEATHERHEAD WAR MEMORIALS - WWI

Private Victor Herbert Wright
Royal Marine Light Infantry
HMS Formidable

Town Memorial P10.R3.C3

Pte
Victor H [sic] Wright
Royal Marine LI
HMS Formidable
Dec 30 1914 [CWGC JAN 1 1915]

Taken, Not Given, Liam Sumption, L&DLHSx

Naval history was a particular passion of Liam's and he had a lot to look at on the sinking of the Formidable. It was a tragedy and a naval scandal.

Herbert Victor Wright, according to the Royal Marine records, was only aged 17 years when he died aboard HMS Formidable in the early hours of 1915. He was, according to the Corps, the son of Edward Philip and Amy Wright of the Corner House, High Street, Leatherhead and born in Brixton.

The Admiralty files give slightly different details which will be apparent later. His Corps number CH17864 indicates that he was a Chatham Marine and he belonged to the Light Infantry branch of the Corps. (1)

The memorial is inaccurate as regards the date of death of Victor Wright, as HMS Formidable was actually torpedoed at 2.30 a.m. on 1st January 1915.

The story of this tragedy really commenced some seven years before, but we will go forward in time to when the German view of what took place became available to the British authorities. (2)

On 24th February 1916 the British armed merchant cruiser ALCANTARA and the German commerce raider GRIEF fought each other to the finish off the Shetlands. Though the engagement ended in the mutual destruction of both ships, the survivors of both were rescued by British warships in the vicinity. The German seamen were mostly reservists from their merchant service and had a command of English.  The British ratings and Marines were encouraged to mix with them and to elicit any information that might be of use to British Intelligence.

Mr. Southard, the Carpenter of HMS COMUS gave the following account of his conversation with one of the GRIEF's captured engineers:

"his brother was on U22 and related some incidents in his cruise" and
"last winter about the end of the year U22 was in the Channel and one night saw a line of battleships pass her but the moon was behind the ships they could not discern them clearly, so they dived and came up on the other side of the line and got the moon full on the ships passing and was enabled to torpedo one of them. This I think might be the FORMIDABLE."

These were the basic facts, though the Royal Marines Museum states that the German submarine was U24 (Lt Cdr Schneider).

A.A. Hoehling, in his comprehensive account of 1914-18 war at sea summed up the disaster very succinctly. He says:
"On New Years night, bathed in brilliant moonlight, moving majestically across the North Sea, the British battleship FORMIDABLE was struck by two torpedoes and went down, Only 201 of her crew of 800 was saved and those by a trawler which happened to come by."

The details are not entirely correct, but like the German prisoners' account it dwells on the part played in the story by the moon. Its subsequent disappearance was to make things much worse.

Now let us is go back in time and read what Winston Churchill's account says about the episode in "World Crisis". He was First Lord of the Admiralty at the material time, and his account is of particular relevance.

Victor Wright's unhappy destiny was set in motion in 1907, when according to Churchill, plans existed at the Admiralty for the seizure of Borkhum [Borkum], an island in the Friesian chain off the German Coast, and its subsequent use as "a forward base for blockading the German estuaries".

In 1913 when Churchill became First Lord of the Admiralty he found that Admiral Lewis Bayley "one of the younger admirals" had been exploring the possibility of the island's capture, was in favour of such an operation. The seizure of the nearby island of Sylt was also studied.

Because of requirements in France, the plans were not adopted. Shortage of troops was one reason and the Navy's liability in convoying the B.E.F. to France was another. Nevertheless it was recognised that landings would have the additional benefit, from the British point of view, of compelling the German Navy to come out and fight. However the enthusiasm of Admiral Sir John Fisher, First Sea Lord, and professional head of the Navy became less.

However in late 1914 it was proposed to form a special Squadron to undertake the project in the early months of 1915, which would originally consist of older battleships, but on completion, a number of shallow draft heavily armed monitors.

In the meantime it was proposed that the battleship nucleus would be used for supporting the army by inshore bombardments of the Belgian coast. In dealing with this part of the story, Churchill concludes "in December 1914, Vice-Admiral St Louis Bayley was transferred from command of the First Battle Squadron of the Grand Fleet at Scapa Flow to command of the Fifth Battle Squadron of old FORMIDABLE class battleships at the Nore, with the intention of making it the nucleus of the future bombarding force which would lead the Naval Offensive of 1915."

Churchill then takes the unhappy story to its sad end. He says that Bayley "was by no means enamoured" with the changed command from crack dreadnoughts to old FORMIDABLES." He continues "however he soon addressed himself to his new job and he sought permission from the Admiralty to take his squadron for a cruise. They passed through the Straits of Dover in daylight with a flotilla escort arranged by the Admiralty. He spent December 31st exercising off Portland. The flotilla saw him back through the Straits and returned to Dover."

Two observations are necessary before continuing Churchill's account. First, Bayley in his narrative states that he was ordered to take his ships down Channel, and secondly the destroyer escort did not "see him back through the Straits". Because, as Churchill continues after commenting "no evil consequences had occurred during daylight", the ships turned westwards down channel after dark and by 2 a.m. were approaching the Start." It was  now 1st January.

Churchill comments that the wind and sea were rising but that the moon shone brightly. The speed of the squadron was 10 knots and the course was direct, that is not 'zig-zag'. The account continues "a German submarine cruising on the surface of the Channel unobserved in the moonlight amid the dancing waves fired a torpedo with fatal effect against the FORMIDABLE, the last ship in the line. HMS FORMIDABLE sank within 2 1/2 hours hours with the loss of Captain Loxley and 546 other officers and men. Churchill says (and the contemporary accounts confirm) that good discipline prevailed after the ship was struck and subsequently. But more of that aspect later.

Churchill then makes apparent Sir John Fisher's indignation at the manner in which the Fifth Battle Squadron had been handled and that Admiral Bayley's explanation was not considered satisfactory by his superiors and that he was removed from his command.

For his part Admiral Bayley provided two explanations of his actions. The public and later one is contained in his autobiography "Pull Together". The second but of course earlier was his report to the Admiralty.

The account in his memoirs is brief, and for that reason can be quoted in full:

"After hoisting my flag I was ordered to take the 5th Battle Squadron down channel to Portland for firing practice. I was given an escort of destroyers from Harwich, which I was ordered to send back after passing Folkestone. This was done. Judging by this order and the daily reports of known or suspected positions of enemy submarines in the Western half of the Channel, I took the fleet down towards the Start Point exercising them on the way. In addition to the battleships there were two light cruisers. At night all ships were darkened and at 7 pm the fleet was turned 16 points in accordance with an Admiralty order requiring an alteration in course soon after dark in areas where a submarine attack was possible.

At 2 am when near Start Point, the fleet was turned 16 points in succession and at about 2:30 am the FORMIDABLE, the last ship in the line was torpedoed and sank. I ordered the two light cruises to save all life possible and took the battleships back to Portland. Next day I was ordered to haul my flag down, but was to remain on full pay! I asked for a court-martial but was refused I have never known why"!

In this official report, Admiral Bayley needed to address himself to the question as to why his ships were not taking a "zigzag" course on a bright moonlight night. In this he failed.

First he described the disposition of his ships thus:

LORD NELSON (Flag)
AGAMEMNON
QUEEN
IMPLACABLE
PRINCE OF WALES
VENERABLE
LONDON
FORMIDABLE

.. with the light cruisers TOPAZE and DIAMOND one mile astern of FORMIDABLE.

The Admiral stated that FORMIDABLE was struck at 2:30 am, but that he only knew of the event at 3am, that was was half an hour later. This was because FORMIDABLE had been unable to send out a distress call by wireless, because her electricity supply had failed, allegedly following a boiler explosion. Whatever the cause her means of external communication had been impaired.

Bayley states that at 3 am, just as he became aware of the FORMIDABLES's peril, it got dark and the rescue attempts were impeded. This was followed by a sudden onset of thick weather and a heavy gale in which in the Admiral's words "undoubtedly added very greatly to heavy loss of life".

Bayley noted the courage of Captain Loxley, the commander of FORMIDABLE, who sent TOPAZE away in case she had too courted destruction by a torpedo, and also complimented Mr Simmons, the first lieutenant who managed to get the boats swung out despite a 10 list. Simmons was later saved from the water and survived the disaster, and he will be mentioned later describing events on board.

Bayley expressed concern about the proximity of fishing vessels and said that they should be kept 5 miles away to avoid providing cover for U-boats operating on the surface at night.

It was not surprising that Admiral Bayley, at the head of the column, had been unaware of FORMIDABLES's distress, because on board LONDON, the ship next ahead, the Commander only noticed or rather felt "a slight shock". However one of the Royal Marine sentries had noticed "a small green flash". The lack of disturbance and the inability of FORMIDABLE to wireless for assistance may have contributed to the absence of a concerted rescue attempt before the onset of heavy weather.

Though TOPAZE had been sent away by Captain Loxley, she picked up FORMIDABLES's barge and rescued two men from the water. DIAMOND's cutter saved 14 officers and 23 men from the sea. The disparity between commissioned ranks and ratings saved was probably attributable to the fact that officers had been issued with a more efficient form of lifebelt.

Let us now turn to events aboard FORMIDABLE as seen by those on board who managed to survive (1).

One seamen survivor said that the stokers (a few of them escaped) managed to draw all fires and shut off steam and that there was no boiler explosion when the ship sank. Presumably some other kind of explosion cut FORMIDABLE's electricity supply. This survivor saw Captain Loxley calmly smoking a cigarette on the bridge and heard him say to Mr Simmons, who had superintended the launching of the boats, "You have done well Simmons" as the last boat departed. The explosion of the torpedo was powerful, because the same survivor stated that the ship was so badly shaken that some men were temporarily trapped in a casemate which buckled.

Practically the whole Marine contingent, drawn from the RMLI, were lost with the ship. Altogether Captain John Deed, Reserve of Officers RM, a subaltern, four Sergeants, one Bugler and '78 rank-and-file (including corporals)' paid with their lives. Ten Marines, the senior a corporal, survived and are listed a statement by the Adjutant General RMLI.

However another [survivor] apparently was Lance Corporal Hurst RMLI who had been asleep in the Marine Quarters when the torpedo struck, and who may have been in close proximity to Victor Wright at the time. He said that the battleship was already heeling over when he got on deck. When the ship went down, he was thrown into the water and was picked up by the ships cutter.

The men in the cutter were to suffer dreadfully for 12 hours in an open boat in the middle of winter. The seas were mountainous and the men in the cutter, 20 officers and 69 men were in a fearful predicament. However they were sighted almost by luck by the Brixham fishing smack PROVIDENCE, skippered by William Pillar, some 15 miles from Berry Head. Sometimes foam and waves shut the cutter from her view. However by good seamanship the men from the cutter were taken on board. Last to come away was Mr Hurrigan, the Torpedo Gunner who had led the survivors. The embarkation had taken 30 minutes in the gale and when the survivors reach Brixham, their condition was pitiful.

FORMIDABLE's sailing pinnace managed to get into Lyme Regis whilst HMS SAVAGE found a capsized whaler with four dead men. Others were washed ashore in the course of the next few days (7). As stated previously, only 201 officers and men were known to have survived.

On 6 November 1915 the missing personnel were presumed dead.

The Admiralty file gives Victor Wright's next of kin as his mother Amy who lived at  Highland Dene in the Crescent. Tragically other homes in the Crescent were to receive equally sad news in the coming months.

Now we must return to Admiral Bayley, whose report had failed to give a reason why his ships had not followed a zig-zag course which would have made the German submarine commander's report much more difficult.

On receipt of his report at the Admiralty, the Third Sea Lord minuted:

"the formation in which the squadron was steaming at the time of the disaster, namely in single line at two cables with only the two light cruises astern appears to me so obviously the one least suited for cruising in submarine infested waters that it is only excusable on the supposition that the Vice-Admiral considered the Channel to be perfectly safe."

and the Vice-Admiral commanding the Channel Fleet wrote:

"the conduct of the squadron is very deplorable and was made more so by the fact that there is nothing in the report of the Vice-Admiral to show that he realises his responsibilities"

.. he continued:

"More is demanded,  and rightly demanded, from those in high command than that they should shape the conduct of HM ships with such lighthearted and stupid disregard of the dictates of prudence as revealed by this blunder."

On 11th January, when it was considered ordering Bayley to strike his flag, the Admiralty wrote to him. One passage said "these dispositions were such that your squadron afforded an easy target for a submarine attack which resulted in the sinking of a valuable battleship and the irreparable loss of the lives of 600 officers and men."

Its final paragraph said "these facts as presented seem to their Lordships to affect your position most seriously" and then invited any further explanation.

Bayley replied on the 13th and in his defence disagreed that the Channel was infested with submarines. There had been no reports of submarines at the relevant time, and that his attention had been only drawn to the "possibility of attack". He stated that he had never seen 'zig-zagging' done at night, and visual signalling under the circumstances "was out of the question".

Bayley's defence was not accepted by the Admiralty, and on 18th January, Bayley was ordered to strike his Flag. On 4th February Bayley asked for a court-martial. The Admiralty deliberated. They replied that there was no automatic entitlement to a court-martial and simply said that he had lost their Lordships' confidence.

The file shows that the Secretary of the Admiralty had pointed out that only a Petty Officer threatened with disrating was in a position to demand a court-martial.

It is nice to know that the skill of Captain Pillar of the PROVIDENCE was recognised and together with his crew he received the sum of 550 for rescuing FORMIDABLES's survivors.

Such were the circumstances surrounding the death of Victor Wright.

Notes on Sources

(1) Letter from Royal Marines Museum, Southsea, Hampshire to the author reference 11/11/2 dated 13 February 1992. Included was a contemporary extract from the Globe and Laurel which gave the eyewitness accounts of the loss of HMS FORMIDABLE. The letter also included a list of the Marines who died and the few who were rescued.

(2) File ADM137/362 ACTION BETWEEN HMS ALACANTRA and SS GRIEF Intelligence "Prisoners statement aboard HMS COMUS on or about 29 February 1916 page 288.
PUBLIC RECORD OFFICE, KEW, RICHMOND

(3) THE WAR AT SEA - A HISTORY OF NAVAL ACTION 1914-18 by AA HOEHLING. Published by Arthur Barker Ltd 1965, copy in the library of Leatherhead Institute.

(4) THE WORLD CRISIS 1911-1918 by WINSTON S CHURCHILL, pages 307310 and 359. Fontana FourSquare books published in 1960 by Landsborough Publications Ltd, copy in author's possession.

(5) PULL TOGETHER. The memoirs of the Vice-Admiral Sir Lewis Bailey KCB KCMG CVO published by George G Harris & Co, London 1939: copy in the R.N. Museum Portsmouth, Hampshire.

(6) File ADM137/142 - Loss of HMS FORMIDABLE 'reports'
PUBLIC RECORD OFFICE, KEW, RICHMOND

(7) File ADM116/1437A 'Casualties and survivors of HMS FORMIDABLE (this provided the details of Victor Wright's next of kin)
PUBLIC RECORD OFFICE, KEW, RICHMOND


Further research

WRIGHT, VICTOR HERBERT
Rank: Private
Service No: CH/17864
Date of Death: 01/01/1915
Age: 17
Regiment/Service: Royal Marine Light Infantry, H.M.S. "Formidable."
Panel Reference 13.
Memorial CHATHAM NAVAL MEMORIAL

Additional Information:
Son of Edward Phillip and Amy Wright, of The Corner House, High St., Leatherhead, Surrey. Native of Brixton, London.

Dorking and Leatherhead Advertiser
Saturday 9 January 1915

THE WAR
LEATHERHEAD LOSSES.
The first week in the New Year has been a somewhat fateful one among the gallant Leatherhead men who are now serving with the colours. 

Pte Victor E Wright is one of the missing men of H.M.S. Formidable which was sunk in the Channel and information has been received that Pte Albert Bennett was killed in action on Dec. 18th.

PTE. VICTOR E. WRIGHT.
Among those who went down with the illfated H.M.S. Formidable in the Channel on Thursday night included Pte. Victor E. Wright, R.M.L.I., eldest son of Mr. and Mrs. Harry Wright, of Highlandene, The Crescent, Leatherhead.

Pte. Wright, who would have been eighteen years of age on Tuesday last, had been attached to H.M.S. Formidable since the outbreak of the war. He had been in the Marines about two years, and being in love with the service was getting on rapidly when met his untimely death.

He had hoped to pay his friends a surprise visit at Christmas, but the leave of the crew was cancelled almost at the last moment, and the only consolation his parents had was telegram from Chatham saying he was there at Christmas. Much sympathy has been extended locally to Mr. and Mrs. Wright in their terrible bereavement.

Leatherhead Parish Magazines

The Vicar at that time was the Reverend Thomas Frederick Hobson. 800 copies of the magazine were printed.

In his February 1915 letter he wrote "The War had lasted for five months before it caused a permanent break in one of the many home circles of Letherhead from which sons had gone forth at their country's call. And then almost at once we learnt of the death of three of them, while on active service. all will feel the deepest sympathy with the parents of Albert Bennett, Edward Ireland and Victor Wright, who have given their lives in the cause of Right and Freedom, for the safety and honour of their native land."

Dec 18 1914 Albert Bennett, 2nd Queen's W Surrey, killed in action in Flanders
Jan 1 1915* Victor Wright RMLI, sank with HMS Formidable
Jan 23 1915 Edward George Ireland, RAMC, died in Hospital, St Omer

[* That is the same date as CWGC but a day later than shown on the Town Memorial.]

Surrey Mirror
Friday 31 December 1915
ROLL OF HONOUR.
BRAVE SURREY MEN FALLEN IN THE WAR.
LEATHERHEAD AND DISTRICT.
Pte. Victor E. Wright, R.M.L.I. (drowned by the sinking of H.M.S. Formidable). Eldest son of Mr. and Mrs. H. Wright, Highlandene, Leatherhead.

His life

Victor Edward Wright was born on 6 January 1897, Brixton, Surrey.

His father was Edward Philip Wright born 6 January 1873, baptised (as Philip Edward) 2 Feb 1873 at St Clement Danes, London, a son of Philip Wright, a Cloth Worker and Elizabeth Wright.

His mother was Amy Robinson Johnson, born 24 April 1876, Portsmouth, Hampshire. She was a daughter of William Robinson Johnson born 1837 and Elizabeth Rivett born 1841.

Their marriage was registered in Q1 1895 in West Ham District, London.

In the 1901 Census the family is listed as:

Harry Wright    26 Electrical Engineer born Battersea London
Amy Wright      24 Music Hall Artiste born Portsmouth Hants
Victor Wright      4 born Brixton London

The head of the household is named Harry Wright rather than Edward Philip Wright. Victor's father is also called Harry in the January 1915 press report above - another example of a person being known by other than the name given at baptism.

Victor's siblings were Edward William McCallum baptised 1895 and Charles Philip baptised 1902.

He lived at:
1897: birth registered Brixton, Surrey
1901 Census: 42 St Paul's Road, Newington
1902: brother Charles baptism: 37 St Paul's Road, parish of St Paul's Walworth
1911 Census: 350 Brixton Road London S W
1915: Press report of death: parents address Highlandene, The Crescent, Leatherhead, Surrey

After the war

At the time of the composing of the War Graves Registers his parents' address was The Corner House, High Street, Leatherhead, Surrey.

Victor's father, Edward, died in 1919, registered in Q3 at Epsom).

His mother Amy was listed in the Electoral Registers for 1921 &1922 at the Corner House.

Amy's marriage to Frederick Alfred Pritchard (1879-1953) an ex Royal Marine Artilleryman, was registered at Epsom in April 1923. In 1923 & 1924 Amy and Frederick were resident at The Rising Sun in Fetcham, Leatherhead, Surrey and in the 1930s at 81 Gander Green Lane Epsom.

Frederick's Probate record following his death in 1953 gives his address as 43 Lawrence Road, Portsmouth.

Amy died on 14 December 1961, Eltham, London.

Victor Wright is also remembered on these memorials
Leatherhead Town Memorial
Leatherhead RBL Roll of Honour, Leatherhead Parish Church
Ladies War Shrine, Leatherhead Parish Church
Church Lads Brigade Memorial Tryptich, All Saints Leatherhead
Surrey in the Great War

the website editor would like to add further information on this casualty
e.g. a photo of him, of his memorial inscription
and of any recollections within his family

page created 6 Feb 14: CWGC update 7 Nov 17: 31 Dec 20