The War Diaries of Geoffrey Owen
Geoffrey Dorsett Owen of Plasyn Grove, Dudleston Heath near Ellesmere was commissioned as Sub Lieutenant in His Majesty’s Fleet on 15 Feb 1912. He kept diaries from 1913 – 1920, which are now in the safekeeping of Shropshire Archives.
The following are extracts from the diaries show the build up to war. On the outbreak of the First World War, Sub Lt. Owen was serving on HMS Achilles. He recorded the signals sent and received by the ship as well as commentary and his thoughts on what was taking place.
The War Diary commences with the heading War Scare and the Signal:
SIGNAL. July 26th 6pm.
Achilles to Flag [ship]. Permission to raise and proceed to Portsmouth at Daybreak.
Flag to Achilles. NOT APPROVED
This was the first indication we had that there was anything in the wind.
The Navy in peace time is getting rather a dead and alive profession for a junior officer, and though I don’t think there would be much personal glory to be gained in a modern naval battle, it would be a small change to walking the deck with a sword belt on… One can’t help wondering what one’s state will be in a year’s time, but perhaps this war scare will evaporate as others have done, but I have my doubts!
Monday July 27th
The Daily Papers seemed to think that Russia’s actions would decide whether it is to be peace or war. It appears that Austria does not really want to annex Servia[sic] or any other territory, and that she is only trying to preserve her dignity. Personally I do not expect war.
Tuesday July 28th
We advanced a stage in preparation today. At 8pm a signal came ordering steam for slow speed and steam for 14knots by 7am. I presume the fleet is going to take up its stations for war – merely as a precautionary measure.
Wednesday July 29th
During the day we prepared for war… At night we darkened ship, went to the night Defence Stations with one watch at the guns and orders were given to Officers to sleep in the clothes. ‘Boots and Caps may be taken off’, the signal said.
Thursday July 30th
War not yet been declared. We had to prepare for war and do everything, short of throwing boats, wood and personal effects over the side… Otherwise little happened, we continued up and North Sea and at night ‘manned and armed with all hands’. I had first watch. Nothing happened at night.
Friday July 31st
It soon became evident that the fleet was bound for Scapa Flow and we arrived there at 7pm. A signal had been made cautioning officers and men about saying in private letters where the fleet was or saying what we had been doing.
The wretched hands were allowed to sleep at the guns, but they must have been very miserable as it rained most of the night. Their enthusiasm for war will soon evaporate if this sort of thing lasts much longer.
Saturday [August 1st]
In evening Commander announced to hands that Captain was positive war would be declared in next 48 hours. Bank rate 4%. Germany and Russia and France mobilizing. Orders given for English Fleet to mobilise.
Sunday [August 2nd]
SIGNAL. August 2nd 10.35pm. Cochrane to Achilles ‘Open Secret Packet A’
Received news early that Germany had sent ultimatum to France and Russia. Both her ambassadors had left.
Things began to happen in the First Watch. About 10.20 signal came ‘Open Secret Packet A’. This proved to be a combined French and English signal book and the Captain… said the greatest vigilance was required. Things were developing every hour… we are attached to the Third Cruiser Squadron … news that England had delivered an ultimatum to Germany at noon: it went on to say that the reply would probably take the form of a Destroyer attack. So it is odds on war now with a vengeance.
3 Aug 18
Admiral Antrim to Cruisers
Dress No 4s. Duty Boat’s crews No. 3s
Ships will clear for action before breakfast. Defence Stations need not be kept but an efficient look out must be maintained. Boats not in use to be hoisted in…
Everyone was very excited over last night’s news. The men seem in the same happy state. The excitement and the hard work account for this…
At 9.15 Admiral Packenham came on board. He is a quaint theatrical little man, immaculate and wears a beard. Everybody was piped to muster aft on the quarterdeck and he addressed us…. He is a great man for Hot air, but he meant every word he said… It was hard not to laugh at times, but it did the men good…
There is a great feeling of camaraderie in my turret and I tried to impress on the men that we would have to pull ourselves together and that we were to put up a good show, when we went into action… Our duty would be to keep the turret in action as long as possible.
SIGNAL. Aug. 3rd. 11.40am Flag – Battle Cruisers, 3rd CS, 2nd CS, and 1st CS
Raise steam for Full Speed and report when ready to proceed.
Then we got a signal – All Cruisers raise steam for Full Speed – This was followed by a great panic to get provisions in – I was glad to see them as we only had 12 days salt stuff on board. Just when we were starting to weigh another signal came cancelling it, so we stayed at anchor until 6pm
SIGNAL. Aug. 3rd. Flag to Achilles.
Following made to Antrim.
Proceed at full speed with 3rd Cruiser Sqds, Cochrane and Achilles to Shetlands.
We started off full speed to the Shetlands. Our object was to frustrate any attempt of the Germans to land there…
SIGNAL. Tuesday August 4th 6.40pm
Lion – General
A state of war exists between England and Germany from 11pm
8.50pm. Admiralty to all ships by W.T.
The War Telegram will be issued at midnight authorising you to commence hostilities against Germany. But in view of terms of our ultimatum they may open fire. You must be ready for this.
Tuesday August 4th.
Well if anyone had betted me that we would be at war a fortnight back by this date I would have given him very long odds indeed. The ultimatum expires tonight at midnight and it is now 10pm, so it is now a certainty. I can’t help wondering whether I will see Plasyn Grove, Ellesmere, Shropshire again, but I must not be sentimental. I will only say that the happiest moments of my life were when I arrived at Ellesmere station or Gobowen, coming from school or on leave and found Mother ready to meet me and Barlow waiting outside to drive me home. I was never quite as happy away from home, and from a practical point of view I don’t think it is good for a boy to have such a home.
The jaunt to the Shetlands was fruitless and this morning we steered out into the North Sea. The whole fleet came out as well, and we swept an area with the 3rd CS and there joined up with the Battle Cruisers and proceed south spread out – about fifty miles from the Norway coast.
There was great excitement when we chased an unfortunate ship which was reported to be a Transport and turned out to be the Arcadia, a British liner.
I hope we have a scrap fairly soon. I shall feel more sure of myself when I have experienced a shell bursting near me. At present I am rather inclined to feel like one does before a football match – more frightened of disgracing oneself than of being physically hurt. The men are in a very cheerful state and they have stood the hard work of the last few days without a semblance of a grumble
August 5th 1.15am Rosyth to All Ships W.T.
Commence hostilities against Germany
Wednesday Aug 5th
I had the middle watch so I was up when the signal came about 1am in the morning. Commence Hostilities against Germany at once…
I have now lived through 24 hours of Active Service, but I have not yet seen an enemy. Just after lunch the report spread that a Destroyer was in sight with a prize in tow and everyone assembled to scrutinise it. It turned out to be a fifteen ton fishing boat. These German trawlers provided us with as good deal of entertainment. An order was passed by signal to the effect that all German trawlers were to be sunk or towed into harbour, all other nations except France and Russia were to be searched. If they had wireless it was to be destroyed. The Princess Royal startled us by reporting that she found Carrier Pigeons in one trawler, some of which had been released.
We spent the rest of the day carrying out the undignified task of examining these fishing boats. Several of them were Dutch and these we told to go back to Holland. Orders had been given that the Germans were to be taken in tow or sunk, but the Captain was generous to them and told them that if they cleared out at once he would not touch them. They had been out some time and did not know that war existed. We found two carrier pigeons in one, which we appropriated, but our fears as to the leakage of information by such means were diminished as we learnt that their craft nearly always carry them for private correspondence.
Apparently mines are to be the chief trouble in this war. The Germans are already reported as having laid theirs in many places. Previous to the war our Secret Service got hold of a scheme which the Germans were going to use. By means of Hamburg American Liners they were to lay one hundred thousand mines in lines round our coast… Apparently the suddenness of the war thwarted this but it is an uncomfortable thing to feel that they possess the mines. There seems to be an idea that the Germans have established a base on the Norway coast and tomorrow we go with the 2nd Cruiser Squadron which we have rejoined to try and find it.
Thursday August 6th.
It is a beautiful hot day and the sea has not a ripple on it. At 8.16 in the morning everyone was startled to hear ‘Night Defence’ sounded off, and of course we thought either Destroyers or submarines were in sight. When we got to our stations, we learnt that a submarine had been seen near the Natal and that she had opened up fire on it. Great was the excitement but it petered out and they, the Captain of the Natal, made a signal ‘I have been having a little preliminary practice at a dead whale which was mistaken for a submarine’.
One of the Turrets is used as a Blackboard and the latest news is chalked up on its outside. The men call this the ‘Daily Mirror offices’. They chalk the projectiles in the turrets with witty remarks such as ‘Hoping this will reach you safely’. ‘This will probably strike you most forcibly’ and various insulting remarks about the Kaiser and Germany generally. It is very hard still to realise that we are at war.
10pm. We are going back towards Scapa and I think tomorrow we coal.
Coming into Scapa gave us an opportunity of gleaning a little news, though I was rather surprised that no more had happened. The loss of the Amphion – it was first reported sunk with all hands and we learnt later that all except 130 [?] men and I officer were saved – gave one a creepy feeling down the back.
By Delaine Haynes
We hope to add further instalments from the diaries over the comming months.
War diaries of Geoffrey Owen, Shropshire Archives Accession number 5756