It was the Royal Navy’s first defeat in more than a century, and this week marks 100 years since the Battle of Coronel where 1,600 lives were lost. Descendants of those who died have been marking the anniversary around the world. Reporters Sam Bannister and Sarah Nunn heard their stories.
Wreaths were used to mark the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Coronel this weekend, but it was a bouquet of flowers that greeted German Vice-Admiral Maximilian von Spee after his victory over the British in November 1914.
‘They will do nicely for my grave,’ he said to the woman who gave him the flowers.
Just over a month later, he was dead.
Before Vice-Adml von Spee’s victory two days earlier, Britannia unquestionably ruled the waves – until a shock defeat in the Pacific Ocean at the hands of a superior German force.
This week marks 100 years since the Battle of Coronel – when the Germans mauled a British squadron of ships.
It was a resounding victory for the Germans, sending shockwaves across Britain, which was used to supremacy at sea.
They sank two British ships with the loss of more than 1,600 lives.
Not one German sailor was killed.
It was one of the most horrific losses in the Royal Navy’s history and one of the most embarrassing.
Historians still have not reached a consensus over what led to the disaster – whether the admiral in charge launched a baffling suicidal assault or whether he was simply following orders – but the outcome cannot be disputed.
At the outbreak of the First World War, the German East Asia Squadron – a reasonably powerful roaming force led by Vice-Adml von Spee – was at large on the high seas, preying upon shipping in the crucial trading routes along the west coast of South America.
The Royal Navy force under Rear-Admiral Sir Christopher Cradock however was weak.
It had two armoured cruisers, a light cruiser and an armed merchantman.
Late in the afternoon of November 1, 1914, HMS Good Hope, Glasgow, Monmouth and Otranto ran into Spee’s superior task force in the fading light off the coast of Chile.
Good Hope suffered many successive hits before her magazine blew up, killing all on board including Cradock.
Monmouth soon followed her to the bottom of the Pacific.
The duel lasted less than two hours.
The two remaining Royal Navy ships made a break for it in the dark and escaped.
On Saturday, descendants of those who died gathered in Catherington at the memorial there to remember those who lost their lives.
And thousands of miles away in Chile, another group of relatives paid their respects at the nearest place to where the battle raged.
Mike Critchley, a retired naval officer and publisher of Warship World magazine, was one of those who attended the memorial in Chile at the weekend.
His grandfather, Sidney Herbert Perry Critchley was one of the 1,600 killed in the sea battle.
At 7.50pm on Saturday, at the exact time the 1,400-ton HMS Good Hope was blown out of the water having suffered 35 high explosive strikes, Mr Critchley laid a wreath on the water in memory of his grandfather.
He said: ‘It was a moving occasion.
‘I always knew that my grandfather was dead before my father was born, but it is only later in life that you really consider the implications of that.’
Details of the last fight of HMS Monmouth were relayed in a letter from one of the sailors on board the fleeing HMS Glasgow weeks after the battle.
After describing how the Good Hope caught fire and blew up, the writer said: ‘That was the end of the Good Hope, and it did not make things very cheerful for our two remaining ships.
‘After about one and a half hours’ fighting, the Monmouth caught fire too, but fortunately got it under.
‘She was badly damaged. We also had several big holes below the waterline, one funnel smashed and several men wounded.
‘Shortly after the Monmouth hauled off and we followed. The Monmouth then reported “Am making water badly forward. Engines disabled and in a sinking condition, but am making towards the enemy to try and torpedo her”.
‘That was the last we saw of the good old Monmouth, and it made tears come into everyone’s eyes when the captain told us of the signal.
‘It was impossible to lower a boat or stay behind to render them assistance as we had all our work cut out to keep afloat, and there was a tremendous sea running.
‘So our captain ordered “Full speed ahead”. As the enemy were making us a good target, and if we had stayed much longer we should have shared the fate of the others.
‘So we were defeated, but not disgraced by a long way.’
After the battle of Coronel, at a reception with the German community at Valparaiso, a lady pressed a bouquet of flowers into Vice-Adml von Spee’s hand for his naval victory.
But von Spee knew the British backlash was imminent.
Five weeks later he was one of hundreds of German victims at the Battle of the Falkland Islands, where the British avenged the deaths of those killed at Coronel.
The retaliatory strike was instigated when two new battle cruisers – Invincible and Inflexible – were sent to the South Atlantic to restore British supremacy.
This time, the British won.
They sank four German ships, killing more than 1,800 sailors.
Those ships that escaped the initial battle were hunted down and destroyed.
Trevor Johnson is the great-grandson of one of those who died on board HMS Good Hope.
His great-grandfather, Chief Petty Officer George Hanes, 41, died at sea leaving behind his wife and nine-year-old son.
‘The Good Hope was a ship not adequate to the task,’ says Trevor, 54, of The Heath, Denmead.
‘It had not much gunpowder of weaponry compared to the German fleet.
‘She was manned by reservists and not up for the task.
‘HMS Good Hope and HMS Monmouth were very much inferior in terms of firepower and also having very inexperienced hands on board compared to that of the German fleet.
‘To date the loss of hands within this one battle on one night is still the single most lives lost in any battle in history.
‘I looked into the battle for many years, and traced all the way back to the story of my great-grandfather.’
The British Film Institute recently restored one of the finest examples from the era of silent film -- a telling of the story of the Battles of Coronel and the Falklands.
Twenty-four Royal Marines musicians lost their lives at sea at Coronel, and as reported in The News, 24 musicians from the present-day band service travelled to London last month to provide the backing score to the film.
The restored version will also be shown in Portsmouth on Sunday, at the No6 Cinema in Portsmouth’s Historic Dockyard.
Mr Johnston and his family will be there.
‘It will be a very emotional and poignant day,’ he adds.
Relatives want more done to remember all those who died
RELATIVES of those who lost their lives during the Battle of Coronel are calling for a more fitting memorial in their honour.
Trevor Johnson, whose great-grandfather George Hanes went down with HMS Good Hope, says the current memorial is not enough.
Currently the only tribute to the ship in Portsmouth is a silhouette painted on the railings of a playground, pictured above, in Ship Leopard Street, Portsea.
Mr Johnston says: ‘For a Portsmouth-based ship, and one lost in one the first battles of the First World War, we have nothing of significance to honour the brave men.
‘It would be nice in this centenary year if Portsmouth stood up and commemorated the loss of HMS Good Hope in a fitting manner.
‘There has not been enough done to celebrate the 1,600 lives lost in the battle.
‘I would love to see the council build a memorial to symbolise the heroism of all the men who lost their lives that night.’