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Midshipman Williams joins HMS Argamemnon

Editor's note: Cadet Williams and the entire class of his year at Dartmouth Naval College was mobilized for war on 1 August 1914. He was fifteen years of age, one of one third of the population of the College. Posted to Devenport, Williams was given the rank of ‘acting midshipman' and was to be assigned to various ships of the Royal Navy. His letters are addressed to his mother who was then living in Bolvinstone, Glamorganshire, and have a schoolboyish flavour of the artlessness and simplicity that characterized his generation.

1 August 1914

My leave has vanished into thin air, for the present at all events. I am now on my way to Devonport to join the Exmouth; but I had better start at the beginning.

It’s all through this beastly war affair, the Skipper got orders to stand by to mobilize, and in the evening he gave us a jaw and told us that we might have to join our ships at any moment etc. We have all got billets but they’re never made known except in a show like this. Wednesday [29 July], we got a wire ‘War imminent, stand by to mobilize’. There was tremendous excitement of course. I was playing cricket in the afternoon, and we were expecting to go at any moment. Sir Francis Drake playing bowls before the Armada wasn’t in it. I made 19 and 22 not out; jolly good, and hit three balls running on to the roof of the stables.

Wednesday evening there was another wire, and we had to pack our chests and get our sports gear together etc. It was though we would have to go in the night, and messengers and people were stationed round the place all night to call us. However, nothing more happened and it was the same for the next two days and nights, but everyone had calmed down a bit. Tremendous excitement every night at eight, getting in the news from the Eiffel Tower by wireless. This morning the papers said it was very bad, but no one thought any more about it and train lists etc. were stuck up as usual for breaking up.

I was cricketing again this afternoon in a dense fog, one could hardly see the opposite wicket. We had been playing for two hours, where at 4 o’clock we were startled by people charging through the fog and shouting orders to mobilize, whereupon everyone dropped their cricket gear and fled for the College, cheering like hell. I don’t quite know what there was to cheer about, but anyhow we all did. The 1st XI were playing Roehampton and they complained that for the first two hours they could not see the ball, and for the rest of the time they could not find the players. The Skipper had promised to have all the cadets and seamen away from the College in eight hours at the outside in the event of mobilization, so we had to ‘bustle some’. Eight hours sounds and awful lot, but the chests take such a time as they take three men to lift them. Most of the officers had already left the College during the week. We packed our chests and were then formed into working parties to get them all out. We greased the stairs and just let them rip down them, and then lugged them outside and loaded them into carts. All the carts from Dartmouth and the neighbouring farms had been commandeered, as each could only take about four chests. One third of the College went to Chatham and one third to Portsmouth and one third to Devonport, in that order. Thank goodness I was the last lot, so we had plenty of time, as it took getting the chests across the river. The passenger boat between Dartmouth and Kingswear was commandeered. The first contingent left after two hours; jolly smart work if you think it over. By George! You should have seen those cadets coming out; all the masters and everyone helped. We cheered the various parties off, and then the sixth team had a select sing song, at which we had cheerful songs to pass the time. We left the College at nine o’clock, and marched down the town, which had turned out en masse, and cheered us in a very inebriated fashion, and I felt quite a hero. We took hours to get over the river and into the train, as each luggage van only took about eight chests. I saw Mr. Reid and had a talk with him for some time. He is going to write to you. All the masters are volunteering their services to the Admiralty. It is much nicer to be doing something during a war; you don’t feel so useless.

It is now midnight and we ought to be arriving soon. I am very sleepy and don’t relish the idea of getting into a ship at all. We’ll be useless for the first week, but they won’t expect anything of us just at first. We draw way pay, 2/6 a day, and, I believe, are promoted to acting midshipmen, so we get a good bit of seniority out of it with luck. I don’t know if we join our ships tonight, but I hope not. I shall be tired by tomorrow evening. I don’t know where we’re going at all, Mediterranean most likely, or perhaps guarding places like Hull. The Exmouth is quite a decent ship, Second Fleet, but there is some rumour that she has gone.

It is rather a curse having to go now, and I’m afraid the sports committee at your party will be reduced to one, and Tip will have to carry on the captaincy of the Bonvilston c.c. (Cricket Club).

13 August 1914

Don’t be put of by the mourning, I’m still intact, but it is the only breed of paper I can lay my hands on in the abode of love. I don’t suppose you know where I am, or what ship. There was some talk of the Admiralty letting our various people know where we had fetched up, but I don’t expect you have heard from them yet.

This is the first decent chance of sending a letter I have had. It is perfectly absurd not being allowed to say what ship one is in; however, I don’t think it will hurt if I tell you I am the ‘Fighting Agamemnon, if you have not already gathered that from the high class picture of the old josser on the first page. I don’t think this information is in any way likely to defer a German attack, even though they know that Mr. H. W. Williams is ready to receive them. If they do come, they haven’t got much chance now, as I have been promoted to a midshipman in His Majesty’s Service; you may have seen it somewhere or other, together with the result of passing out, which you might let me know, as I have not seen a paper for some time.

If I’m low I have a good excuse, as one could not be expected to be up to one’s usual standard with the possibility of mobilizing at any second hovering over, if I’m high, it must be a mistake and I ought to have been higher.

I’m sorry I can’t let you know where we are, and where we have been, as I expect it would interest you, but ‘dooty is dooty’. All post cards or urgent letters have to be read by the Chaplain, and cannot be [sent] if they contain any naval information. He also informed me that he censors letters from officers to actresses, and from the lower deck to barmaids. Ordinary letters have to go up to the Admiralty and wait their lordships’ pleasure, which, I am told, is long in coming. However, I am going to try and send this one ashore with the messman when we get in. We are going in to coal sometime soon. I suppose we’ll get an unenthusiastic reception; when we first put out to sea we were cheered by everyone. All the ‘tommies’ guarding the breakwater holloaed out together as we passed ‘ARE WE DOWNHEARTED?’ Screams of ‘NO’ from the whole fleet.

I shall be glad enough to have a look at a paper, but as a matter of fact, I expect we get more actual facts than you do, as we are continually getting wireless messages.

I like it here very much; of course it is pretty strenuous now, and I shall get beastly bored at having no leave ashore for months; and I cannot say that I would rather be here than at home. However, we don’t get a half bad time, though, when I’m not keeping watch or eating, I seem to be sleeping. This sort of game is all very fine now, but in the winter, if we’re still fooling round, then it won’t be quite such fun.

Everyone is longing for an aeroplane to come over; there wouldn’t be a rifle in the ship not being used. I’m sure all the officers would at once make a dash for them and try their hand.

However, as there were not any aeros available yesterday we had a cocher drive. Went up on the Q.D. and did a kind of Harry Tate on shooting, and had a bag of 15? brace of the very finest cockroaches ever seen. We must have looked precious fools, but it was great sport.

My position in action has changed, and I am not in the Conning Tower, the ‘brains of the ship’; that’s why I am here. If by any chance the Torpedo Lieutenant should get bowled out, I have to loose off the torpedoes. I am undergoing instruction at present; it’s beastly complicated.

We are a patriotic lot here, and always have the ‘Marseillaise’, and Russian and Belgian things, besides ‘the King’ of an evening when we toast our allies.

I wish these swines of Germans would come out, but, as far as I can see, we can’t do much until we have grubbed up some mines and blown up the Kiel canal’ then they are done in. They are cunning devils, fancy them selling the Goeben and Breslau to the Turks. We ought to be shot for not having that little lot.

It is not known if Midshipman Williams survived the 1914-1918 War.
German warships sold to the Turkish Navy.
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