From 2014 the archives department has been focusing on cataloguing World War One manuscripts. In October 2017 while cataloguing, I came across the diary of a man who wrote only so his children would have something first hand from their father rather than just what they read in the news.
The resonating past comes to call,
An echoing voice in loving scrawl,
A tender note and distant memories,
Dedicated to the future, passed through the centuries.
by Victoria Syrett, Archives Assistant
Ernest George Courtis was born 2 November 1873 in Cornwall and died 3 February 1915 on HMS Clan MacNaughton leaving behind his wife Gertrude and their two children Gertrude Ellen May Courtis and Geoffrey Ernest Montague Curtis.
Ernest first joined the navy on 2 November 1891 at the age of 18. He became Acting Gunner on 1 November 1898 and Chief Gunner on 1 November 1913. JOD/309 is Ernest’s private journal from 1914 while serving on board HMS Theseus, entitled 'Diary of the War'. The inside page shows Ernest’s dedication to his children as he writes the book:
'my one object being to let Gertie and Geoffrey read something at first hand and it is to them that this story is dedicated.'
Ernest notes the outbreak of war simply stating facts:
'England issues ultimatum to Germany, Germany not to invade Belgium, not to attack France by sea nor allow her German ships to appear in the English Channel – Ultimatum expires at midnight- British Fleet prepare to attack should Germany strike before midnight. Germany does not accede to England’s wishes – War is declared on Germany. '
On 5 August while HMS Theseus was at sea running practice drills, Ernest comments how the ship has become a mixture of the young and the old learning to work together:
'Great difficulty in getting men to their proper stations, old commissioners in many cases; particularly boys; going to old stations instead of troubling to look at station Bill to see if they were still supposed to be there. However I think it will be better as men get accustomed to their work. There are a large number of very ancient mariners among the reserve but is astonishing how well they are falling into line.'
However, it doesn’t take long before the frustrations of the war start to appear in Ernest writings. On Tuesday 1 September 1914 he states:
'The fact of the matter is everybody is a bit sick of the naval people not having a proper scrap with the High Sea Fleet and are hoping we will soon have a chance, at the same time every man realizes that it will be a fight to the finish and both navies will be servery mauled. We do not expect to have it all our own way and although we are the stranger both numerically and in gun power yet it doesn’t follow that will altogether decide the result. Germany, by scattering mines broadcast hopes to reduce out numbers without risking her ships and we are scooping up her mines without sweeping vessels to obviate that little game.'
Included later within the pages is an account of the worry and the resigned realisation of the loss of HMS Hawke; sunk by German Submarine on 15 October 1914 while out of sight of the rest of the Squadron from noon. This was followed by an unsuccessful attack on HMS Theseus by the same German submarine. Though Ernest writes that they were surprised at the near miss it was not until later they found out that they had been fired upon by the same submarine that sank HMS Hawke, leaving only 70 survivors.
On the last page of the journal, Ernest writes what a great surprise it was to find out he had been transferred to Clan MacNaughton.
Though Ernest left in a hurry as he had to be at Clan MacNaughton the next day to receive the 4.7" guns that had to be installed, he writes that he was able to see his family: 'Everybody was surprised to see me of course. They all looked well.' For all the rushing around, Ernest found that he was the only naval person on board stating:
'I may as well have been on leave for what good I am here for a few days, but this is war time and strange things are happening.'
At the end of the journal, the last written words are Ernest summarizing that he will keep a new diary on the HMS Clan MacNaughton.
On 3 February 1915 whilst on patrol duty off the North West coast of Ireland, HMS Clan MacNaughton experienced severe gales and was never heard from again. Wreckage was found in the area, and it was presumed sunk with 20 officers and 261 men including Ernest George Courtis and his new diary, the last remanence of his echoing voice to his loving children; a diary they would never be read.