At 11pm on 4 August 1914 the Admiralty sent the signal ‘Commence Hostilities with Germany’ and the Royal Navy’s part in the First World War began.
Every vessel in the Navy was placed on action stations and each was specifically positioned in UK and other waters according to plans drawn up long beforehand. The battlecruiser HMS Invincible was in the Naval Dockyard at Portsmouth and when the signal came through it generated a great deal of nervous excitement. After months of uncertainty, word passed through the crew that at last they might see some action. On board the Invincible was 33-year-old Lieutenant Hubert Edward Dannreuther who joined the Navy as a 15-year-old in 1895 and had been posted to the Invincible a year earlier in August 1913.
The library holds a fascinating collection of Dannreuther’s papers (Reference DAN/401-572) which give a unique first-hand account of his experiences, particularly during the early years of the war. Invincible was involved in the early naval engagements including the Battles of Heligoland Bight and the Falkland Islands. One fascinating series of records are letters written to his mother, Chariclea Dannreuther, in Hastings between 21 July – 10 November 1914. These record his thoughts at the outbreak of war and also following the first naval battle, the Battle of Heligoland Bight.
The correspondence starts in almost light-hearted fashion…
5 August –‘I was woken up at midnight last night to be told that a signal had come to say that hostilities were to commence against Germany at once but was so sleepy that I didn’t take much notice of it and wondered if I had dreamt it this morning’.
15 August – ‘from all accounts the sea is absolutely clear of German ships – in fact it seems hardly possible from the precautions that have been taken for any German ship to come out of the North Sea … I am very well & the life is really great fun and there is plenty to do’
In fact the outbreak of war seems to have been more eventful for Mrs Dannreuther. She found herself being questioned by local police in Hastings, presumably because of her Teutonic-sounding last name. In fact she was a British citizen, born in Tulse Hill in South London.
24 August – Hubert quipped in a post card, ‘Received your letters of the 19th and 21st today ….. rather amusing your nationality being questioned!’
In these letters during the early days of the war, Dannreuther states regularly that he doesn’t expect to be involved in much of the fighting, perhaps to reassure his mother who was aged 70 at the time.
However he soon sees action at the Battle of Heligoland Bight:
6 September – ‘On Thursday 27th [August] we went to sea and proceeded towards the German coast & on the following evening joined up with some other battlecruisers and were in action shortly after 1pm with a German cruiser. We had no casualties & it was a very one-sided affair as we and the other battle cruisers were much more powerful than our opponents. The German cruiser we fired at was rather a terrible sight – terribly battered, her funnels and masts shot away, badly on fire and her decks covered with dead and dying men. I was glad, for the sake of the poor men aboard her, to see her bow disappear below the sea & a minute later the whole ship had disappeared. We were fired at by a submarine but fortunately the torpedo missed us and went under the stern of the ship and as the sea was strewn with mines we had to continually be changing our direction to avoid them. We fired at them whenever we could to try and sink as many as possible. The mines are a great source of annoyance and have apparently been laid by German trawlers flying neutral or British colours’.
Following this initial action, Hubert Dannreuther went on to play a notable part in main naval engagement of the First World War, the Battle of Jutland. During the battle HMS Invincible was attacked by German warships and sunk. Somehow Dannreuther survived, the most senior of the 6 crew who did (1026 were lost). He was subsequently recommended for honours by Admiral David Beatty in the following citation: ‘Up until the moment when the ship blew up Cdr Dannreuther controlled the fire of the Invincible in a manner which produced visible and overwhelming results on the enemy’. He was awarded the DSO on 15 December 1916 and also the Order of St Anne by the Russians.
First published 10 July 2014. Updated November 2020