Dartmouth's Great War Fallen
Researching the Dartmouth men who died in the First World War

The "Unjust Load": Dartmouth Cadets and the First World War

When HMS Aboukir, Cressy, and Hogue were sunk by a single submarine on 22nd September 1914, there was widespread shock and disbelief. In her diary on 23rd September, Sister Kate Luard, RRC, QAIMNSR, nursing wounded men from the Battles of the Marne and the Aisne in Le Mans, wrote: "There is a rumour that three British cruisers have been sunk by a submarine - it can't be true". In Dartmouth, according to the Dartmouth Chronicle of 25th September, the news caused a "profound sensation".

Among the 1459 officers and men killed were thirteen young men who only a few weeks earlier had left the Royal Naval College. They were:

HMS Aboukir
Anthony Victor George Allsopp, age 15
Geoffrey Bruce Barchard, age 14
Geoffrey Gore Browne, age 15
Herbert Lawson Riley, age 15
Alan Diarmid Campbell Robertson, age 15
John Duncan Stubbs, age 15
HMS Cressy
Vernon Hector Corbyn, age 16
Claude Phillippe Delmege, age 16
John Aubrey Froude, age 16
Frank George Matthews, age 16
HMS Hogue
Charles Geoffrey Harold, age 15
Cecil William Holt, age 15
Harold Henshaw Ward, age 15

Others had been seriously injured. In view of their very young age and lack of naval training, questions began to be asked about the rationale for sending these boys to sea, an issue in which the Dartmouth Chronicle took considerable interest, in view of the strong sense of connection between the town and the College.

The Selborne Scheme

The 1914 generation of naval cadets were the product of both revolutionary and traditional thinking. The navy had changed hugely, very quickly, in the latter part of the nineteenth century - from sail to steam, from wood to iron and then steel, and from cannons to guns. The number of officers and men had more than doubled, as the Navy had expanded and changed.  When Admiral Sir John (Jacky) Arbuthnot Fisher became Second Sea Lord in 1902, he lost no time in planning reform of the Navy's officer education. The outcome was the Selborne Scheme (named after the then First Lord of the Admiralty, Lord Selborne).

The Selborne Scheme addressed both quantity and quality of future officers. First, the planned new naval college building at Dartmouth, which was already being built to replace the wooden ships HMS Britannia and Hindostan moored in the river Dart, was enlarged so that it could accommodate six rather than four terms of 70 cadets, to start in 1905. To provide additional capacity immediately, another college was established on the Isle of Wight, in 1903, in the stable block and grounds of Osbourne House, to provide a further six terms of 70. Cadet training was to last four years, two at Osbourne, and two at Dartmouth.

Second, Fisher wanted to increase the amount of engineering education in basic officer training, arguing that all officers should have a full basic engineering training to equip them for the issues they were likely to face in running a modern ship, and to equip them to run the increasing variety of types of vessel operated by the Navy, including torpedo boats and submarines.There would thus be a single common entry for executive and engineer officers (and indeed Royal Marine officers). Career paths would diverge only at the rank of lieutenant, when an officer would specialise. Then officers would come together on a general list at the rank of commander. It was this aspect of the scheme which met with bitter opposition, for it was seen as reducing the leading position of the executive branch. But Fisher was successful in establishing at the Naval Colleges a level of education and training in maths, physics and engineering that was probably unparalleled in the secondary school system at the time.

However, Fisher continued to hold the traditional view that it was necessary to catch future naval officers young so that they could completely absorb and internalise the naval ethos and being so moulded, could survive the rigours of naval life. In that he was in line with the great majority of his naval colleagues, who considered early recruitment of potential naval officers essential. The Selbourne Scheme abandoned the brief experiment in entry at 14 - 15 which had been introduced in 1896, and reverted to the traditional entry age of 12. This was not just because it was the age at which it was thought indoctrination would be most effective, it was also because it fitted into the public school system better. In 1913 new regulations were introduced that increased the starting age a little - boys had to be between thirteen years four months and thirteen years eight months, on the first day of the month preceding their entry. There were three entries a year, in January, May and September.

The two Naval Colleges were thus at this time unique institutions. Cadets were not yet actually in the Navy, though it was perhaps difficult for them to tell, because they wore naval officers' uniforms with cadet badges, and the school was run along naval lines with naval officers in command and doing some of the instruction. However, the bulk of the teaching and effective control of the syllabus was the responsibility of a civilian headmaster and teachers. Pupils' parents paid fees at the level of a good public school in the expectation that their sons, provided they met the appropriate standard, would then become Naval officers. Indeed, in the years before the First World War, all cadets who passed out were offered places in the service, and the shortage of officers was such that promotion to senior rank was pretty much a certainty.

Fisher himself was concerned that charging fees for a naval education potentially restricted the pool of talent available. The selection system, involving a medical, a written examination, and an interview, was intended to create open competition, and there was generally an excess of qualified applicants over available spaces. A document of 1914 entitled "The Entry and Training of Naval Cadets" stated "There is scope and need in the Navy for many types of men and varieties of talent". But clearly the selectors were looking for a certain sort of boy. The document continued:

"A naval officer is a man of action. Accordingly that boy has the best chance that is resourceful, resolute, quick to decide, and ready to act... He must be ...keen to work and play ...sound alike in wind and limb and in the big and little principles of conduct... [he must be] cheerful, unselfish, and considerate...and give promise of being responsive and observant, closely in touch with his surroundings, but master of himself. The boy of sensitive, poetic spirit, the ruminating young philosopher, the scholar whose whole heart is in his books, are types that have a real use in the world, but their proper place is not the Navy. A boy of the right sort will, within the limits natural to his age, show initiative and readiness for responsibility [and] be able to learn the secret of command through the discpline of obedience. If he is fond of an outdoor life, excels in sports, has a turn for practical mechanics, and does well in his studies, especially in mathematics, so much the better ..."

In practice, the candidates came from the middle and upper classes. Sir Jacky Fisher's revolution did not extend to opening up naval officer training to the working class. Under pressure of the continuing shortfall in naval officers, the Admiralty in 1912 set up the "Mates Scheme", which allowed ratings to become officers. Most of the 371 promoted to be mates became commissioned officers during the First World War.


The opportunity to find out whether the selectors had succeeded in finding "the right sort of boy" came all too soon. On Monday 27th July 1914 the College had received a telegram requiring it to stand by to mobilise. Cadets' sea chests were packed and local vehicle owners were asked to be ready to transport them to the railway pontoon. On Wednesday 29th July, the list of ships to which the cadets had been appointed in the event of war appeared on the gun-room notice board. Excitement rose, but then ebbed, as nothing seemed to happen. Then at 3.50pm on Saturday 1st August, Captain Victor Stanley, standing at the main entrance to the College, opened a telegram which contained one word: "Mobilise".

Two years later, one of the cadets, Wolston B C Weld-Forester, published a memoir (with his mother's assistance as editor) entitled "From Dartmouth to the Dardanelles". He described the scene as the news spread through the College -"an excited crowd was surging through the grounds; some with mouths still full from the canteen, others clutching cricket-pads and bats, and yet others but half-dressed, with hair still dripping from the swimming bath. Masters and officers on motor bikes and push bikes were careering over the surrounding country to recall the cadets who had gone out on leave .... Willing hands loaded [the sea chests] into every conceivable vehicle, from motor lorries to brewers' drays, and these conveyed them post haste to the pier, where they were loaded on the steamer Mew, and ferried across the river to Kingswear station".

The cadets then went to the gunner's office to send a telegram to their homes that they were ordered away on active service. Significantly, Wolston Weld-Forester comments that, when this was received, it was a terrible shock to his mother "who had not had the faintest idea that we "first termers" would in any eventuality be sent to sea". The other mothers must have felt the same. He was not quite fifteen.

Weld-Forester's term, Blake term, was the first to leave, bound for Chatham. "At 6.30 ... we marched off down to Dartmouth. Here we had a sort of triumphal progress through crowds of cheering townsfold to the quay. Embarked on the Mew we were quickly ferried across to the station, where a long train was in waiting.... Thus it was that, three weeks before my fifteenth birthday, I went to war!"

The Controversy

At the outbreak of war, 434 cadets had gone off to sea (for the figure, see below). They were sent not to the Grand Fleet but, as very far from fully trained officers, to the Third Fleet, which consisted of the Navy's oldest and slowest ships, which were to be manned by naval reservists in war. But, as Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, subsequently put it, the chance of war fell with exceptional severity in the early stages of the war on the ships of the reserve Fleets.

After the loss of Aboukir, Cressy and Hogue, the issue was taken up by William Joynson-Hicks, who was the Conservative and Unionist MP for Brentford. Joynson-Hicks had run unsuccessfully against Churchill in Manchester North-West in the general election of 1906, and had defeated him in a by-election of 1908 when Churchill was obliged to seek re-election in his contituency after his appointment as President of the Board of Trade (Churchill then found a safe seat in Dundee). Perhaps Joynson-Hicks sensed a further political opportunity to score points against Churchill from the issue of cadet losses, for (according to his biographer Roy Jenkins) by this early stage in the war, Churchill's reputation was already on the decline.

Joynson-Hicks wrote a letter to the Morning Post criticising Churchill, as the First Lord of the Admiralty, for the policy of sending the cadets to war: "I am speaking of children who can do no possible good on board men-of-war in time of action ... their room would be much more valuable on board than their presence. Perhaps the Admiralty answer would be that it is desirable to harden boys but if Mr Churchill will only apply to the officers in command of cruisers where these boys are, I think he will be told that they would be better sent back to complete their education at Dartmouth, and that by so doing they will preserve the supply of officers for the navy of the future, which is seriously endangered by the result of the disasters such as we are bound to expect in the course of a prolonged and difficult war".

In Dartmouth the connection with the College and the cadets ensured that both the issue and the cadets themselves were followed closely. The Dartmouth Chronicle reported the losses but also the "good-news" stories. Cadet Wenham H Wykeham Musgrave, age 15, had saved himself from the Aboukir by swimming to the Hogue, and from the Hogue by swimming to the Cressy, and then by hanging grimly on to a plank until he was rescued by Dutch sailors from the SS Titan. William Cazalet, in the Cressy's boat, had saved 88 lives, including the ship's captain, before himself being rescued by the Titan. Some of those who had died had shown great bravery - for example, Herbert Riley and John Stubbs from the Aboukir had twice tried to save drowning men while in the water, only themselves to be dragged under.

In early November, however, news came of the sinking of HMS Monmouth and HMS Good Hope, with the loss of all hands, at the Battle of Coronel, off the coast of Chile, on 1st November (this will be covered in more detail in a separate article). Once again the death toll was heavy amongst the boys who had left Dartmouth to go to war. On HMS Monmouth there were ten:

Gervase R Bruce, age 15
James Forster Boulton, age 15
Philip Sadler Candy, age 15
Frederick Augustus Cooper, age 15
George Watson Muir, age 15
Christopher Musgrave, age 15
John Richardson Pullen, age 15
John Mydhope Pascoe, age 16
Vivien George Edward Spencer Schreiber, age 15
Kenneth Archibald May Somerville, age 17

Joynson-Hicks raised the issue in the House of Commons on 16th November. In exchanges widely reported in the newspapers, including the Dartmouth Chronicle, he asked how many naval cadets had been discharged from Dartmouth at the beginning of the war and placed on board ship; and how many of these had since been killed.  

 Churchill said that 434 cadets had been discharged from Dartmouth, and that 23 had lost their lives in action (there was some confusion over whether or not this latter figure included those from the Monmouth).

Joynson Hicks then asked what the reasons were that had influenced the Admiralty in sending the cadets on board ship; and whether they would be able to return to complete their education.

Churchill replied: "The decision to send the naval cadets from Dartmouth to sea in time of war was arrived at a considerable time ago. It was felt that young officers of their age would be of great use on board His Majesty's ships, and that they would learn incomparably more of their profession in war than any educational establishment on shore could teach them. They are a regular part of the ship's complement". He went on to say that he thought it unlikely that they would return to Dartmouth after the war, but that this would depend upon circumstances.

Joynson-Hicks further asked about the plans for cadets from Dartmouth at the end of the present term. Would they be allowed to complete their education?

The reply gives perhaps some small hint of caution on the Admiralty's part, as Churchill said that cadets currently at Dartmouth would NOT go to sea at the end of that term, and that "drafting in the future would depend upon the requirements of the Fleet".

The losses continued. On 26th November, HMS Bulwark was lost, following a huge internal explosion while she was moored at Sheerness. From the entire ship's company, there were only fourteen survivors, two of whom subsequently died of their injuries. The Dartmouth Chronicle reported that those killed included twelve who had been cadets at Dartmouth when war was declared. Six had been commissioned as Midshipmen by the time of the explosion, whilst six were still cadets:

            Richard Keppel George S Chapman, age 16
William Ellice, age 15
            Norman Birkbeck Harris, age 16
            Gerald de La Motte Turner, age 16
            Norman Willis Taylor, age 16
            Evelyn James Williamson, age 15
            Kenneth Angus Anderson, age 16
            Oliver Robin Octavius Jagger, age 16
            John Macpherson, age 16
            Bertie Hastings Ponsonby, age 16
            John Sims, age 16
            Charles Hubbard Wilson, age 15

On 1st January 1915, early in the morning, whilst on exercise in the English Channel, off the South Devon coast, HMS Formidable was struck by two torpedoes in a submarine attack. Darkness and worsening weather made it difficult to launch the boats, and many were lost. Survivors were brought into Brixham and assistance was also sent from Dartmouth, including from the Naval College. Amongst those lost were six of the cadets who had left Dartmouth at the start of the war. By this time they too had been commissioned as midshipmen:

Ernest Geoffrey Cadle, age 16
John Smiley Coey, age 16
Trevor Munro Hoare Masters, age 16
John Walter Morrice, age 16
John Slingsby, age 16
George Stephenson Wingrove, age 16

On 8th February 1915, in the House of Commons, Joynson-Hicks returned to the issue. He asked again what was the number of Dartmouth cadets embarked at the commencement of the War, and what number of them had since been lost; and whether the proportion was much greater than in any other class of naval officers.

Dr MacNamara, Parliamentary Secretary to the Admiralty, said again that the number of Dartmouth cadets who left to go to war was 434. He continued: "Of this number, I am sorry to say that 41 have lost their lives. No statistics have been worked out as to the percentage of officers lost in the various classes, but it is, I am afraid, a fact that the percentage of the cadets embarked from Dartmouth who have lost their lives is greater than in any other class of officer".

But notwithstanding this admission, there was no change in policy. Joynson-Hicks tried once more to push the point, but received a dusty answer: "Will the right hon Gentleman carefully reconsider the question whether the Admiralty will send any more young officers on to the ships?" Dr Macnamara replied: "It is impossible to discuss that now. The hon Gentleman can realise why that is so".

While serving at sea, cadets and midshipmen were still officially considered as undergoing continued naval training, and quite extraordinarily, their parents were still expected to pay fees - in effect, they were paying to send their sons to war. The Admiralty did make a minor concession, being prepared to return to parents any fees paid in advance, in the event of their sons' death.

The 41 midshipmen and cadets referred to by Dr MacNamara are understood to be those listed in this article:

thirteen on Aboukir, Cressy and Hogue on 22nd September 1914
ten on Monmouth on 1st November 1914
twelve on Bulwark on 26th November 1914
six on Formidable on 1st January 1915

It will be seen that half of them were under sixteen at the time they died.

In her son's memoir of his naval service, published in 1916, Wolston Weld-Forester's mother, Elspeth, addressed the issue head-on. He had served on HMS Goliath and had lost several of his classmates when the ship was torpedoed and sunk in the Gallipoli campaign in May 1915. She wrote in the foreword, in language very much of the period:

"The mobilisation of the Dartmouth Cadets came with a shock of rather horrified surprise to a certain section of the public, who could not imagine that boys so young could be of any practical utility in the grim business of War. There was, indeed, after the tragic loss of so many of them in the Cressy, the Aboukir, and the Hogue, an outburst of protest in Parliament and the Press. In the first shock of grief and dismay at the sacrifice of such young lives, it was perhaps not unnatural; but it argued a limited vision. Did those who agitated for these Cadets to be removed from the post of danger forget, or did they never realise, that on every battleship there is a large number of boys, sons of the working classes, whose service is indispensable?

"It seemed to me that if my son was too young to be exposed to such danger, the principle must apply equally to the son of my cook, or my butcher, or my gardener, whose boys were no less precious to them than mine was to me.

"In the great Band of Brothers who are fighting for their country and for the triumph of Right and Justice there can be no class distinction of values. Those who belong to the so-called "privileged classes" can lay claim only to the privilege of being leaders - first in the field and foremost at the post of danger. It is the only possible justification for their existence; and at the post of danger they have found their claim to priority hotly and gloriously contested by the splendid heroes of the rank and file".

She concluded: "Presumably the Navy took our boys because they were needed, and no-one today will feel inclined to deny that those Dartmouth Cadets have abundantly proved their worth".

That there ought to have been equal concern about boys serving in the Navy as ratings, as well as cadets, is of course a fair point. It is a strange contradiction that the official policy in the Army was that no boy could enlist as a full-time soldier before the age of eighteen, while official policy in the Navy was that boys could legitimately be sent on active service at sixteen (and clearly, in the case of the Dartmouth cadets, even younger). Of course, many boys did attempt to join the Army while under-age, and many recruitment sergeants connived in their attempt. 

The debate and controversy over the Dartmouth cadets shows that attitudes to childhood and children were in any case changing fast. By the start of the Second World War, there was no question of compulsorily mobilising boys of fourteen and fifteen to serve in the fleet.


After the war was over, the apparently tireless Joynson-Hicks returned to the topic of naval education and the Dartmouth cadets. On 4th March 1919 he asked how many officers were being sent to a course at Cambridge to make up for the interruption of their training. Dr Macnamara replied: "four hundred officers were appointed for a six months' course at Cambridge at the end of January ... the courses are intended to complete the education of those officers whose education as cadets was interrupted by the War".

This prompted Rudyard Kipling to write a poem entitled "The Scholars". In it he paid tribute to the wartime contribution and experiences of "the men that were careless lads at Dartmouth in 'Fourteen". The final lines are:

"Hallowed River, most gracious Trees, Chapel beyond compare,
Here be gentlemen sick of the seas - take them into your care,
Far have they come, much have they braved. Give them their hour of play,
While the hidden things their hands have saved work for them day by day,
Till the grateful Past their youth redeemed return them their youth once more,
And the Soul of the Child at last lets fall the unjust load that it bore!"


For the background on changes in naval training, see:

Britannia Royal Naval College, Dartmouth, An Illustrated History, by Dr Jane Harrold and Dr Richard Porter, third edition, pub. Richard Webb, Dartmouth

An article by Dr Harrold covering much the same ground is available online here.

A History of the Royal Navy: World War 1, by Mike Farquharson-Roberts, publ 2014, I B Tauris & Co

From Dartmouth to the Dardanelles: A Midshipman's Log, Edited by His Mother, publ 1916, William Heinemann. This is available online here.

The full record of exchanges between William Joynson-Hicks and Winston Churchill and Dr Thomas Macnamara on this topic may be found on the Hansard website.

Churchill, by Roy Jenkins, publ. 2001, MacMillan

The full text of Kipling's poem "The Scholars" can be viewed on the website of The Kipling Society.

This article was last updated on Saturday 01 November 2014 at 22:55:46.