A World War One Naval Battle - The Battle of Coronel
Rear Admiral Sir Christopher Cradock
The initial stages of World War 1.
This is one of the most studied areas in contemporary world history, as the causes of this tragic war are not easy to determine and can be quite confusing to the amateur reader. Another difficulty is the definition of a specific date for the starting of hostilities, as the different participants entered the theatre of war at disparate dates, spread out over almost a month.
One of the principal causes seems to have been Imperialism. The major States involved were developing their economies, and extending their land possessions. As the industrialization of the more advanced countries brought about an ever increasing demand for natural resources, the competition for acquiring colonies outside of Europe increased. This in turn brought about expansions into the African continent, and also a quest for colonies on the western Pacific Rim.
There was also an entanglement of treaties, difficult to understand for the casual student, such as the “Triple Entente”, the “Triple Alliance” and others. As depicted in an American cartoon, “if Austria attacks Serbia, Russia will attack Austria, Germany will attack Russia, and France and Britain will attack Germany” All this would be caused by the web of alliances. This in fact is very close to what really happened.
The various participants started declaring war on each other on July 28, 1914, when Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, and finished this process at the end of August of that year, when Japan entered the arena, first declaring war on Germany (August 23) and finally declaring war on Austria-Hungary (August 25).
HMS Good Hope
Preliminary considerations about the Battle of Coronel.
The Battle of Coronel was a naval battle that took place on 1st November, 1914 off the Chilean coast, near to the town of Coronel. The participants were a British Royal Navy squadron under the command of Rear-Admiral Sir Christopher Cradock, and a squadron belonging to the German Kaiserliche Marine,lead by Vice-Admiral Maximilian Von Spee.
As a prelude, we must consider that at that time there was already a quite fierce competition for the expansion of colonial might in the area of the western Pacific, as nations such as the United States, Britain, Japan and Germany vied for possessions to enhance their commercial development.
For this reason, Germany had created the powerful East Asia Squadron, under the command of Von Spee. However, when Japan entered the war on Britain’s side, the balance of power was significantly altered, and so were the original war plans that had been envisioned by Germany.
As a result, the German Squadron was ordered to close on the Pacific coast of South America with the purpose of disrupting the crucial commercial trading routes already established there. Chile in particular held ports that were vital for obtaining both coal and saltpetre, the Chilean nitrates that at that time were used for manufacturing explosives. As far as can be determined by an analysis of documents of that time, Von Spee was supposed to prey on commercial shipping that favoured her enemies, first on the Pacific coast and then on the south Atlantic coast as an initial step to finally entering the northern Atlantic, so as to bring the squadron closer to the European theatre of war.
Britain at the start of the war had a naval base on the Falkland Islands, and from there was in charge of patrolling from the River Plate, down to the extreme south Atlantic and up the Pacific coast at least as far as Valparaiso. At that time, the Panama Canal had been opened to preliminary traffic, but was firmly under the control of the United States (neutral at that date), which meant that most of the maritime traffic was still taking the southern route, and this would be especially so in the case of German ships.
Admiral Cradock’s group of ships was supposed to be reinforced by the more modern and powerful HMS Defence, an armoured cruiser that was serving in the Mediterranean. But this new destination was cancelled; Defence remained where she was, and the old battleship HMS Canopus was sent instead. This was a fateful decision, as the Canopus was so slow, she never made it to the scene of the battle, steaming way behind the rest of the squadron, which was unfortunate because she had the most powerful firing power, the only ship with four 12in guns.
In the event, the British squadron consisted of five ships. The flag ship Good Hope, the Monmouth, the Glasgow, the Otranto, and the Canopus. Of these, the only one manned by long-service officers and seamen, was the Glasgow. The rest of the ships were manned by reservist with little or no training or experience.
The German squadron also consisted of five ships, two armoured cruisers, the Scharnhorst – the flagship – and the Gneisenau, and three light cruisers: the Dresden, the Leipzig, and the Nurnberg. These ships were faster, better armed and better manned, as their crews were highly trained members of the Kriegsmarine.
The Battle of Coronel
Ship movements during the Battle of Coronel.
The Battle of Coronel
There has been a long controversy over the reasons for Admiral Cradock engaging the superior German force that outgunned and out-manned his own squadron. The official communications of the time show some messages in which the wording is rather vague, and at times just plain confusing. Different historians have interpreted this information in different ways.
However, some points were quite clear:
- Any weakening or damage sustained by the German squadron, would be a point in favour of Britain’s interests.
- It was understood that the protection of the commercial shipping routes was vital to the war effort.
- If it were at all possible to increase the vulnerability of the German fleet, this was a goal worthy of the ultimate sacrifice.
In actual fact, Glasgow entered Coronel harbour to collect messages and news, and was sighted by commercial ships with German contacts, who warned the German fleet of her presence in port. These radio messages were intercepted by the British, who thought they were all directed to one German ship, the Leipzig. In this way, each squadron thought they were dealing with one enemy ship, and neither side actually realized that the two squadrons were so close to each other. Finally, about 17.00 pm on that fateful 1st of November, the two squadrons identified each other. Craddock could have fled, but that meant leaving the slower Otranto behind, and more importantly, that was contrary to the main objective of at least making an effort to reduce the power of the German squadron.
The two groups of ships started a series of manoeuvres, trying to gain the advantage of using the remaining sunlight to cast the enemy into profile, with the sun behind them. The British squadron lost out, and when the German ships finally closed in and opened fire, the British ships were clearly silhouetted against the setting sun, while the German ships were fading into the dark, protected by the shadows of the coast line.
The Battle of Coronel was a tragic defeat for the British Squadron. The Good Hope and the Monmouth were both lost with all hands. Glasgow and Otranto both escaped with minor damage. The German Squadron was barely touched and sustained a few wounded men.
Was anything gained for Britain with this Battle?
Was anything gained? Yes, there was some gain for the British effort: the German ships expended a serious amount of shells. Scharnhorst used up 422 of her 8 in shells, leaving her with about 350 remaining, and Gneisenau expended 244 shell, leaving her with about 500 remaining. There was no way for these munitions to be replaced, which left them at a disadvantage for future encounters.
Perhaps the most impressive result was the reaction in Britain over this resounding defeat! If up to that moment the Admiralty had seemed lukewarm towards the war effort in the South Atlantic and Pacific theatre, this would no longer be the case. A powerful fleet was quickly assembled under Vice-Admiral Sturdee. It was this force that finally faced Von Spee in the Battle of the Falkland Islands, on the 8th of December, 1914.
In this battle, the British fleet had the advantage, and the most powerful German ships, the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau, were sunk, the Leipzig, and the Nurnberg were captured, and only the Dresden got away.
Finally, after many adventures, the Dresden was caught, and was scuttled by her German crew. This then, was the end of the East Asia German Squadron.
St.John's Anglican Church, Concepcion Chile
After words on the Battle of Coronel
This particular Naval Battle, so close to the start of World War 1, has never received many comments and is generally not familiar to many people.
As I have lived in Concepcion for many years, a city that is quite close to Coronel, I have had more than just a passing interest in this issue, which has caused me to search for information, and keep it ever present in my mind.
The first time I heard about it, I was quite small, about 8 years old, and I couldn’t quite believe that it had happened so close to the Chilean coast. However, there was one factor that imprinted it in my mind, even at that early age, and this was the bronze Memorial Plaque, placed on the west wall just inside the main entrance of St. John’s Anglican Church, on Pedro de Valdivia Street in Concepcion.
The words on this Memorial Plaqueare the following:
To the glory of God and in memory of Rear-Admiral Sir Christopher Cradock KCVC CB and the officers and men under his command who fell gloriously in the naval action off Santa Maria Island, Coronel, November 1st, 1914. “God forbid that I should do this thing, and flee away from them; if our time be come, let us die manfully for our brethren, and let us not stain our honour”. 1 Maccabees IX-10”
Every year, at the Remembrance Day service, a wreath made with the traditional red poppies, is placed under this Memorial Plaque, and the same is done for two other Plaques that bear the names of the volunteers from Concepcion who died in World War 1 and in World War 2. I have always found this ceremony very beautiful.
The words “They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old...” are especially poignant, as at this date there is one ex-serviceman from the Concepcion contingent of WW2, who is still living and regularly participates in this special service.
Other Memorials for the Battle of Coronel.
1. - There is a memorial placed in Stanley Cathedral, on the Falkland Islands.
2. - Surprisingly, in 1989, a memorial was erected under the auspices of one of the members of the then military regime that governed Chile, the Admiral Jose Toribio Medina. This memorial was placed in the 21st May Plaza in Coronel. There are two metal illustrations in relief of the two British ships that were lost, the Good Hope and the Monmouth, and a dedication plaque with a paragraph in Spanish. The translation of the words is the following:
“In memory of the 1418 officers and sailors of the British military squadron and their Commander-in-Chief, Rear Admiral Sir Christopher Cradock, who sacrificed their lives in the Naval Battle of Coronel. Their only tomb is the sea.”
There is a web page that includes photos of this last memorial, taken by Tristan McGrath, who states that he is a Great Great Nephew of Michael John McGrath, 211640, Able Seaman, Royal Navy, HMS Monmouth
Some last words.
This almost forgotten Naval Battle deserves more recognition than it has received up to now. I find it strange to think that what is so familiar to me is practically ignored by many historical analysis of World War 1.
The citizens of the region of Chile where the Battle took place participated in one way or another in this event. The Battle was so close to the coast, that the flashes of the guns could clearly be seen from the beach and from the nearby hillsides. The citizens of Coronel had a really astonishing view of the whole event.
A few of the casualties were washed up on the beaches, most of them without any means of identification, except of course the known fact that they were British seamen. A number of them were buried in a specific corner of the cemetery at Coronel, and there is a version that states that some more were buried in a private Anglican cemetery at Quidico, further south from Coronel, where a British family owned a rural property.
At some time during the 1960s, British officials initiated negotiations for the repatriation of the remains of these casualties. At the time, my father, Edward Robertson, was Acting British Consul for Concepcion, so the task of locating the graves and all the rest of the steps that a process likes this one entails, fell to him. I did not receive much information from him, because he specifically asked us as his family group, to refrain from referring to this awesome and gruesome duty, and to avoid asking him questions. We of course complied with his wishes.
Aftermath of the Battle of Coronel
At the moment I am revising my collection of documents and organizing information about several particularly interesting consequences of this Naval Battle, which I hope to relate in a future article.
I will state here, that both Chile as a nation and also specific Chilean citizens continued to be involved in the after effects of the happenings of both the 1st November at Coronel, and the 8th of December at the Falkland Islands. I think these events will make interesting reading!
© 2012 joanveronica (Joan Robertson)