The Russians are giving in

Florence Vansittart Neale was depressed by the war news, both at home and abroad – and concerned about new food restrictions on sugar.

3 September 1917

Raids at Chatham & Sheerness – 107 sailors killed…

Mr Austman still here. All down about Riga gone. Russians giving in.

Wrote for sugar for jam!

Diary of Florence Vansittart Neale of Bisham Abbey (D/EX73/3/17/8)

Meanwhile the Sub-Warden of Clewer House of Mercy was heading to France as an army chaplain.

3 September 1917

The Sub-Warden returned from Strensall Camp on short leave before reporting himself at the War Office previously to going to France.

Annals of the Community of St John Baptist, Clewer (D/EX1675/1/14/5)

From tennis with the enemy to exploding vessels: wild rumours abound

HMS Irene was a Canadian steamer which was commandeered by the Navy for war service. It exploded off Sheerness on 27 May, in the same area where the Bulwark had exploded in late 1914. However, the court martial story appears to be the invention of the intense atmosphere of the time. None of the officers on the Bulwark survived to be transferred. The story about Mrs Asquith was equally untrue; she successfully sued a newspaper for libel for the allegation.

10 June 1915

Heard the Lt. Com. Of Bulwark was on shore when it blew up – he was sent to Princess Irene. Same thing happened at Sheerness. He was taken up, court-martialled & shot!!

Hear Mrs Asquith spends her time playing tennis with Donnington Hall prisoners!!

Diary of Florence Vansittart Neale (D/EX73/3/17/8)

Ships lost, men wounded

Florence Vansittart Neale was briefly distracted from the bad news of the war by a visit from her daughter Elizabeth (Bubbles) and a nurse friend.

27 May 1915

Loss of “Triumph” in Dardanelles. Crew saved!! Also “Princess Irene”! Blew up in Sheerness. Many killed. French getting on….

Phyllis to fetch Bubs. Brought little Irish Sister… Girls played tennis…

Johnson & Saunders took Bubs back. Hospital quite full. Large convoy in – bad wounds.

Diary of Florence Vansittart Neale (D/EX73/3/17/8)

‘A lot he could tell, only he wasn’t allowed to’

A serving sailor visited his old primary school in Reading while on leave. He took naval secrecy seriously, as this report in the parish magazine reveals:

It is delightful to see the way in which old scholars now serving in the Army and Navy find their way back to their Headmasters of their old day schools when they are on leave. Herbert Pendlebury of H.M.S. ‘Irresistible’ paid a welcome visit to S. Stephen’s School the other day to greet Mr. Hopcraft. He told us ‘there was a lot he could tell us only he wasn’t allowed to.’ It appears he was stationed at Sheerness at the time the ‘Bulwark’ blew up.

Another local man, who had joined the army before the war started, also made contact:

One of Mr Heaton’s lads, William Sawyer – (Mr. Heaton was the first Manager of the University College Lads’ Club in the parish) – writes thus to the Vicar from the front. The Vicar spent a night with the Club in camp years ago:-

‘I was attending a Field Service on Sunday last when I thought perhaps you would be pleased to hear from a Reading lad, as before I enlisted I lived in your parish. I have been in the service for nearly three years…

My mother informs me that us soldiers are always included in your prayers, which I think is very kind and thoughtful of you. This war is a very terrible thing, Sir, but I am sure, Sir, that the right will prevail in the end.’

Reading St John parish magazine, January 1915 (D/P172/28A/24)

Awful news of HMS Bulwark

Florence Vansittart Neale and her Admiralty official husband Henry were distressed by the tragedy of HMS Bulwark, a British ship. It was not sunk by enemy action, but by the spontaneous combustion of armaments store too close to the ship’s boiler. Over 700 sailors were killed, with only a dozen survivors.

26 November 1914
Sent off scarves. H & I to Blue X concert Maidenhead. Not bad. Phyllis nursing exam. H & I to church & quiet evening – spoilt by bad news of “Bulwark”. Magazine exploded, 700 or 800! Gone down near Sheerness. Awful. Other news good. Russians real victory – almost German rout. We still holding our line.

Diary of Florence Vansittart Neale (D/EX73/3/17/8)