Heroics on the high seas
Riddle me this, what is the connection between Punchestown and the North Sea? An answer does not spring to mind. It would be hard to imagine two places with such contrasting characteristics. The green sward of Punchestown galloped over by horses, and the grey reaches of the cold North Sea where the only horses are the white horses of the tumbling waves. However a close reading of the local press of June 1916, and a passing knowledge of naval history, forges the answer to such an unlikely link. A small line in the racing columns of the local press relates how “Everyone was overjoyed to read that Commander the Hon. Barry Bingham was amongst the officers rescued by the Germans in the naval battle off Jutland.” And why the jubilation – among the racing press at least? “ Commander Bingham had steered Lord Charles in one of his Hunt Cup victories at Punchestown.” That connection alone would be enough to endear him to the hunting classes of Kildare but he had another link – the Hon. Mrs Dixon of New Abbey, Kilcullen was his sister. Bingham’s claim to fame was more than his expertise in steering a hunter over the formidable double-banks of Punchestown’s chase course. His bravery in pressing home an attack in his destroyer H.M.S. Nestor in a ferocious exchange with German warships earned him the highest decoration awarded in the British honours classification – the Victoria Cross, his being one of the few VCs awarded to a Naval officer in the course of first world war.
Bingham led his destroyer flotilla into the maw of battle as the High Seas fleets of the British and German navies faced off in a ferocious but ultimately inconclusive battle, named after the Danish peninsula of Jutland, on the last day of May 1916. It was a contest which had been presaged years before the war. Being an island nation with a vast network of overseas colonies control of the seas was hardwired into the British mentality. Since Trafalgar in 1805 the Royal Navy were the masters of the world’s oceans. “Send out the gunboat” was only a halfway satirical comment on how Britain controlled islands, archipelagos, and colonies on the other side of the world. The arrival of a warship – the epitome of engineer sophistication of its day – combined with the sight of a well-drilled crew in starched white uniforms was guaranteed to overawe even the most querulous of native peoples in some far flung colony in Africa or on the fringes of the Indian Ocean.
The Germans, on the other hand were late comers to the naval and colonial party. If the British were the masters of the ocean, the Prussians, the dominant influence among the coalition of states which formed the German state – were equally convinced of their military prowess on land. In a character known as Von Clausewitz they had one of the most influential military theorists of all time. His work is still on the reading lists of military colleges throughout the world. The Prussians pioneered the professionalization of military leadership with proper headquarters staffs for whom formal planning and intelligence analysis were key functions. However they were playing catch-up in the naval stakes.
From the early 1900s it was clear that tensions were building between Britain and Germany. The tangible product of the resulting arms race was the construction of massive warships by each side. Each wanted more floating firepower – bigger ships, bigger guns, and bigger fleets. The public on each side became wrapped up in the frenzy to build more ships. And yet for all the engineering the leviathans of the ocean were to prove disastrously vulnerable. Within a period of just 30 minutes in the evening of 31 May two British warships were blasted out of the ocean by accurate German gunnery. For all their protective armour the British vessels disintegrated – one taking all its crew of 903 to a watery grave, the other giving up all six of its 1,032 personnel to the deep.
In the months before the war erupted most pundits predicted that a naval confrontation between Britain and Germany in the North Sea would be the decisive battle that would bring the war to a quick end. Few had expected that it would be humble ground soldier armed with a rifle and spade in the slaughter fields of the Western front who would become the dominant image of that terrible war.
From the early months of the war a type of checkmate evolved on the North Sea. The Royal Navy blockaded the sea lanes into the German ports; the Germans hit back with a new weapon – the submarine. However neither committed their big fleets out of fear that they would sail into a trap which would see their warships obliterated. Eventually the German naval command hatched a plan to send out a light fleet to draw the Royal Navy into a confrontation with their High Seas fleet in the North Sea. The battle, anticipated for years, unfolded on the last day of May 1916. Britain’s admirals Jellicoe and Beatty tried to guess the moves planned by their German counterparts, Hipper and Scheer. The big warships were preceded by smaller scouting vessels which carried the brunt of the attacks. The German plan worked up to a point – they succeeded in luring some of the Royal Navy vessels towards their High Seas fleet. But when Britain’s battleships loomed into view amid the thick smoke exhausted by naval guns, they decided to cut their losses and turned back to the safety of the German coastline. On the face of it the Royal Navy came off worst at the battle of Jutland – more than 6,000 of their sailors were killed compared to 2,500 Germans. However there were survivors. The Kildare press carried an item later in the summer reporting that Private J.L. Lacy, a marine on board H.M.S Revenge was on leave at the home of his father, Thomas Lacy, of the Sallins Road in Naas. It noted that his ship was the second ship to go into action at Jutland but suffered no losses. And there was the Punchestown winning jockey and naval hero Commander Bingham who was rescued by the Germans after they had immobilised his ship H.M.S. Nestor in a ferocious exchange of torpedoes.
In an extraordinary coincidence there was a Kildare born sailor on the same ship. But his fate was less fortunate. Bernard Cox, son of a John and Mary Cox of Longridge, Carbury, was a stoker on the Nestor. He and comrades had the worst job on the ship – in the bowels of the vessel shovelling tons of coal into the voracious boilers. He is recorded as having died on 10 July 1916 aged just 20. It is known from the story of Bingham, his captain, that most of the crew were rescued by the Germans on 31st May as the sea battle Jutland came to a blazing climax. It is possible that he died from wounds six weeks later. His body lies at rest in a cemetery in Hamburg, north Germany. Leinster Leader 17 May 2016, Looking Back Series no: 486.