A sailor’s life – 24. Monkbarns and the Battle of Coronel, 1914
The first world war came to the shipping lanes of the nitrate coast of Chile not round the Horn, where the British navy lay in wait among the Falkland Islands, but from the west – creeping across the Pacific.
The first the Monkbarns boys knew of it was when the pilot arrived aboard off Corral. Europe had been at war for two months, he told them, and in the wet weeks that followed as their cargo of Australian wheat was slowly discharged they read more in some English language newspapers. The boys had learned the marching song “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” from Irish lads on the four-masted barque Oweenee at the Mission in Stockton the previous year – and they felt a companionship with the British troops singing it now in faraway Belgium.
Monkbarns left Corral at the end of October 1914, in ballast for Caleta Buena north up the Humbolt Current, and at sunset on November 1st five crack German armoured cruisers ambushed the British naval patrol led by Rear-Admiral Sir Christopher Cradock just outside Corral, at Coronel. With the British ships framed against the light dying in the west, the Germans opened fire. As darkness fell, they were swallowed up by the black landmass behind them and the British had only the flashes from the enemy guns to aim for. Burning ships did the rest. By dawn on the 2nd more than 1,600 Royal Navy seamen and their admiral were dead.
Monkbarns’ goggling crew actually sighted the enemy warships, the young Swedish seaman Leif Asklund reported, but the old square rigger had been allowed to run on northwards up the coast, unmolested. German intelligence had reported a British warship in Coronel and the enemy commander, pounding swiftly past the old windjammer in a deadly game of cat and mouse, had not deemed her worth the shot that would have lost him the advantage of surprise.
Vice admiral Count Maximilian von Spee needed coal. Driven out of Germany’s colonial bases around the Pacific by the advance of Japan, Australia and New Zealand, he was bound home for Europe, with orders to disrupt the allies’ supply lines by sinking their merchant ships. After Coronel, he put into Valparaiso, where the German community threw a banquet in celebration. Refuelling his warships there tweaked the nose of the Hague convention, but Von Spee had inflicted Britain’s first naval defeat for a hundred years and only a handful of their German compatriots were even scratched.
A week later Monkbarns arrived in Caleta Buena, north of Iquique, the smallest and bleakest of the nitrate ports, clinging to the edge of the Tarapaca desert. “We have fallen into a lovely hole this time and no mistake,” wrote Bert.
A hand-tinted postcard shows a shore line of sheds cowering beneath what looks like an 8,000ft slag heap, slashed by a mountain railway like an appendix scar — “practically all there is to be seen here”. Out in the bay the ships rolled at anchor in the heave of the Pacific “just as if they were at sea”. They were there for over a month, with nothing to look at but railway sidings and spindly jetties.
From the south came the first reports of an attack on a British steamer, and Bert noted that the British- flagged Chincha, another steamer, was waiting for orders whether to go home via the (expensive) Panama canal or risk the Magellan straits. One of Von Spee’s support vessels remained at large off Chile, but by early December news came through that Von Spee himself was dead, sunk with his guns and two thousand of his men when the British navy struck back as he rounded the Horn back into the Atlantic. “Is your trade much affected by the war? Is it not a terrible business,” wrote Bert, belatedly.
In Europe, the German advance on Paris had been stopped at the Somme, in northern France, and weary soldiers were digging into trenches that stretched to the Swiss border, but the conflict was rippling outwards. Turkey had attacked Russia in the Black Sea; Russia had invaded Armenia; France and Britain were pounding the Dardanelles; and colonial troops were fighting all over Africa. At sea, enemy mines were claiming merchant ships of all nationalities, but Bert’s only surviving comment concerned a spat between France and Chile over the breaches of neutrality. “I hope they will not start scrapping till we get clear out of it,” he wrote to his Ma.
When the last bags of saltpetre were finally aboard and stowed, two spars were lashed together and hoist aloft with two white lanterns vertically and two red horizontally, Asklund reported. Monkbarns’ crew then united in three cheers for each of the ships lined up waiting to leave after them and, when they had received the customary answering cheer for Monkbarns from each, they lined up and marched aft singing “John Brown’s baby had a pimple on his nose” hoping that the Old Man would splice the mainbrace. But Captain Donaldson was a teetotaller, so they were out of luck, said Asklund.
They sailed the following morning, early – so as to catch the off-shore breeze. At the crack of dawn boats rowed across from the other ships to help them heave up the anchor and set the sails. It was just before Christmas 1914 and Monkbarns was bound round the Horn for Ireland, for orders. Only steamers had the option of the Panama shortcut. Sailing ships were stuck with the extra six thousand miles of gales, fog and icebergs, and now enemy cruisers.
Monkbarns needed a fast passage, as there had been a scarcity of ship’s stores in Chile because of the hostilities. But as the months passed and the boys saw no further enemy vessels, they concluded that at least the war must be over.