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Their Great War

Whoever you are, wherever you are, someone like you was affected by the First World War

Midshipman ‘Kit’ Wykeham-Musgrave

Teenage British sailor sunk 3 times in 1 day in September 1914

by Dr Laura Rowe, University of Exeter

Wed 11 December 13

‘Kit’ was born on 4th April 1899, the son of a ‘gent’. He joined the Royal Navy as an officer cadet in 1912. His report from his time in the shore establishment described him as ‘keen and trustworthy, keen at all games and sport especially hunting and fishing.’

On the outbreak of war older officer cadets were called up early to sea service. Thinking that service on older ships which would be further away from the action would be safer, many of these fourteen and fifteen year olds were given such postings. The fifteen year old Kit was sent to one such ship, HMS Aboukir, an armoured cruiser launched in 1900.

On 22nd September Aboukir and her sister ships HMS Hogue and HMS Cressy were patrolling the Broad Fourteen off the coast Dutch coast. Their task was to support the work of the destroyers and submarines based at Harwich which were blockading Germany. In the early hours the three were steaming line ahead at about 10 knots without taking many anti-submarine precautions. Without warning a torpedo from the German submarine U9, commanded by Kapitänleutnant Otto Weddigen, struck Kit’s ship Aboukir, breaking her back. Kit was sleeping in the gunroom when the explosion happened. He rushed on deck and, with the rest of the crew, secured the scuttles and watertight doors, before throwing anything that would float overboard so act as floats should the ship go down. The ship began to list heavily before finally sinking twenty minutes after she was first struck. As Kit later wrote ‘fortunately there was not a great deal of suction on the side we jumped off, so with difficulty we got clear’. He then swam to HMS Hogue who had stopped to take on survivors, but just as he climbed aboard she too was hit, sinking in under three minutes. Kit swam to HMS Cressy who had also stopped to pick up survivors from Aboukir. After being hauled up the side with a rope he was taken below decks and given a steaming mug of hot cocoa. He had no sooner had he finished it when the dangerously stationary Cressy was also struck.

Kit found a plank to cling onto, and after three hours in the cold North Sea waters was eventually picked up by the Dutch trawler Titan and taken back to Harwich where he wrote a letter three days later to his Grandmother which began ‘I had the most thrilling experience…’. In all there were 300 survivors; there were 1,459 dead.

Kit went on to become a Lieutenant, retiring from the service to join the Gloucester Yeomanry in 1923; although he was recalled to naval service during the Second World War.

Imperial War Museum, Department of Documents, 22725, ‘Private Papers of Wenham Humfry [sic] Wykeham-Musgrave
The National Archives, ADM 196/122, Service Record of Wenham Humfrey Wykeham-Musgrave
Julian Thompson, Imperial War Museum Book of the War at Sea 1914-1918 (Pan Books, 2005)
Paul G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (US Naval Institute Press, 1994)