Stars in our time of darkness

The First World War is one the darkest chapters in our history, but we will never forget the countless acts of humanity that shone through – including those of RNLI lifeboat crews on the home front.
Historic reconstruction

Photo: RNLI/Nigel Millard

This year, we celebrate the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day and the end of the First World War, known then as the Great War. Nobody could have imagined that the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in June 1914 would trigger the death of around 13M people and bring Europe to ruin. The 4 years of bloodshed finally ended on 11 November 1918, when the Allies and Germany signed an armistice at Compiègne in France.

The Great War stories we hear today are often related to the misery of the trenches, the menace of U-boats and the threats of air raids and new-fangled sky combat. But it was the tales of brave, everyday men and women that redefined our meaning of the word hero. And that extends to those doggedly protecting our homelands – ordinary people, like our lifeboat volunteers, doing extraordinary things.

Home front

While the Great War took lives, RNLI volunteers saved lives – a total of 5,332 over the course of the conflict. Their lifesaving craft mostly relied on the strength of oarsmen and the power of the wind. And the vast majority were launched by hand or by horse from exposed beaches. 

As more and more young men were called up to join the war effort, older people became the backbone of local lifeboat crews. The average age of an RNLI crew member rose to around 55 and, because most rescues relied on plenty of oarpower, the business of lifesaving was gruelling. The Life-boat Journal of 1918 was full of admiration for them: ‘Old men, grey-haired and bent – and the majority afflicted with the ills of old age – struggling in the darkness against the wind and rain to answer the call, without a moment’s thought of the dangers that they had to face.’

Changing casualties

The war also brought with it a different type of casualty. Ships in the North Sea, the English Channel and the Atlantic were targeted by U-boats after Germany declared a blockade on Britain in 1915. So our crews were called out to many ships that had been torpedoed or had struck mines. This would sometimes include the unenviable task of recovering bodies, like after the sinking of the passenger liner Lusitania off Co Cork in May 1915, which caused the deaths of over 1,000 people. There were also calls to ships on official war duty, such as the hospital ship Rohilla. She struck Whitby Rock in October 1914 on her way to France to pick up wounded soldiers. Six lifeboat crews battled high seas and storm-force winds for 50 hours to save 144 lives.

A painting of Lusitania in 1915

Photo: Shutterstock

Lusitania, off the Old Head of Kinsale, as a second torpedo strikes on 7 May 1915

There was no let-up. In June 1916 alone, RNLI volunteers saved the lives of 70 people. Clacton-on-Sea lifeboat crew saved 27 from Gorliz of Bilbao and another vessel. The crew of Gorleston number one lifeboat rescued two vessels – La France of Kragero and Seaconnel of Philadelphia – saving 44 men. And Coxswain Stephen of Montrose lifeboat jumped into the sea to save an injured pilot whose plane had ditched a mile off the coast. This was by no means unique – RNLI lifesavers rescued more than 22 people from aircraft incidents during the war.

Aftermath

The preoccupation of war and its information blackouts meant that stories of gallant lifeboat rescues only started coming to light when the fighting stopped. But George V did express his appreciation in 1917:

‘The King has learnt with much interest and satisfaction of the splendid work achieved by the Royal National Lifeboat Institution … rescuing, since the outbreak of War, 750 from His Majesty’s ships and other vessels lost by the action of mines and torpedoes and other causes arising directly out of the War.’

Volunteers collecting donations at London Lifeboat Day

Photo: Keystone View

In 1915 the RNLI decided that something should be done to ‘galvanise the nation’s support of its heroic lifeboat crews’ and the flag day was born

King George also sympathised with the RNLI’s financial hardship. As with so many other charities, the war had taken its toll on the lifeboat service. Come peacetime, volunteer recruitment wasn’t a problem – young men eagerly returned to their crews and others signed up anew. But it would cost £500,000 to resurrect the broken and outdated lifeboat fleet – around £27M in today’s money. 

Admiral Wemyss, British representative at the armistice, later said: ‘This raising of half a million must be the cause of great anxiety to the RNLI. We know how people’s pockets are strained at this moment, and how many things there are to which they can give their charity, but surely there are not many that are greater than this.’ 

It must have struck a chord as, by 1919, the RNLI had the wherewithal to resume its ambitious boatbuilding programme and put 50 new motor lifeboats in the fleet. Little did they know that many of these new lifeboats would be vital to the allied effort again, 20 years later at Dunkirk.

Lifesaving kit 

Whitby crew member dressed in old RNLI kit

Photo: RNLI/Nigel Millard

The kapok lifejacket, worn by former Whitby Coxswain Pete Thomson

The evolution of sail and oar to motor power was a boon to lifesaving but the RNLI fleet wasn’t transformed overnight. By 1914 we had more than 250 craft but only 23 had petrol engines and 3 were steam powered. Motor lifeboats cost more than seven times that of traditional designs and, with the UK at war, both donations and boatbuilders were scarce. So, open boats powered by strong arms and sails remained the workhorses of the wartime fleet. 

Around the same time, the RNLI started replacing the cork in its lifejackets with a cotton-like material known as kapok. These new kapok lifejackets had more than three times the buoyancy of their predecessors but the design was initially unpopular with crews. Eventually, they came to be accepted and were still being used right up until the 1960s.

The first Bronze Medals

RNLI Bronze Medal

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

The RNLI’s first ever Bronze Medals were awarded to Cromer lifeboat crew in 1917 for rescuing 33 people from two wrecks

During a terrible storm on 9 January 1917, Cromer lifeboat launched four times in 14 hours. Her crew battled heavy seas to rescue 22 sailors from the Greek ship Pyrin. As they arrived back on shore, triumphant and exhausted, they were immediately called to the Swedish steamship Fernebo, which had broken in two. 

The RNLI crew made several attempts to reach the ship. Many of their oars were smashed or washed overboard but, on their third attempt, things had calmed enough for them to get in close and rescue 11 men. 

Coxswain Henry Blogg was awarded the Gold Medal for his part and the Bronze Medal for Gallantry was created especially to recognise his crew’s ‘courage and dogged tenacity’.

Timeline

1914

28 July
War breaks out in Europe.

30 October
Hospital ship Rohilla hits Whitby Rock on her way to collect injured soldiers. Six RNLI crews battle for over 50 hours to save 144 people.

1915

18 February
Germany announces its blockade on commercial shipping in British waters.

7 May
German U-boat torpedoes Lusitania, killing 1,198 people. Queenstown and Courtmacsherry Harbour lifeboat crews rescue survivors and recover hundreds of bodies.

1916

31 May
British and German naval fleets engage for the Battle of Jutland.

1 July
The Battle of the Somme begins. More than 1.5M perish in the campaign.

27 October
Salcombe lifeboat disaster. Thirteen RNLI volunteers drown when their lifeboat capsizes on service.

1917

9 January
Cromer volunteers save 33 people when one ship hits a mine and another loses control in heavy seas. The entire lifeboat crew are awarded medals.

2 April
The US enters the war following the Black Tom explosion in New Jersey.

1918

16 July
Second Battle of the Marne. The turning point for an Allied victory.

11 November
The armistice is signed. Fighting ends on the Western Front – literally at the 11th hour.

Hope in the Great War 

The RNLI’s Hope in the Great War exhibition commemorates the centenary of the First World War. Funded by Arts Council England and touring museums and lifeboat stations, it honours the courage and determination of those who saved lives in a time of great conflict.

Communities worked together to create the interactive displays and captivating artwork, making it the ideal way for families to learn about the astounding work of RNLI volunteers during the Great War. The travelling exhibition has been on tour for 4 years – the length of the war. 

Don’t miss your last chance to see this unique exhibition. Its final stop is 2 October–29 November, Old Low Light Heritage Centre, Clifford’s Fort, North Shields. Find out more about the Hope in the Great War exhibition

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