Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Torpedoed at Gallipoli: Charles Henry Coombes Farr, 27 May 1915

The last moments of British battleship HMS Majestic, torpedoed by the U-21 off Cape Helles, Dardanelles, on 27 May 1915.
Photo from The War Illustrated, 26 June 1915.On the British ship from which this photograph was taken, men are watching the tragic spectacle.

Early in the morning of 27 May 1915, off the coast of the Gallipoli peninsula, Commander Otto Hersing of the German submarine U-21 fired two torpedoes at the huge battleship HMS Majestic. The weapons travelled  through the defensive screen of destroyers and anti-torpedo nets, striking their target and causing a huge explosion.

The ship began to list to port and within minutes had capsized in 54 feet (16 m) of water, killing 49 men. Her masts hit the mud of the sea bottom, and her upturned hull remained visible for many month.  It was finally submerged when her foremast collapsed during a storm.  


Charles Farr’s name is listed on East Budleigh village war memorial

Among the casualties was 32-year-old Able Seaman Charles Henry Coombes Farr. Born in East Budleigh on 23 July 1882, he was the son and apparently the only child of Mary Ann and Henry Farr. His father was an agricultural labourer.

 In addition to the village and church memorials in his birthplace, and to the Royal Navy’s memorial on Plymouth Hoe, Charles Farr’s name is recorded on the war memorial in the parish church of St Cyr and Julitta in the village of Newton St Cyres.

The explanation is that as a child he was brought up by his aunt, Mary Ann Gilpin, who lived in the village. After Charles’s death in 1915 the Vicar of Newton St Cyres wrote in the Cadbury Deanery Magazine: “He spent most of his young life in our midst, though it was not his home. Our sympathy goes out to Mrs Gilpin, who brought him up and cared for him as if he were her own son.”

William and Mary Ann Gilpin lived in Exminster at the time of the 1871 and 1881 censuses, where William was an agricultural labourer, and in 1881 Mary Ann is described as a Honiton lace maker. They seem to have had no children of their own and were already looking after a two-year-old boy. The relationship is described as nurse/child. By 1891 they had moved to an address in Newton St Cyres described as Norton Cottages, Churchills, where they were looking after two little girls.

Mary Ann Gilpin was widowed by 1901 and had moved to a cottage in West Town, Newton St Cyres. She described herself as a nurse and had taken in an elderly gentleman boarder and another little girl.

Presumably Charles Farr spent time in the 1890s with the Gilpins. He is listed in 1891 with his parents in East Budleigh and his mother’s death is registered in 1895. Mary Ann Gilpin had moved by 1911 to a cottage in Newton St Cyres, the address being listed as The Village, and here she lived with an adopted daughter Dorothy aged ten and her elderly gentleman boarder.

Charles Henry Coombes Farr joined the Navy as a Boy 2nd Class on 15 May 1899 at the age of seventeen. He is described as being 5ft 6ins tall with light brown hair, blue eyes and a fair complexion. His previous occupation was as a labourer. He joined the shore based training hulk HMS Northampton, where he spent the summer of 1899 and quickly rose to Boy 2nd Class. This was followed by experience on HMS Calliope built as a fully rigged sailing corvette, supplemented by powerful engines, designed to protect trade with far flung outposts of the British Empire. Calliope was reclassed as a cruiser in 1887.

After four months on the cruiser HMS Arrogant, Charles rose to the rank of Ordinary Seaman and on his eighteenth birthday signed on for twelve years.  He then served on a series of armoured cruisers and on the battleship HMS Renown in 1901, where he became an Able Seaman. Renown, launched in 1895 is classed as one of the pre-dreadnought battleships, made obsolete by the arrival of the new and more powerful HMS Dreadnought in 1906.


The Royal Naval Barracks, Devonport  


The Canteen at the Royal Naval Barracks Devonport  
© Hudson & Kearns, London  

Charles’ service was interspersed with time training at the smart new barracks in Devonport’s HMS Vivid, and the signals training base HMS Vivid 1. Gunnery training was done on HMS Cambridge and further time was spent at the Chatham shore base HMS Pembroke. He is listed amongst the crew of the armoured cruiser HMS King Alfred in the 1911 census. His character throughout his service was consistently described as ‘very good’.


The imposing clocktower at the Royal Naval Barracks Devonport From a postcard


The Gymnasium at the Royal Naval Barracks Devonport, circa 1904.  From a postcard

His term of duty complete by the summer of 1912 Charles immediately joined the Royal Naval Reserve Devonport B4490. On 2 August, 1914, he returned to HMS Vivid at Devonport and after 10 days was assigned to the pre-dreadnought battleship HMS Majestic.


HMS Majestic

For the Royal Navy and the British public, the sinking of HMS Majestic was one of the worst incidents of the Dardanelles Campaign. Commissioned in 1895, the ship was described in Sir Julian Corbett’s section on Naval Operations in the History of the Great War (1923) as “the pride of the old Channel fleet, in whose design the whole thought and experience of the Victorian era had culminated.”

On the outbreak of war, Majestic along with the rest of the 7th Battle Squadron had covered the passage of the British Expeditionary Force to France in September 1914. She was then detached from the Channel Fleet and escorted the first Canadian troop convoy. This was followed by various North Sea postings, including being used as a guard ship at the Nore and the Humber.

In February 1915, Majestic was assigned to participate in the campaign to open the Turkish Straits. She joined the Dardanelles force on 24 February 1915, and on 26 February 1915 departed the Aegean island of Tenedos to bombard the Turkish inner forts at the Dardanelles that morning.  During this action, the ship took a hit below the waterline, but was able to continue operations and patrolled the area again on 27 February 1915. She supported the early landings at Gallipoli, shelling the forts on 1 March 1915 and again while patrolling on 3 March before arriving five days later at Mudros on the island of Lemnos.


Majestic steaming out of Mudros harbour with several destroyers

From 9 March, Majestic took part in further actions against Turkish forts, participating in the final attempt to force the straits by naval power alone on 18 March 1915. The ship was hit four times and returned to Tenedos with one dead and some wounded crew members. 

She took part in further shelling of Turkish forts during the following weeks, and on 25 April was back in action, signalling London that Allied landings had begun at Gallipoli and supporting them with coastal bombardments. That evening, she brought 99 wounded troops aboard and the next day was back in action early, exchanging fire with Turkish guns. 

On 25 May Majestic relieved HMS Triumph as the flagship of Admiral Nicholson, commanding the squadrons supporting the troops ashore off Cape Helles.

It was two days later, while stationed off West Beach at Cape Helles, that Majestic became the third battleship to be torpedoed off the Gallipoli peninsula in two weeks

Charles Farr was among those whose bodies were never recovered. He left a widow, Louisa. 


The Plymouth Naval Memorial on The Hoe
Image credit: The Commonwealth War Graves Commission

I am greatly indebted to Jean Wilkins for her help in drafting this life of Charles Henry Coombes Farr. Her research was based on the following references: 

Commonwealth War Graves Commission details for Service number 204611
National Archives Naval record ADM188/356/204611 Farr Charles Henry Coombes No204
Cadbury Deanery Magazine July 1915
1881 Census Piece2148 Folio38 Page17 Registration District St Thomas (Find my Past)
1891 Census Piece1674 Folio42 page4 Registration District St Thomas (Find my Past)
1891 Census Piece1761 Folio128 Page8 Registration District Crediton (Find my Past)
1901 Census Piece2131 Folio121 Page6 Registration District Crediton (Find my Past)
1901 Census Piece5332 Folio8 Page8 Registration District Royal Navy at Sea or in Ports Abroad. (Find my Past)
1911 Census RG14 Piece13208 Reference RG14PN13208 RG78PN765RD281 SD4 ED13 Registration District Crediton (Find my Past)
1911 Census RG 14 Piece12788 Reference RG14PN12788RD272SD6ED30SN9999 Registration District Newton Abbot (Find my Past)
Free BMD

‘The Great War at Fairlynch’ 2015 exhibition at Budleigh Salterton’s very special museum! Reviews included: “Wonderful display on WW1, informative, bright and relevant. Well done!! 

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