Survived famous naval battle and was honoured by the French

John Henry Withers was a Lance Sergeant with the Royal Marines Artillery, was honoured by the French but was killed just over a month after his marriage in 1917. He left behind a diary, which is treasured by his family.

John Henry Withers, known as Jack, was born in Louisa Street in the Docks in 1887 but moved to Bromsgrove Street and later Bromfield Street in Grangetown. His father Henry Albert (or Alfred), a docks labourer, lived there at No 17 until 1948.

Jack went to Grangetown Boys School. The school records mention his honour by the French in 1917 and something of his career. He received the Croix de Guerre for devotion to duty. "He was mentioned in dispatches of the Jutland Battle when serving on HMS Warrior, which put up so gallant a fight." He was presented with the award, along with 30 other men, on 20th June by Colonel Barbier of the French Artillery, "pinning it on our breasts and shaking hands with us". The next day he was also given a certificate and his commanding officer wrote a copy in English for him, and both were to be framed.

Jack's vivid account of Jutland survives with his family and is reproduced below. He volunteered for the front in August 1916 and had served 13 years with the Royal Marines, according to his school record. Records also show him working for a couple of years as a van boy with Great Western Railway until leaving in 1904.

Jack married Nellie Gwendoline ("Gwennie") Tucker on 5th November, 1917 but on 28th December, he was killed while based with the siege guns at Dunkerque and is buried in Belgium.

A descendant has forwarded us a copy of some of the pages of Jack's diary written during the war, which tell of life as a soldier but also his time on leave with his family - and his faith and activity with the Salvation Army.

Whilst Jack was on duty in Belgium his mail regularly included the War Cry and when he was on leave he and his fiancee, attended services and meetings at the Grangetown Wesleyan Chapel and the Salvation Army Hall. Below is an extract from his diary whilst on leave, just after his honour:

Sunday 1st July, 1917: "At 11am. I went with Gwennie to the Mission, and we enjoyed the service. In the evening I went to the Salvation Army and then for a nice walk."

Monday 2nd July, 1917: "At 6.30 p.m. I went with family to a tea in the Salvation Army Hall and at 7.30 p.m. we attended a reception meeting at the Grangetown Wesleyan Chapel which was given on my behalf, and it was an evening that I will never forget".

The photo above shows Sgt John Henry Withers and his half brother Thomas Withers RNVR, taken in 1917; and below a page from his diary

"Whilst around our guns, we were lightly talking about it and passing jokes, but in my heart I knew it meant death to many of us."

A few details of the recent North Sea action off the coast of Jutland on May 31st 1916 by Corporal J.H.Withers of the Royal Marine Artillery, late of HMS Warrior.

Warrior was one of our first class armoured cruisers, and was built at Pembroke about 1907. She carried a compliment of 780 officers and men, and her armament consisted of six 9.2 guns, four 7.5 guns, 28 three-pounder guns, two maxim guns, and had three submerged torpedo tubes, and her tonnage was about 12,000 tons. She belonged to our First Cruiser Squadron, which comprised four first class armoured cruisers, namely HMS Defence, flying the flag of Rear-Admiral Sir Robert Arbuthnot, HMS Black Prince and HMS Duke of Edinburgh.

"At the beginning of the war, we were on the Mediterranean Station, and were the squadron which strived hard to destroy the German battle cruiser Goeben, and the light cruiser Breslau, which succeeded in escaping from us and getting into the Dardanelles, and sold themselves to Turkey. Not long after this, we were recalled to home waters, and left our naval affairs in the hands of the powerful French Squadron, who took charge in the Mediterranean Station. In October 1914, we joined up with our Grand Fleet at the Naval base at ---- --- (1) under Admiral Sir John Jellicoe.

HMS Warrior

On Tuesday May 30th 1916, our squadron was lying at one of our naval bases at --------, (2), where we had been for about 14 days, with the ordinary routine of keeping everything in readiness for the much vaunted 'Der Tag', or 'The Day', proudly boasted of by the Germans, and for which we had patiently waited the past 20 months. About 8pm. we received a signal from our flagship to prepare for sea Immediately, and to be ready to leave within an hour's notice, with steam for 19 knots. We thought nothing unusual about this, for we have been doing this sort of thing for so long and going out in all weathers, only to come back into harbour again to replenish with coal and to carry on the same old routine as ever, and to patiently wait. At 9.30pm. we received orders to proceed, so we weighed anchor and left with our squadron. The weather was fine and the sea was calm, and we were steaming in Single Line Ahead Formation and on a south-easterly course with the Defence leading, and little did any of us think that three out of the four ships were never to return, for it was only the Duke of Edinburgh that ever reached harbour again.

During the night, I was on watch from 12 midnight till 4am., which we call the middle watch, and a careful watch was kept for submarines, as the weather was everything in a submarine's favour, to be able to launch a successful attack on us. On Wednesday forenoon, we were all at our action stations, at a drill which is always carried out when we are at sea, and also in the harbour, and keeps every man accustomed to his different duties. Even at this time we did not know, that in a few hours time, we were to have the experience of our lives, and which I can never banish from my mind, although I am sure that our Admiral and Captain knew something about it. When we are at sea, we are in what we call three watches, one watch always being on duty around the 3-pounder guns, which are quick-firing automatic guns, the other two watches being on different duties about the ship, and generally after mid-day, are resting between decks. On the Wednesday afternoon, it was my watch on duty, and I was in charge of eight three-pounder guns crews on the After Shelter Deck, which is a kind of raised deck just abaft of the mainmast.

About 2pm our Commander had us together and told us the welcome news, that the whole German Fleet had been sighted, and that our Battle Cruiser Squadron under Admiral Sir David Beatty on HMS Lion was then engaging them about 50 miles away on our port bow. The weather was still fine but very hazy and inclined to be foggy, and our squadron was now opened out at 10 miles apart and steaming in Line Abreast formation, and we were looking for the enemy. There was never a better feeling in the ship and our hopes were high, with a feeling that we were at last to settle the grim struggle on the water, once and for all, and whilst around our guns, we were lightly talking about it and passing jokes, but in my heart I knew it meant death to many of us.

About 3.20pm. we could hear the distant boom of guns, which made all hands as happy as schoolboys. About ten minutes later, we could see splashes in the water of falling shots, although we could not see our Battle Cruiser Squadron or the enemy's ships, owing to the haze that hung about us like a cloud, and yet the sun was shining brightly. We were closing in to Single Line Ahead Formation, but when we opened up the action, the Duke of Edinburgh, who was 30 miles away, failed to reach us and went off on her own after a German mine-layer which we heard later, and she safely reached harbour again, whilst the other three ships of the squadron ran into the thick of it after doing execution among the German ships, but unhappily all three ships foundered.

Warrior at Jutland in March 1916

At 3.45pm. 'Action Stations' was sounded off, the two watches below were then having tea and with a cheer, all hands went to their different stations of duty. Tables and stools were trussed up overhead and surgeons' operating tables were got ready, and in two minutes all were ready. Our watch at the guns immediately left the small guns that we had been stationed at, and went to our posts of duty, I myself being stationed at a 9.2 turret gun. As I entered the turret, the order was given to load with a common shell, which by the way weighs 380lbs, with a charge of 120lbs of cordite and powder behind it. It is fired by means of a tube, with electricity, the whole taking about 30 seconds to load. We were waiting for the next order and had only been loaded for about three minutes, when we got the following order, 'German Cruiser', on a certain named bearing, 'Range, 7,000yds, Fire', and our first shot got home. The gun was loaded again immediately and owing to us closing in on the enemy, the range was decreased and with our second salvo into her, we had her on fire, and with our third, she was beneath the waves. All the time there was no panic or confusion of any kind, for there was no cause to be, for we had finished our opponent. I may say that these three salvoes were fired from the starboard side of the ship. The port battery was now brought to bear and fought a light cruiser and a destroyer and after firing 17 rounds, sank them both.

Whilst our side was thus disengaged, we received a message from our ammunition passages below that we were on fire down below and this was our first real thought of being in a precarious predicament. Our Officer who was in charge of the turret immediately ordered me to run across to the opposite guns crew and to repeat the message to them that we had just received. Those few moments I will never forget, for as I left the turret I was dismayed at the havoc that had been caused, for there was debris everywhere, and great shot-holes in the deck, and shells were whizzing everywhere, for whilst we were engaged around the gun under nine inches of armour, we never knew the destruction that had been caused us.

We were now being terribly punished by four German dreadnoughts, entirely out of range, and we could not strike back. I climbed over the debris and delivered my message, but how I got back to my gun, I never know, for I got smothered in falling splinters from our boats overhead, every one of which was riddled, with great shot-holes through each of our four funnels and the ship badly on fire down below. It was here that the 'Warspite' arrived on the scene and completely took the fire off of us and went for the four German ships herself. Thus we were saved from watery grave, for our sister ships' Defence and Black Prince had both sunk, fighting to the very last, and were blown up by their respective magazines exploding.

It was now about 7pm. and we were completely hopeless, for we could not move owing to our engine rooms and stock holds being flooded. Admiral Jellicoe with our main Battle Squadron was now upon the scene and the German fleet had had enough and ran for home, being hotly pursued and punished by our Battle Fleet. We could do nothing else now as far as fighting was concerned. We had our hands full for an hour and a half battling with the fire, which we succeeded in mastering. A wind had now sprung up and it was getting rough.

The Engadine, which came to the Warrior's rescue

It was now that the 'Engadine', an aeroplane ship, came alongside and smartly got us in tow. We were then 380 miles from our shore and guns crews were told off again to man the small guns and to watch for a submarine attack. The majority of the hands were busy with the carpenters, making rafts of everything that would float, as our boats were useless, and all through that night, men were on the pumps trying to keep the water out, but it was steadily gaining on us and we were slowly but surely sinking. From 8pm. until 11pm. I was with a party of men that had a sad task to perform in getting up from below, the wounded and badly mutilated remains of our poor comrades who had perished. Many of the poor fellows had been gassed and were not even scratched, and it was hard to believe that they would never speak again.. The wounded were placed under the doctor's care and our three surgeons worked like heroes all through the night until 3.30am., amputating and dressing wounds, one having to discard his blood-saturated uniform and don his civilian clothes. The dead were laid side by side on the upper deck and wherever it was possible, were recognised, but many poor fellows you could not discern. At 10pm. four of us were detailed off to bury them, 66 in all, by lowering them over the ship's side into the sea. We now really know the horrors of it all and it was a hard task as they were comrades I had lived with for five years together in the ship. It made us bite hard to do it and many a time turned away from it. One of my personal chums had recently been married and knowing his wife well, my heart yearned for her, but before parting with his body, we removed the ring from off his finger. I had a longing to search his pockets to see if he had any notes on him, thinking of his wife, but I had not the heart to go further and we bade him good-bye, and it was 11pm. before our sorrowful task was over.

In the early hours of the next day, about 6am. our Captain decided to abandon the ship, for on our main deck we were up to our waist in water and we could not keep it down. The sea was now very rough so the Engadine cast off our towing hawser and with great difficulty was secured alongside. We had many poor fellows badly wounded in cots and it was with great difficulty that we had in transferring them from one ship to the other owing to the heavy seas. Many of the poor fellows had a rough handling and yet never murmured and we were to witness another sad spectacle, for whilst striving to get them safely on board, one poor fellow fell out of his cot and dropped down between both ships, and after great difficulty, was eventually got out by one of the 'Engadine's officers (3), going down on a rope at great risk. Shortly afterwards, the poor fellow died, for he had already had a leg amputated.

We cast off from our dear old ship and steamed around her as she was sinking fast. I will never forget the sight, for our fellows were cheering her and many were crying like children. Nothing of importance happened during the day and our lads, where possible, tried to dry their clothes for many were wet through. I laid down on the deck from 9am. until 6pm. and all the time tried hard to sleep but failed to do so, for I could not get away in my mind the scene I had just left. The 'Engadine' crew were all they could be to us, giving us hot cocoa and bread and corned beef, but I could not eat. During the Friday night, some more of our poor lads were committed to the deep having died from their terrible injuries.

At 2am. on the Saturday morning we arrived at ------ (4), another of our naval bases, and for a few hours we were employed in transferring our wounded to the shore hospitals, and at 8pm. we proceeded alongside of the jetty. Our Captain now assembled us all together and addressed us. He was full of emotion and praise for the fine conduct of his crew during that fateful 31st. May. He had previously had our officers' reports of the conduct of the men under their charge and many a man's name was read out for special mention to the Admiralty for gallant deeds and devotion to duty, among them being five of my Marine comrades, making six Marines all told. Our officer's example was splendid, and our Captain, who is every inch of him a hero, directed operations from the bridge with no shelter at all. He stayed through it all and his sympathy for others cost two men their lives. These two men were on duty with him on the bridge and he sent them both below under armour and it was here that they were killed. We cheered our Captain until we were hoarse, for he is a gentleman, and I hope to have the pleasure in serving with him again, namely Captain (Vincent Barkly) Molteno (pictured right). For each of our Officers, I could not say too much for them. All the dockyard men assembled and gave us hearty cheers.

Half of us were put on HMS Dreadnought who happened to be there in dockyard hands, and the remainder on the Crecent, where we got a good meal and all we wanted. During the forenoon, Admiral Beatty arrived in on HMS Lion and his squadron, also the Warspite and several light cruisers and destroyers. During the day I went on board the Warspite, Tiger, Princess Royal, and the small cruiser Southampton, each ship bearing many scars from the battle, and it was our only topic, but with sad hearts for many a comrade left behind in their watery grave. This was Friday, and that night we all had a hammock each and it was indeed welcome. I had not been in a bed since the previous Tuesday night and in wet clothes from the Wednesday. In my heart I was deeply grateful to God, although having lost all, treasures that I treasured for years, yet so thankful for my life.

It is an experience none can feel unless actually been through it. On Saturday, we made ourselves look as respectable as possible and our Captain again had us together and said good-bye to all, and thanked us for our loyalty to himself. We thanked him for his wonderful and brave leadership and cheer after cheer rang out for him.

At 9.30pm. we embarked in a special train bound for the south of England, some ratings for Chatham, some for Portsmouth and the majority for Devonport, as the Warrior was a Devonport ship and the majority of the crew were drawn from that Division. Many were the incidents on our journey down and we had wonderful receptions everywhere, having White and Red Ensigns flying out of the carriage windows. At midnight we were in the great Waverley Station at Edinburgh and the place was packed and the excitement intense, for they were all clamouring for news of the great fight after having read the disheartening report which had been published in the newspapers. Cigarettes, cakes, chocolates and books were showered upon us in the carriages and again. We were sent off amid deafening cheer.

About 4am. on the Sunday morning we were in Preston Station in Lancashire, where a company of Australians assembled and waited for us, serving us with tea and biscuits. 'Tommy' did not forget to cheer 'Jack', and vice-versa, as we again steamed out of the station. About 8am. we arrived at Euston Station and we were given another meal and then taken across London via the tube railway, underground to Victoria Station. We were the objects of sympathy everywhere, for in this dirty condition we had to intermingle among ladies in their fine silk dresses and gentlemen in their box hats. It made us wish that we had crossed London in a furniture van shut out of sight, and yet everyone was so kind to us. Many were the incidents at Victoria Station where we had to wait for a few hours. We had the opportunity of having a much needed wash in hot water and even scented soap. Ladies and young girls were indeed sympathetic, many of them in tears and even kissing us which made our fellows wish that they were back in the North Sea again, and they were greatly interested in the many curios and grim relics of the fight that we showed them. One old gentleman was so excited that he snatched a cap off a mate's head and ran away, We thought he had taken it as a memento of the occasion but an half hour later, he returned with it full of money that he had collected from among the great crowd on the station. We were given another meal here, and about noon, we left Victoria for Portsmouth amidst a scene I will not hurriedly forget.

Nothing of importance occurred during the remainder of our journey and it was at 5.40pm. on the Sunday evening after our long journey when we arrived at Portsmouth, feeling glad that it was at an end. Many of the mens' wives, families and sweethearts met them there and we marched off to our Headquarters at Eastney Barracks where we arrived at 6pm. We were addressed by our General Commanding and he spoke of the fine report that he had received of the example set by the Royal Marine Artillerymen during the fierce engagement. We were all given new underclothing, a hot bath and food, and we settled down for the night, but I was allowed to go out and see many friends and stayed with them for the night. Next day, Monday, we were fitted out with new uniform and on Tuesday, I was given 28 days leave for having been away for five years on the 'Warrior'.

The same night, I arrived home in Cardiff to be welcomed by my loved ones who had naturally had very anxious times concerning my safety. Having spent an enjoyable holiday with them, I have suffered nothing worse after my recent experience than a severe cold. Everywhere I have been, and with the many friends I have been, love and kindness has been my lot all the time, for which I am grateful. After all, I have only done my duty, willing with a good heart to do it again, for it is inhuman and devilish work and man was never created for such things. I feel confident that the German Navy received a far more heavier blow than what we received from them, and proud in having served under such men as Sir David Beatty and Captain Molteno, and above all, thankful to God for my life after going through an experience that I will never forget.

With this I conclude, remaining, sincerely yours, Jack. "

Memorial scroll and grave in Belgium

Thanks to Mike Withers

Grangetown War Memorial