The first of the 95 casualties from the Solihull area to die in 1915 was Royal Naval Chaplain, Rev. George Brooke Robinson, who died on New Year’s Day 1915 whilst serving on H.M.S. Formidable. This was the first British battleship to be sunk in the First World War. Rev. Robinson was the most senior Royal Navy chaplain to die in the war, and the fourth of 19 navy chaplains to be die on active service 1914-1919.
Born in Bombay, India on 6th April 1870, George Brooke Robinson appears on the 1881 census, aged 10, at boarding school in Brighton. By 1891, he was living in Cambridge with his widowed mother, Agnes. He studied at Pembroke College, Cambridge, obtaining a B.A. in 1894, and an M.A. in 1898. He was ordained as a Deacon in December 1895 at Worcester Cathedral, and served as curate at Solihull 1895-97. Traditionally, the curate at St Alphege took charge of the Mission Church at Catherine-de-Barnes, which is why his name appears on the village war memorial there. Unusually, the war memorial at Catherine-de-Barnes takes the form of a brass plaque on an oak font.
After being ordained as a Priest in 1897, Rev. Robinson became Curate at Burton Bradstock, Dorset from 1897 until 1899, when he became a Chaplain to the Royal Navy, serving on many ships before becoming chaplain on H.M.S. Formidable.
On New Year’s Eve 1914, Formidable had been taking part in firing and steaming exercises off the coast of Portland, Dorset and had been ordered to remain at sea overnight. At approximately 2.20 am on New Year’s Day 1915, the ship was hit by a torpedo fired from German U-boat U-24, whilst in Lyme Bay, 20 miles off Start Point. A second torpedo hit the ship 45 minutes later, and the ship finally sank at 04:39. After the first torpedo hit, the ship lurched heavily to starboard, meaning that only the lifeboats on the starboard side could be launched. Even this was with great difficulty, owing to the heavy seas.
The second torpedo hit the remaining boiler and the loss of power hampered the launch of more lifeboats, although the torpedo had put the ship back on an even keel. Deteriorating weather conditions delayed the rescue, with survivors in one lifeboat describing “mountainous seas” causing them to break most of the lifeboat oars in trying to keep the boat away from the sinking ship. They also told of having to use shoes and caps to bale out water after being constantly swamped by the seas washing over them. One of the men stuffed his trousers into a hole in the boat, and sat on it until the survivors were rescued by the Brixham trawler, Providence.
A detailed report of the sinking appeared in the Western Times on 4th January 1915 and the newspaper raised the “unpleasant possibility” that, if the attack on the Formidable had taken place before daybreak, it meant that the submarine was “not blind and useless by night”, as previously thought and may be a “very deadly opponent”. The newspaper also spoke of the survivors witnessing the last moments of the Formidable
when waves at length closed over the ship, her captain was standing on the bridge, and those of the men who were left were calmly standing on the quarter deck.
Rev. Robinson was one of those who went down with the ship, reportedly after having gone back below decks to retrieve cigarettes for the men. He is commemorated at Chatham Naval Memorial. His widow, Alice Irene Robinson, living at 40 Bembridge Crescent, Southsea, was awarded probate of his estate in March 1915.
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