Following the sinking of three Royal Navy ships (HMS Aboukir, HMS Cressy and HMS Hogue) by a German submarine on 22 September 1914, the Express & Star featured the story of Reverend Wilfred Ellis, formerly curate of St Andrew’s Church in Wolverhampton, who had been chaplain on the HMS Hogue.
He had volunteered for service on the outbreak of war, and had joined the HMS Hogue (which comprised 600 men) a fortnight previously. Fortunately, Reverend Ellis was one of the lucky ones, and by 29 September 1914 he was back in Wolverhampton and able to tell of his experiences. According to the newspaper, he was “looking wonderfully fit and well, but feeling somewhat stiff and a bit nervy, which is not surprising having regard to his exposure to the cold and the buffetting he received in the sea.” He had received a wonderful reception as he walked from his home in Newhampton Road to St Andrew’s New School in Gatis Street, with numerous parishioners stopping him to shake his hand.
On the night of 22 September, he heard reports that the Aboukir was sinking, so he put on his pyjamas, trousers and coat and picked up his Prayer Book “which is perhaps the only book saved from the three cruisers”. Before they could take further action, the Hogue itself was hit by two torpedoes in quick succession, and Reverend Ellis estimated that “she sank in about five minutes”. He expressed amazement at the lack of panic, as the lifeboats were lowered and all the timber and furniture was thrown overboard. Men jumped overboard and made for the pieces of wood to keep afloat, but as Reverend Ellis could not swim very well he stayed on board “and went down with the ship”. By chance a spar hit him on the nose, and he caught hold of this and another one under each arm so he was able to float. He was in the water for about twenty minutes before he was rescued, along with twenty or thirty other men. At this point, the Cressy, which had been firing at the submarines, was also hit.
The sinking of the final cruiser led to some men giving up hope, but Reverend Ellis was able to use his Prayer Book to keep up their spirits, singing hymns and songs like “Its a long, long way to Tipperary”. After four hours they were picked up by a Dutch merchant ship and taken to Holland. As some of the men “hadn’t a stitch on”, Reverend Ellis had given away his coat and trousers, and was left in his pyjamas.