William was born in Newick in 1892, the second son of James Wood, an agricultural labourer from Newick, and his wife Mary Jane who was born in Fletching. By the time of the 1901 census the family comprising James, Mary Jane, Thomas, William, Alfred, Sissie, and a step-sister, Florence, were living in Cornwells Bank. William attended the village school between 1899 and 1905.
Newick National Boys School 1880
William joined the Royal Navy at Portsmouth on the 4th April 1910 for a period of 12 years, under service number K5936. He gave his age as 18 years (which was correct,) and was 5ft 7in tall with a chest measurement of 35¾in. He had dark brown hair, brown eyes and a ruddy complexion and gave his place of birth as ‘Newick, Sussex’ and his occupation as ‘Farm Labourer’.
He initially trained as a Stoker 2nd Class, a physically demanding and vital job on-board the ships of the time. His initial instruction was undertaken both on-shore at Portsmouth (recorded as ‘Victory II’ on William’s naval record), and aboard HMS Renown (an obsolete battleship refitted as a training vessel for stokers). His next posting was to HMS Vernon, another shore-based training facility, where Robert Falcon Scott (immortalised as ‘Scott of the Antarctic’) had once served.
Following the successful completion of his training, William was posted to the battleship HMS Superb in early September 1910.
She had been completed in 1909, a product of the pre-war arms race with Germany and was the fourth so-called‘Dreadnought’ (after HMS Dreadnought, HMS Bellerophon and HMS Temeraire), massive ironclad battleships which immediately rendered all other fighting ships obsolete. She was actually a Belleropon-class battleship, as she incorporated design improvements first seen on HMS Bellerphon and also used on HMS Temeraire, her sister ships in the class.
HMS Superb was 160m (526ft) in length and displaced 22,000 tonnes when fully loaded, bristling with heavy guns and protected by thick armour, with a top speed of around 20 knots. She had a crew of 840 men. William’s job was to help keep the ship’s 18 boilers running on their fuel of coal impregnated with fuel oil (fully loaded, HMS Superb could carry over 3000 tonnes of fuel, giving her a range of over 7000 miles). He clearly did well and was promoted to Stoker 1st Class on 7th February 1911. William continued to serve aboard the ship until May 1913, when he was transferred to HMS Fisgard at Plymouth, a training establishment based on the obsolete battleship HMS Audacious. He married Margaret Backshall, who was from West Hoathly at a church in Kent in the first months of 1914.
On 30th July 1914, William was transferred to the newly established Dover Patrol, a unit based in Dover and Boulogne initially given the responsibility of preventing German submarines and surface ships from entering the Atlantic Ocean via the Straights of Dover and the English Channel. The on-shore facilities at Dover were given the name ‘Attentive II’ (recorded on William’s naval record as his place of posting). The activities of the Dover Patrol widened as the war proceeded, including not only anti-submarine patrols, but also escorting troop and hospital ships, as well as merchantmen, laying mines, and bombardment of German positions on the Belgian coast.
William’s time at sea was spent aboard HMS Ghurka, a Tribal-class destroyer which had entered service with the navy in 1908. She was 79m (260ft) long with a displacement of 990 tonnes when fully loaded, and a top speed of around 33 knots. She had a crew of 72 and was armed with five 12-pounder guns, two torpedo tubes and anti-submarine explosive charges. Like the eleven other destroyers of her class, the ship’s primary duties were in escorting and protecting larger ships and in engaging smaller vessels, such as submarines or other destroyers. She was powered by five coal-fired boilers, but had only limited space for fuel, resulting in a maximum range of some 1700 miles.
HMS Ghurka did not have a particularly illustrious start to her career with the Dover Patrol, as she was damaged in collision with another Tribal-class destroyer, HMS Cossack on 23rd August 1914 and spent time in dry dock. However, success did follow and on 4th March 1915, HMS Ghurka and her sister ships HMS Maori, HMS Nubian and HMS Viking engaged the German submarine U8 which had become entangled in anti-submarine nets laid across the Straights of Dover. Depth charges dropped from HMS Ghurka forced the submarine to the surface where U8 was shelled by the destroyers, until her crew abandoned and scuttled her. All 29 of U-boat crew are thought to have survived to be taken prisoner.
HMS Ghurka continued her duties with anti-submarine sweeps and escorting larger ships involved in bombarding the Belgian Coast until 8th February 1917. On patrol 4 miles off the coast of Dungeness, she struck a mine thought to have been laid by German submarine UC47 and rapidly sank. One of the survivors, Commander Frances Lewin gave the following account:
‘About 7.30 p.m., I was having dinner with the rest of the Officers in the ward room, the Officers including Lieutenant Woolcombe Boyce, an R.N.R. Sub. Lieutenant, the Torpedo Gunner, and the Engineer Officer. About half way through dinner there was a heavy explosion forward. The mess was cleared in about 20 seconds, everybody going on deck. I found that the explosion appeared to have taken place in the vicinity of the foremost funnel. The upper deck in that vicinity was practically awash, the fore part of the vessel in that vicinity canting considerably in the air. Lieutenant Woolcombe Boyce ran forward, and I never saw him again.
Within half a minute, as near as I can judge, of my arriving on deck, the fore part broke away from the after part of the ship. At that moment it seemed to me that the after part might float, as the fore end of it seemed to come higher in the water, but this was only momentary; and the after part at once started to settle down. I then went overboard with a Kisbey life buoy. The Engineer I found swimming about close to me, but what happened to him afterwards I cannot say. The Officer's Steward was saved, and one of the other survivors swam up very shortly afterwards and held on to my life buoy. Shortly after a Trawler was seen coming down, and she eventually picked us up. I cannot say when the after part of the ship disappeared, but it was not afloat for long. The fore part floated away in a vertical position, and I do not know what became of it. I supposed I was in the water about ten minutes.’
Commander Lewin, a visitor to the ship on the day of her sinking was awarded the Stanhope Gold Medal by the Royal Humane Society (which was founded in 1774 as the Society for the Recovery of Persons Apparently Drowned) for his bravery in saving some of the crew, of whom only five (including Lewin) survived; unfortunately Stoker 1st Class Wood was not one of them. His naval record gives the date of death by drowning as 8th February 1917 and notes ‘lost on HMS Ghurka’. He was 25 years old. An article published in The East Sussex News on Friday 16th February 1917 announced that he had drowned, but that he had:
‘recently been on a short leave, and just before his death his wife received a letter from him written with his usual cheerfulness and expressing a confident hope of the defeat of the latest phase of German frightfulness on the sea.’
William is commemorated in Newick on both the church and school memorials, in the Roll of Honour and Book of Remembrance, and at The Green, and on memorials at the parish church of Peter & St Paul, Luddesdowne (the hamlet of Great Buckland is within the parish).
His name also appears on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial on Southsea Common, Portsmouth, a massive obelisk which bears the names of 9,666 naval personnel who died at sea during the First World War. A further 14,922 names were added for those lost during the Second World War. The original monument at Portsmouth was designed by Sir Rupert Lorimer, with sculpture by Henry Poole. It was opened in October 1924 by the Duke of York (the future King George VI). The Second World War Extension was opened by the Queen Mother in April 1953.
The monument includes the names of those men whose service began at Portsmouth; there are similar memorials at Plymouth and Chatham for those whose service began at those naval bases; a total of 32,287 naval personnel were lost during the Great War.
The wreck of HMS Ghurka lies at a depth of 30m and has designated protection under the Protection of Military Remains Act (Designation of Wrecks and Controlled Sites) 1986, although bizarrely it was only given the status of an official war grave as late as 2008.
William’s Commonwealth War Grave Commission entry confirms the date and adds that he was the ‘son of James and Mary Jane Wood, of Newick, Sussex: husband of Margaret Wood, of Westlands, Great Buckland, Meopham, Kent.’ He was entitled to a 1914/5 Star, the British War Medal and the Victory Medal. Presumably the medals were sent to Margaret, who now had two young children. William’s elder brother Alfred also served in the Royal Navy, but survived the war.
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