Three of the most hallowed sites in Royal Navy history will be protected from plunderers as the Government takes steps to safeguard 13 Great War shipwrecks.
More than 1,450 men died when the cruisers HMS Hogue, Aboukir and Cressy were sunk in the space of an hour by a single German submarine in September 1914.
The loss of the three outdated warships while patrolling the North Sea off the Dutch coast provoked outrage a century ago and earned the vessels an unfortunate nickname: The Live Bait Squadron.
Kent and London suffered particularly heavily; six in every seven men who drowned were from the Chatham Port Division – 1,264 of the 1,459 souls lost.
The three wrecks lie about 100 feet down some two dozen miles off The Hague. After a century only about 30 feet of the three warships protrude from the seabed, which is littered with shells, cordite charges and personal effects such as shoes.
No wreck is intact thanks to the ravages of the initial torpedo strikes, effects of the weather and salvaging – pre-1945 steel is particularly highly valued as it is not tainted by radioactive particles from nuclear explosions.
HMS Falmouth - Postcard showing the ship at sea shortly before she was commissioned in September 1911. Courtesy WD Cocroft
Some lawful salvaging of the wrecks took place half a century ago - but in more recent decades both the public and government have taken a dim view on any disturbing Royal Navy shipwrecks around the globe.
Any salvager now faces prosecution as the sites now come under the 1986 Protection of Military Remains Act, but it does not prevent divers from visiting the wrecks, as long as they 'look but don't touch or enter'.
The act has been used to offer protection to HMS Prince of Wales and Repulse, sunk by the Japanese off Malaysia in 1941, all Royal Navy vessels lost in the Falklands in 1982 and many of the wrecks of the Battle of Jutland. In all, 78 sites fell under the act's jurisdiction.
Renewed interest in the Great War as a result of the centenary and illegal salvaging of some of the more accessible wrecks, including the Hogue, Aboukir and Cressy, led to calls for more sites to be covered by the 1986 act.
The 13 additional ships – and the 2,516 bodies in them – now under the act's umbrella include submarine E49, lost with all hands off the Shetlands in 1917, the former liner Laurentic which hit a mine off the Northern Ireland coast that same year, taking gold bullion worth about £1.5bn in today's money and 354 men to the bottom.
Henk van der Linden, chairman of the Live Bait Squadron Society, who was recently awarded the British Empire Medal for his decade-long efforts to ensure the men of the three cruisers are properly remembered in the UK and his native Netherlands, said he was "very glad" that the three wrecks were now protected.
"They are still regarded as war graves and deserve to be respected as such. Nevertheless, the underwater site has developed into a popular diving location, not least because of the precious new fauna and flora that came into being in and around the wrecks," he continued.
"Divers are generally known to show great consideration for the sunken ships – the site has developed into a popular diving location, not least because of the precious new fauna and flora that came into being in and around the wrecks," he explained.
"The same can't be said, however, of the so-called salvagers whose dismantling actions caused a lot of commotion although eventually their destructive acts were brought to an end – one day, when the wreck salvagers were putting into port in the Netherlands, the authorities were waiting for them and their haul was sequestrated. "
The wrecks now added to the 1986 act's 'protected places' list are:
- - HMS Hogue, Aboukir and Cressy
- - HMS Pheasant, destroyer sunk by mine in March 1917 off the Orkneys with 88 men lost.
- - HMS Moldavia, armed merchant cruiser torpedoed off Beachy Head in May 1918; 56 American personnel died.
- - HMS E49, submarine mined off Shetland in March 1917. All 31 hands lost.
- - HMS Viknor, armed merchant cruiser, lost to a German mine off Donegal, May1915, with 295 crew.
- - HMS E47, submarine lost in the North Sea in August 1917, cause unknown. All 31 crew lost.
- - HMS Falmouth, torpedoed off Flamborough Head in August 1916. All crew rescued.
- - HMS Laurentic, armed merchant cruiser mined off Lough Swilly, January 1917. 354 men lost, 391 saved.
- - HMHS Anglia, hospital ship mined off Folkestone in November 1915 with the loss of 134 men.
- - HMS Lady Patricia, 'Q ship', torpedoed by U46 off Skellig Island, May 1917. All 31 crew lost.
- - SS Armenian, horse transport, torpedoed off Trevose Head, June 1915, with the loss of 29 men and 1,400 mules
This article appears courtesy of Royal Navy News and may be found in its original form here.