T.W. Paterson: War brought sorrow for British devotee

In his day he was Cowichan’s best known citizen — known not just locally and regionally but internationally

“It is strange that so terrible a loss should fall to one who for many years has devoted unceasing energy and money to the work of arousing in Canada a fuller appreciation of our duty as British citizens…” —Cowichan Leader.

 

In his day he was Cowichan’s best known citizen — known not just locally and regionally but internationally as an outdoorsman, as an author, as a self-taught expert on arms and military affairs, and for his outspoken views on just about anything that caught his fancy or raised his ire.

Letters to the editor (almost always critical, always pro-Britannia, often sarcastic, even vitriolic and sometimes racist), public speeches, unsuccessful runs for political office, all formed Clive Phillips-Wolley’s public persona. English-born and fabulously rich, the lord of The Grange manse on Drinkwater Road had the time, the energy, the will and the means to indulge these passions. (Think Donald Trump ca 1910.)

Of all his causes, from something as trivial as insisting that British Columbians drive on the left side of the road as in the Old Country, his greatest single concern was that of Great Britain’s supremacy on the high seas. Pre-First World War, there was never a moment of the day that the sun didn’t shine on British possessions; it was global, an empire such as has never been achieved before or since. Its imposing political strength was based upon its navy, largest and most powerful in the world.

But there were those nations who would contest this supremacy. Since the turn of the century Germany had been building its own fleet of dreadnoughts, sparking an arms race that challenged the economies of both nations and heightened international tensions.

Although the Grange would seem an unlikely base for him to engage in such important international concerns, it was from there, in 1908, that Phillips-Wolley launched and conducted a lobbying campaign to have Canada support the motherland by building, or paying for, more and bigger and better dreadnoughts for the Royal Navy. As chief spokesman for the Naval League of Canada he addressed patriotic crowds, wrote letters, published pamphlets and badgered politicians to enlist support for such a course; instead, Canada and Great Britain compromised by establishing a fledgling Royal Canadian Navy with two obsolete British cruisers.

Simply put, there was no one in the Empire more patriotic than Clive Phillips-Wolley and the day his son and namesake came of age and joined the Royal Navy was among the proudest days of his life.

When, on August 4, 1914, Great Britain went to war with Germany and her allies, Britain’s colonies went to war, too. Who could have been more eager for the opportunity to at last put Germany in its place than Cowichan’s champion of naval supremacy, the proud father of a young lieutenant-commander in the greatest navy in the world? At last, the time for decisive action — another Trafalgar! — had come.

In all his campaigning for British naval supremacy Phillips-Wolley had shared the general belief that battleships were supreme. Neither he nor many other military experts had foreseen (or acknowledged) the advances in underwater weaponry. Germany had.

It had been building and perfecting a fleet of submarines — U-boats — for years. And it was a U-boat, the U-9, Lieutenant Otto Weddigen commanding, that would shatter Wolley’s world on Sept. 22, 1914 — barely two weeks into the First World War.

Patrolling off the Dutch coast in stormy seas despite having a faulty compass, Weddigen was so unsure of his position that he had to take soundings to keep from grounding.

But he was determined to continue his patrol and when the storm finally passed over it left a cloudless sky and unlimited visibility that made three smoke-smudges stand out against the horizon. Unaware of his presence the oncoming British armoured cruisers Cressey, Aboukir and Hogue maintained their course and speed as the U-9 closed from just beneath the surface.

The resulting action is a classic of submarine warfare. How Weddigen steadied his ship, which was still rocked by surface waves from the storm, by having crewmen act as portable ballast — by running forward and astern as he commanded them so he could take aim. When he fired his first two torpedoes he was so close to one target that he had to take emergency action to avoid a collision, the U-9 backing off just as both torpedoes struck their targets and exploded.

The sudden loss of the torpedoes’ weight in the bow shot the submarine, suddenly out of control, to the surface and into the fire of the mortally wounded but still fighting Hogue and the also dying Aboukir.

Before Weddigen was done he’d sunk the Cressy, too. It was an incredible feat: three armoured cruisers totalling over 36,000 tons and 1,460 men. Among them Lt.-Cdr. Clive Phillips-Wolley Jr. whose naval specialty was, of all things, torpedoes. He was Cowichan’s first casualty. Marvelled the editor of the Cowichan Leader:

“It is strange that so terrible a loss should fall to [Phillips-Wolley S.] who for many years has devoted unceasing energy and money to the work of arousing in Canada a fuller appreciation of our duty as British citizens, particularly in the matter of imperial navy defence.”

The younger Phillips-Wolley’s widow died two years after her husband and the old man himself, knighted in 1915 for his efforts on behalf of King and Country, passed away of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1918. Should one wonder what solace if any his knighthood brought him, there’s a hint in his last book, a book of poetry. Dedicated to his son the poems in Songs From a Young Man’s Land are “about his longing to serve in the war despite his deteriorating health”.