1904 Harbour War Games

In 1904 a local paper(1) announced that war had been declared from Waterford Harbour.  The war was a game, but a serious game, that involved up to 200 ships and extended across the length of the Irish Sea. The Waterford Flotilla stationed in the harbour played a crucial part.
The early years of the twentieth century saw heightened tensions across Europe and Asia as Russia, Germany, Britain and France flexed their might and vied to extend or to enhance their individual power bases.  On land and sea new technologies and uncontrolled expansion saw risks multiply and preparations for war was the order of the day. A feature of this preparedness were manoeuvres or war games played out on a grand scale.
In this particular war game in 1904, the Irish side of the Irish sea the “Blue side” and extended from Lough Swilly to Cobh (then called Queenstown) with three ports assigned as “designated protected zones” meaning in short that to the opposing side these were seen as no go areas due to the perception of land defenses and military might.  The three were Carrickfergus, Kingstown and Waterford.  On the opposing side of the Sea the “Red Side” had her own areas of protection Loch Ryan, Milford Haven and Falmouth.
The manoeuvres commenced on Monday 8th of August (preparations had commenced two weeks previously) and were set to continue until August 15th.  The object was to test out naval strategies, enhance communications, testing machines and weapons and ensuring the security of land defenses.  Such defenses had at their core, it would seem, the efficient working of signal stations and intelligence bases. Ultimately it seems with the reorganisation of the British home fleet flotilla and the introduction of new technologies and ever faster and more powerful ships, new strategies for deployment and engagement were critical for the defence of the realm.
HMS Invincible, later HMS Erebus and finally HMS Fisgard
By Unknown – Old photo (1870), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23302252
Central to the Waterford base of operations was the river between Passage East, Ballyhack and Arthurstown. There the “Waterford flotilla” was managed. The ship at the centre was HMS Erebus a depot ship which headquartered the command of Captain Charlton. The Erebus, which was formerly HMS Invincible is described as a floating factory dealing with everything from initially painting signaling boards for use in exercises to repairing ships and dealing with all manner of mechanical and technical faults through an army of artificers stationed aboard.
Following a terrific storm Waterford harbour was littered with sheltering ships of the “Blue side”.  Those further down the harbour were reported to be at risk of dragging their anchors.  Those at Passage had their troubles too. For example a collision between HMS Erebus and the destroyer HMS Starfish is reported.  The latter coming alongside collided heavily with the depot ship.  She also narrowly missed HMS Violet (1897) presumably already alongside. Interestingly the link above used for Starfish suggests that there were handling issues with the craft. Later while Starfish is swinging on the tide, her stern collides heavily with the bow of HMS Vulture which is also at anchor.

A journalist gives a first hand account of departure from the harbour aboard HMS Vulture, a Torpedo boat destroyer with a top speed of 30 knots. (I’m speculating this was an earlier departure, probably arranged specifically for the media) The journalists were given special permission to board by Captain Charlton and the “Waterford flotilla of destroyers and gunboats” departed the harbour at 5pm heading down to the Hook and then dispersed.  Aboard the HMS Vulture the journalists are welcomed aboard by a young commander named Lieutenant Hill who “…looked young to have such responsibility, but only the young can stand the strain of life on a destroyer.” Of his appearance “…one of the great mysteries of the world is the permanent cleanliness of the naval officers among the all pervading filth and smuts of a destroyer.”

A whistle announced the departure of the ship and at first only a spray makes the speed of the craft noticeable.  At 15 knots a shudder runs through the ship and a gale blows along the decks. At 20 knots the deck is throbbing.  When 25 knots are reached the ship is tearing past the wooded hillsides of the harbour and a hurricane is blowing along the decks.  At this point a stoker emerges from a manhole in the deck of the ship covered in coal dust from head to foot and limp with perspiration. Below him the air glows red with heat, and when at full power the temperature will rise to 140 degrees.
1909 cartoon in Puck shows nations engaged in naval race game
By L M Glackens(Life time: 1866-1933) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Whatever the outcome of the games, over 114 years later it is obvious that the tone of the article and the romance and adventure reported in parts was very absent from the actual conflict when it emerged.  As the superpowers went on to build larger and more powerful machines, the threat of war increased in tandem.  Far from acting as a deterrent it arguably made war more inevitable.  Ironically many of the ships used in the war game would be redundant by the outbreak ten years later.

(1)This article is based on a new report from the Waterford Standard, published on Wednesday August 10th 1904 page 3.

I would like to thank Paul O’Farrell for helping me clarify some points with the piece

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