Battle of the Falkland Islands, 1914, by William Lionel Wyllie. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Great War in the South Atlantic

Today is a Falklands public holiday

Artillery Row

​​Today, Wednesday 8th December, we’ll be commemorating Battle Day here in the Falkland Islands — in honour of the Battle of the Falkland Islands, the latter (and thankfully more successful) half of only the second major naval engagement in the First World War. 

What little I know about this subject is almost entirely owed to the BFI’s archival restoration of The Battles of Coronel and the Falkland Islands: the Great War at sea (dir. Walter Summers) which, quite unrelatedly, I was sent several years back when it was digitally remastered — and which I rewatched just a couple of days ago.

TITLE CARD: “The sea fights of Coronel and the Falkland Islands, and a defeat as glorious as victory… a story of our Royal Navy… Our Sure Shield… an instant guard over the scattered empire”. (Well — it doesn’t get much more “scattered” than the Falklands, really!) “Wide-set outposts around the seven seas…” Fade to world map.

You get the picture. This is, essentially, a propaganda movie, made using real Royal Navy ships (all duly credited; the actors aren’t); a paean to the strength, resilience and ingenuity of the senior service. 

After an emphatic opening display of British ocean-going dominance in August 1914, there followed a marked uptick in U-boat activity over the ensuing months, with several notable successes. In general terms, and with an inferior navy, the Germans meant to play a longer, “smaller” game, in hopes, eventually, of their achieving parity.

However, Under Vice-Admiral Graf Maximilian von Spee, their “most powerful surface force”, the East Asia Squadron of fast cruisers, was at large in the Pacific from their “home” port of Tsingtao (the German colony in China). At the same time, a detachment — the Emden — marauded around the Indian Ocean. Between them, these forces suppressed both strategic trade and troop movements to Europe or the Middle East from India, New Zealand, or Australia, and terrorised merchant shipping and the Imperial ports of the subcontinent.

But von Spee knew that Germany could not defend her Asian territories, and feared his squadron, outclassed by the Royal Navy and the Japanese, would not survive for long in that arena, either. He struck out for home proper, making his way southeast across the Pacific, and converging with the Leipzig and the Dresden en route.

Meanwhile, in London, the freshly-disinterred First Sea Lord “Jackie” Fisher ordered Rear Admiral Sir Christopher Cradock, into the South Atlantic — neither the first nor last time a flotilla would be hastily assembled and sent this way to deal with local menaces.

Their guns keep firing. But the Good Hope goes under all the same — and Cradock with it

Cradock was out to seek and engage, the 5th Light Cruiser Squadron comprising the armoured cruisers Good Hope (his flagship) and Monmouth, the light cruiser Glasgow, and the obsolete Canopus, which fell behind as they approached the Cape, and had to be abandoned in the Falkland Islands. But on 1st November, Cradock’s force ran into the East Asia Squadron, unexpectedly, off the Chilean coast.

Having detached Glasgow to Coronel, to see if there were Germans about (no sign), the Glasgow‘s “All Clear” transmission was intercepted (there’s quite a lot of footage of signallers pushing Morse keys, and officers hastening about with messages), and von Spee decided he should come straight at them.

Cue: alarming music. “Cradock’s enemy: Light Cruisers Leipzig, Nürnberg and Dresden — and Armoured Cruisers Scharnhorst (Flagship) and Gneisenau.” 

Pennants are run out. Cradock moves towards the Germans to force the engagement before nightfall. They open fire at “extreme range”… but within 10 minutes “the first shattering blow falls on the Good Hope.” The German light cruisers close in. The British sailors are plucky, of course, the officers stalwart. Their guns keep firing. But the Good Hope goes under all the same — and Cradock with it. Bloody daft tradition if you ask me.

The Monmouth, likewise (helpfully, most of the crews have the ships’ names stitched onto their hats), fails to haul its colours down, despite having no working guns — and so is blown to pieces. 

All hands were lost, including a 24-man Royal Marines band. Glasgow alone escaped into the night, leaving behind 1,600 British sailors dead. The Germans had suffered just three wounded.

Coronel was the Navy’s first major disaster of the war, as Admiral Sir George Zambellas (First Sea Lord at the time of the BFI’s 2014 centenary release) puts it in his foreword to the DVD booklet, “a sharp wake-up call… with nothing less at stake than Great Britain’s credibility as the dominant global maritime power.”

“What are you going to do about it?” asks a wounded sergeant of a naval rating, under Tower Bridge. “The same as what you blokes did after Mons — get some of our own back, see!” Cor blimey. Still, there is a reason these two seaborne fights are remembered — wherever they are remembered — as basically a single entity.

Rear Admiral Sir Frederick Doveton Sturdee (unimprovably British, isn’t it?), Chief of War Staff at the Admiralty, and at distinct risk of being scapegoated for the Coronel catastrophe, was summarily appointed Commander-in-Chief South Atlantic and Pacific(!) and despatched posthaste by Fisher (with whom he did not get on), on something of a do-or-die mission as the commander of new, eight-cruiser squadron.

The Admiral Superintendent of Devonport warns that Sturdee’s two battle cruisers, Invincible and Inflexible, cannot be ready before Friday the 13th November. First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill balks at that ill-omened date, and orders that they sail on the 11th, ready or not. (Students of the 1982 conflict may see more than a couple of parallels here.) Cue: dockyard refitting montage.

Cut to the German colony at Valparaiso, where his countrymen fête von Spee’s glorious German victory in their first naval battle. “Damnation to the British Navy!” they want to toast. No, says, von Spee: “to a gallant enemy.” Handed a bouquet of flowers, he says he’ll keep them for his funeral “when my time comes.” For “when were the British ever content to leave an enemy to his triumph?”

Von Spee was well aware, it seems, that running the gauntlet up through the Atlantic was going to be a torrid prospect, even without a veangeful enemy on the look-out for him personally. But homeless (Tsingtau had fallen to the Japanese), in need of fuel, and down to half their ammunition, von Spee’s captains urged him now to head for Germany, and he agreed. 

It is alleged they also urged him not to put in at the Falkland Islands. But perhaps the Navy’s stockpile of coal, the wireless station and other useful/strategic installations proved too tempting for him. Von Spee decides to raid — if not to occupy — the Islands, expecting token opposition from “a handful of volunteers”.

Governor Sir William Allardyce emerges from the Falklands Islands Volunteer Force HQ, the sergeant major out front with a couple of medals jangling about, and a lot of old-timers who look like they’ve just come back from the Boer War. The less said about this stuff the better, but in a film which is commendably level in terms of humanising the (vanquished) opponent, the FIVF scenes were considered so insulting that the Governor, Arnold Hodson, raised quite the stink about it, and a second edit was swiftly made, to better reception.

At 6:30am on 8 December the Scharnhorst sighted the Falkland Islands. Not that much afterwards, a Mrs Muriel Felton and her two servant girls Christina Goss and Marian Macleod (names represented in the Falklands to this day) spotted the German squadron from their farm at Fitzroy, and phoned it in to the War Office (netting the Islands their first OBE, for Mrs Felton).

It was, among other things, sheer bad luck that von Spee came up to Stanley just a few hours after Sturdee had arrived with his group of cruisers — all newer, faster, and better-gunned than their fatigued German counterparts — and was busily refuelling. Likewise, that the sea was calm, there was little wind, and visibility was excellent. Too late, Gneisenau observes that there are British warships in the harbour! (The acting here is particularly terrible.)

It has been suggested that von Spee had not known that the British ships were “waiting” there (they hardly were); but it has also been alleged that he was misled by poor German intelligence, or even false British cryptography. 

In Britain, meanwhile, the Admiralty is under the impression that Sturdee is the one who has been caught unawares in the Falkland Islands. Von Spee is a mere 12 miles away, and none of the British ships have their steam up. The FIVF are called out, as the ships are ordered to go from zero to hero. One poor lad has to run up the Union Jack in local weather conditions (I’ve been that lad: he has my sympathies); another forgets his rifle, as emphasised by a heavily-asterisked title card.

As so often happens, Fate now played its hand, and Canopus, parked, with her fully-functioning 12-inch guns (so missed at Coronel) in Stanley Harbour, as the Islands’ main defensive battery, came into her own. As the Germans turn and run, Canopus opens fire, and soon enough the “grimly purposeful” cruiser group — “fittingly bearing names from the four corners of Britain… Kent, Cornwall, Glasgow and Carnarvon” — set off in pursuit.

The maths was simply not on the Germans’ side. Sturdee even sent his men below to eat. At midday, he called them back to Action Stations. Von Spee responded by ordering his light cruisers to scatter and make for neutral ports, while Scharnhorst and Gneisenau remained to “accept action to cover their escape’. Flashback to the presentation of those flowers.

The body count on this return leg of the fixture was at least 2,200 Germans — to just 10 British sailors.

Sturdee, not having any of it, pits Invincible and Inflexible against the two big German ships, and sets his light cruisers off to deal with their opposite numbers. 

Von Spee’s armoured cruisers succeed initially in hitting Invincible; but the Scharnhorst (because the biggest/slowest?) is the first to sink. Needless to say, von Spee refused to silence his one working gun, and also went down with his ship. According to the film, Sturdee ceased firing, to give them a chance to surrender, but von Spee didn’t want it.

The 1914 monument

The Gneisenau likewise fails to accept the hint. A young boy watches dumbstruck as a lieutenant mechanically scuttles the ship. (Presumably no different scene would have played out on, say, Cradock’s flagship.) 

The Leipzig is sunk, and the British put their lifeboats out, to fetch survivors. The stokers of the Kent (top chaps!) burn everything to keep pace with Nürnberg, including — or so the film suggests — the chaplain’s harmonium, finally destroying her just before nightfall.

(The Dresden got away, but was caught the following year, also off Chile, effectively ending Germany’s capacity for “commerce raiding” — on the surface, anyway. Alas, their submarine threat was really only getting going.)

The body count on this return leg of the fixture was at least 2,200 Germans — to just 10 British sailors.

‘The best British war film you’ve never seen,” says the Guardian of The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands. Well, maybe. But — especially when taken in conjunction with the various DVD extras, featuring footage of naval reviews, “England expects’ propaganda, and newsreel eulogies to British ships sunk in action — it certainly is a valid (and apparently fairly authentic) reminder that, as Admiral Zambellas notes, “the global war was also fought at sea, far away from the mud, barbed wire and trenches of the Western Front.” 

Here and now in the Islands, it’s a public holiday; there’s a parade to/from the 1914 Battle Memorial, and a short service, involving members of the Falkland Islands Defence Force, veterans associations and youth groups, plus personnel from all three UK service branches based here; and then, I dare say, one or two libations in the local hostelries. The Governor will be there, no doubt. Perhaps there’ll even be a fly-by from the RAF.

Last night (it is the height of “Summer” here), I walked down to the monument — believed to be the world’s most southerly memorial to the First World War — to take a proper look at it. Just beyond Government House, at the top of an awkward rise, in a smallish plot of tended grass and a few flowers, is a five-metre high, four-sided grey stone pillar, with a bronze sailing ship atop a globe perched on its pinnacle, some standard naval imagery, and on its cardinal faces the words “War”, “Peace”, “Constancy” and “Victory” — this last embodied by the usual Classical figure, facing East, down Stanley harbour, towards the battle area.

Beneath her feet, an inscription particularly honours “Sir FC Doveton Sturdee, KCB CVO CMG, [who] destroyed the German squadron under Vice-Admiral Graf von Spee, thereby saving this colony from capture by the enemy.” 

Sturdee was later made a baronet, listed as “of the Falkland Islands”. The monument was unveiled in 1927, the same year as the premier of The Battles…, at which the commander of Inflexible addressed the audience, highlighting themes of post-war Anglo-German harmony, and “stating that both navies retained the utmost respect for each other and that mutual gallantry was shown in both battles.” The film was also highly praised in Germany. (In this regard, historian Mark Connelly notes in his accompanying essay, the film itself also constitutes a memorial.)

The plaques

Notwithstanding their legitimate relief at having been saved from the enemy, Falkland Islanders too recognise the dreadful loss of German lives. On a nearby bend in the road, between some flower beds and a bank of ugly burnt gorse, there is a curved stone wall with three bronze plaques on it, the first of which, between reliefs of Sturdee and von Spee, reads:


1914 — 2014


On the occasion of the 100th anniversary

of the Battles of Coronel and the Falkland Islands,

this monument was erected to the memory

of the some 3,800 servicemen

of all ranks, ratings and nationalities

who laid down their lives

fighting for their countries,

many of whom have no other grave

than the sea.


Adversaries in war, companions in death


The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands: the Great War at sea (dir. Walter Summers, 1927) 

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover