Wallace, Charles Claude

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Major Claude Wallace

Several of the Admins on the Crew Lists Project have struggled for a while with explaining the presence on HMS St Vincent, apparently just for the 2 days of the Battle, of an Army Major. His photo was also associated with the ship in Lives of the First World War. Was he an observer, if so how could it have been known which days to observe? Now, through a random raffle prize, at a Western Front Association meeting (July 2023), of Andrew Gordon’s excellent The Rules of the Game: Jutland and British Naval Command (how could I have chosen anything else?), we have the answer – apologies to those to whom the story is in fact well known.

Basically he was there because of a dream.

On Friday, 26th May, Major Claude Wallace, a civil engineer and West African explorer by trade but now a staff officer with the Army’s 32nd Division in the Somme valley, packed his bag and hitched a lift to the railhead. He was a man with a strange mission: he believed his presence to be essential to the sea battle which was about to take place. Night after night in his dug-out he had dreamed of a great naval engagement. The dreams were consistent, apart from increasing detail as nights passed. Early in May he persuaded his Divisional commander, Major-General William Rycroft, to write to Jellicoe and ask if he might visit the Fleet. Jellicoe wired back consent, leaving the timing open. Rycroft probably thought Wallace needed some leave, and wanted it out of the way before the coming offensive, (in which the Division would suffer 4,676 casualties from 1st - 4th July) but

“for some indefinable reason I did not want to go; something held me back, although I was longing for a spell out of the trenches. I told the General that unless he insisted, I should prefer not to go on leave just then ….. During the following days I was practically obsessed by this feeling of witnessing a naval battle, until the very course of the action and the movements of the units of the fleets were added to the general impression. Then, on the 25th of May, on a sudden impulse, I went to Rycroft, asking him if I might take my leave at once.”

On Sunday 27th he reported to the Admiralty, where he refused to be palmed off with somewhere convenient, like Portsmouth, Dover or Harwich. On Sunday he received instructions to join the battleship St Vincent in Scapa Flow, headed for King’s Cross and found his seat on the infamous ‘Jellicoe Special’.

At Scapa Flow on the evening of 30th May, as cable parties were closing up and shortening in, and boats being hoisted, preparatory to putting to sea, a last picket boat collected a weary Army officer from the depot ship Imperieuse, and delivered him to the battleship St Vincent.

“It is a very curious thing”, said his host, Captain W W Fisher (The Great Agrippa) “that you should turn up just a few minutes before the Fleet was due to weigh anchor to go to sea.” After some small talk Major Wallace broached the subject of his dreams. “’Oh no, my dear Wallace,’ retorted Fisher, laughing as if I had cracked a fine joke, ‘I’m afraid there is nothing like that going to happen. I only wish it would.’”

In St Vincent, on 31st May, Wallace attended morning prayers, and found himself moved by the sight of “about 1000 bare-headed sailors standing erect in dead silence on the quarterdeck”. Then Captain Fisher called the assembled company around a 12-inch gun turret on whose side had been painted a map of the North Sea, and described what he knew of the movements of the fleet. “’We have tried to do this so often (he said) but without bringing the Germans to book; but today it is a little different. We have a staff officer who has come direct from the trenches. Please God, may the shells follow him where he may bring us luck.’ His words sent a cold shiver down my spine, for they were almost exactly the words that had been heard by me in just such a scene as this in my premonition of the battle. This made me even more certain that what I had been dreaming about for months was about to come true.” Wallace was then given a detailed tour of the ship and had ‘the mysteries and complexities of a British dreadnought’ revealed to him. Among other things the fire control organization, with control of all the guns from the foretop, and if that position was knocked out, the maintop, was explained to him. Only as a last resort would each turret’s own range finders and spotting officers take over. He climbed with some difficulty up to the foretop, 80 feet above the upper deck, his clumsy army boots gaining precarious purchase on the 2-inch rung on the foremast. The ascent was worth it , for it afforded him a ‘magnificent and thrillingly inspiring’ view of the battle-fleet, steaming placidly in six divisions. He noted the positions of the flagships, and the hazy conditions, and reckoned visibility at 4 or 5 miles (although landsmen commonly underestimate distances at sea).

Galatea’s first report to Beatty at 2.20 pm of sighting two enemy cruisers was not received with excitement, as similar reports had regularly come to nothing. Captain Fisher teased his guest ‘This rather puts your presentiments in the shade, Wallace!’ ‘Why?’ the clairvoyant replied, ‘I don’t think it does. On the contrary, you’ll see there will be more to follow.’

2 hours later the Captain gladly ate his words: ‘Wallace, you are right after all! If they’ll only come far enough, they will never get back.’ Fisher thought of sending the visitor to a place of relative safety, deep in the ship, but relented and let him go to the maintop (a spectator’s position until the ship engaged two targets, or the foretop was hit). Wallace dashed below to his cabin for a few moments, passing seamen busy with hoses, one of whom said ‘Sir, you have brought us luck.’ Soon he was ensconced in the top, making notes on a signal pad which he had filched from the bridge.

When the remaining battle-cruisers dashed up in front of the battle line, it began to dawn on Wallace “that something must have gone wrong.”

When the Grand Fleet opened fire, in his position aloft, Wallace found the blast ‘enough to blow one’s cap off.’

But how did the events thereafter compare with those he had dreamed of........?

Gordon, pp 58, 63, 71-2, 416, 420, 434, 451.

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