Reported in Scientific American, This Week in World War I: November 28, 1914
On this date 100 years ago Scientific American reported on the sinking of HMS Audacious, one of the British Royal Navy’s most modern “dreadnoughts”—the largest and most powerful battleships in existance in 1914. Only one man died, but the loss of the ship was a disaster for the Royal Navy: “it is equal to the sum of all the losses previously suffered. For the Audacious was a capital or first-line ship, one of those major units which must line up against the enemy in that supreme and decisive engagement (if it ever takes place) when the German battleship fleet emerges to fight it out to a finish in a great fleet action.” We reckoned in 1914 that it was one of the more modern of the 30 dreadnoughts in the fleet.
After an explosion tore a hole in the ship’s hull, it stayed afloat for almost 13 hours before sinking, during which time rescue ships attempted to tow the stricken ship to shore. One of the ships that arrived to help was the RMS Olympic—perhaps better known as the sister ship of the RMS Titanic—that had been bound for Glasgow with only 153 paying passengers on her last commercial trip of the war. (In command of the Olympic at the time was a Captain Haddock.)
It was not known for certain that the Audacious had been sunk by a mine: at first it was thought that a torpedo fired by a submarine might have been responsible. But we reported a comment from British Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith, speaking in the House of Commons, that “suggested”—reading between the lines—that mines had sunk the battleship:
"In the last week of October the Germans succeeded in laying a mine field off the north coast of Ireland, on the main trade route from America to Liverpool via the north of Ireland [which was exactly where the Audacious had been sunk]. Merchant ships were blown up and lost .... the menace to shipping presented by these wholly illegal methods of waging war is so great that the government has been compelled to adopt the only possible means of protection, namely, to declare the whole North Sea a military area, and to restrict all shipping crossing it to a narrow passage, along which the strictest supervision can be maintained."
Here is where the story gets interesting, because it illustrates not just the fog of war but the needs of propaganda in wartime. The Audacious had been on gunnery exercises on October 27, 1914, just north of Ireland, when it ran into a mine (we now know it was almost certainly one that had been laid only four days earlier by the German auxiliary cruiser and minelayer S.S. Berlin). The reduction in strength to the Royal Navy was significant, but Admiral Sir John Jellicoe feared the loss of prestige and morale would be far worse, and so arranged that the news of the sinking be kept secret. This action was taken in spite of the number of foreigners on board RMS Olympic and several other smaller ships in the area who witnessed the event. Indeed it was no secret to the readers of Scientific American, who read the news and saw the photograph [shown here] of the sinking battleship taken from the deck of the Olympic (the passengers had been detained in Belfast for six days before being allowed to disembark). The sinking was not admitted by the British government until three days after the war ended, when a “Delayed Announcement” from the British Admiralty appeared in the London Times, reporting the loss.
Our full archive of the war, called Scientific American Chronicles: World War I, has many articles on the technology of naval warfare in 1914-1918. It is available for purchase at www.ScientificAmerican.com/wwi