Charles Thomas Sewell was a Leading Signalman on the Light Cruiser, HMS Southampton, during the Battle of Jutland in 1916. Charlie survived the battle and left a concise, but personal, account of the events of 31 May and 1 June in a hand-written memoir that was the starting point for this body of work.
The main events of the battle are told using key words and phrases that have been taken either from Charlie’s memoir or from the record of Naval signals that were sent during the battle. During WW1 signalling methods in battle were a mixture of flag, semaphore and Morse code: both wireless telegraphy and searchlight. Flags would have been part of the Navy’s core skills since the Napoleonic Wars and a signalman would be able to read and transcribe messages with ease. It is therefore appropriate that The Signalman takes the form of three ‘flags’ where the narrative of each is notated with a different method of signal communication.
Debbie Lyddon transcribed the memoir of Leading Signalman, Charlie Sewell, who was her paternal grandfather.
Flag 1: The beginning
The sea was very calm with a light haze.
Signal method: Morse Code
Linen, wire, cotton, brass
‘On Tuesday afternoon May 30th 1916 the Battle Fleet under Admiral Sir John Jellicoe (in his flagship HMS Iron Duke) and the Battle Cruiser Squadron under Sir David Beatty (in the fleet flagship HMS Lion) put to sea on customary sweeps…. my job was as a Leading Signalman, acting foreman of the Action Watch and my place on Monkey’s Island was the passing of orders to make signals.’
Flag 2: Day action
Urgent. Have sighted enemy battle fleet.
Wed 31 May 1916, 16.38 GMT
Signal Method: Semaphore
Linen, felt, cotton, brass
‘Incidents in the action were taking place very rapidly; we in HMS Southampton with our squadron ahead of HMS Lion had a close view of most events, some discouraging. At about 4.30pm we sighted the enemy battle fleet and reported the fact to Admiral Jellicoe in HMS Iron Duke…. In order to obtain the disposition and composition of the enemy battle fleet Commodore Goodenough led his Light Cruiser Squadron in between the lines and it was for all the staff on the upper bridge a very thrilling experience.’
Flag 3: Night action
Fires started. Flames engulfed the forebridge.
Signal method: Flags
Linen, cotton duck, cotton, brass
‘… at 10.20pm the roar of the claxon sounded and action stations were manned again. I took my place on the upper bridge and as soon as I could accustom myself to the darkness it was clear that a line of light cruisers was just before us on the starboard beam, steering, what appeared almost a parallel course, gradually closing upon us …. finally, both seemed to challenge at the same time and immediately there were exchanges of gunfire and torpedoes, an action which historians state lasted 15 minutes, but to me five minutes….’