The 8th December is a Bank Holiday here in the Falklands, no matter what day of the week (and an actual Bank Holiday, like the 1970s UK ones where nothing would be open). It seems odd to have a Bank Holiday on a Tuesday so I thought, as the resident History teacher of the British South Atlantic Islands, I thought I’d better briefly explain why.
Two key Naval battles took place in the Falklands arena during WWI; the battles of Coronel and the Falklands. On 1st November 1914 Admiral Graf von Spee inflicted a devastating blow to the British Navy, the first suffered by a British fleet at sea in over a century. Despite knowing that his ageing ships were inferior to his opponent’s, British Rear Admiral Craddock, on orders from Churchill, set sail from the Falklands to hunt down von Spee’s forces and engaged them at Coronel, off the coast of Chile. Craddock’s sailing from Stanley is widely reported as being a terribly sad affair as so many knew they sailed to their defeat and subsequent deaths; Craddock himself is said to have buried his medals in the gardens of Government House (the home of the Governor of the Falkland Islands then and now). HMS Monmouth and Good Hope were lost with all hands, including Craddock. Casualties were 1,654 British dead to 3 German injured.
The outrage that ensued caused the British Admiralty to order a Task Force led by Admiral Sturdee to counter the threat posed by von Spee. Unbeknownst to von Spee this group also included the formidable battlecruisers HMS Invincible and HMS Inflexible. At the same time as this British force was coaling at Stanley von Spee, ignorant to the new visitors there until the last minute and thinking he’d be able to outrun any outdated British ships left, made the fateful decision to attack the British radio and coaling stations in Stanley in the hope of gaining South Atlantic naval supremacy. With the beached HMS Canopus warning the German forces off and preventing another disaster at the bottleneck of Stanley harbour, Sturdee had time to finish his lunch, raise steam in the Task Force’s engines and set off in vengeful pursuit of the German battle group. The experienced von Spee realised he was outgunned and attempted to evade the British force but was quickly run down by the more modern British cruisers. Despite his attempts to engage, von Spee was outgunned, out-ranged and out-run. Of the 2 armoured cruisers and 3 light cruisers in his group, only the Dresden managed to escape (though it was later caught and scuttled after the British attacked her in neutral Chilean waters). For von Spee, casualties numbered 2, 260 killed, including the admiral and his two sons, as well as the loss of four ships. In addition, 215 German sailors were rescued and taken prisoner. The wireless station and coal depots of Stanley were never taken, German raiding on commercial shipping was ended in South America and the British Navy clawed back a much-needed morale boost after the defeat at Coronel.
The small community of the Falkland Islands were part of the warning to the Navy, were able to hear the battle, tend the wounded and maintain the British presence here. Evidently, something worth celebrating for a remote island population.
As an aside, there will be a parade tomorrow but, as it has been over 100 years, the Navy will be present off shore but will not be taking part so only the Falkland Islands Defence Force will be marching. We still look forward to being part of the remembrance.