The Dickson brothers: Tragedy and survival at Jutland

31 May 2016 marks the centenary anniversary of the only full-scale clash between battleships during the First World War- the Battle of Jutland. The Next of Kin touring exhibition tells the story of two brothers Archibald  (Archie) and Robert Dickson, who both served in the battle but whose fates proved to be very different.

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Photograph of Archibald Dickson wearing his cadet uniform and cap. (© National Museums Scotland)

Archie Dickson was only 12 years old when he began his naval education at the Royal Naval College in Osborne. After two years he followed in his elder brother Robert’s footsteps by going to the Royal Naval College in Dartmouth. In January 1916 he was commissioned as a Midshipman on HMS Queen Mary at the age of just 16.

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Cap worn by Archibald Dickson as a naval cadet. (© National Museums Scotland)

Meanwhile Robert was serving in the Dardanelles campaign supporting the Allied landings at Gallipoli.  He wrote weekly letters to his father William Kirk Dickson and mother Kathleen at home in Edinburgh, several of which can be read here. On display in Next of Kin is a Turkish shrapnel shell Robert picked out of the sea near ‘ANZAC Beach’, Gallipoli in April 1915. He kept this ‘near miss’ as a souvenir.

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Turkish shrapnel shell kept by Robert as a souvenir. (© National Museums Scotland)

By 1916 Robert and Archie were serving on ships based at Scapa Flow in the Orkney Isles and the Firth of Forth. Both were in action at Jutland, near Denmark, on 31 May. This was a clash between the two most powerful fleets in the world and the stakes were high. A major defeat for the Royal Navy would have meant disaster for the British empire.

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Photograph showing shell damage to a Queen Elizabeth battleship. © Imperial War Museum (Q 23212)

When the German fleet emerged from its base in the Baltic Sea, the British steamed out to intercept them from their bases in Orkney and along the east coast of Scotland. HMS Queen Mary took two direct hits from the German Navy and her magazine subsequently exploded. All but nine of the crew of 1,275 on board were killed. Archie was among the dead.

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Service medal sent to Dickson’s father as Archibald’s next of kin. (© National Museums Scotland)

The British suffered greater ship losses in the battle that followed, but the action ended when the German ships turned away and returned to base. The German fleet never came out again to challenge for dominance of the North Sea.

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Admiral John Jellicoe’s flagship HMS Iron Duke steaming off the British coast. © Imperial War Museum (Q 075209)

Writing home days after the battle, Robert (Bertie) asked his parents to remain hopeful that Archie had survived. His  letters are held at the National Library of Scotland and some can be read here.

Despite Robert’s experiences he stayed in the Navy and served in the Second World War. This story contributed by his grandson to the BBC archive WW2 People’s War tells of Robert’s experiences as Captain of HMS Manxman during  operations near Malta.

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