Orbitas blog: Coppenhall Cemetery and a First World War Tragedy

Monday, 31 October 2016

Within the 9.44 acres of Coppenhall cemetery lie the graves of John and Henri Villiers-Russell, twins, aged 29 years, and casualties of the Great War.

Both brothers were Senior Auxiliary Sick Berth Reserves on the HMS Formidable, a battleship serving with the Royal Navy, and a crew of 780 men.

On New Year’s Eve the HMS Formidable participated in gunnery exercises off the Isle of Portland. After the exercises the fleet remained at sea on patrol, and whilst there had been reports of submarine activity in that area this was not considered a threat, as it was believed that an attack would have been difficult due to the rough sea conditions and high winds.

HMS Formidable was just off the coast of Portland Bill, in the English Channel, when at 2.20am on 1st January 2015 she was hit by a torpedo from a German U-boat, another hit followed and the order was given, by Captain Noel Loxley, to abandon ship. At just before 5.00pm the battleship rolled over onto the many men in the water and plunged to the depths of the Channel, with a loss of 35 officers and 512 men, including the Villiers-Russell twins.

One day later the Twins bodies were washed up at Lyme Regis, Dorset. As in life they were not separated by death as it is said they were found in each others arms. It is also said that their deaths changed Navel law in that no brothers should be made to serve aboard the same Royal Navel Vessel. Prior to enlistment the twins were both employed as Joiner’s Labourer’s in the Crewe Locomotive Works and were well thought of in the local community, running the Sunday School at the local chapel in Henry Street, and also members of the St Johns Ambulance Brigade and the Royal Navy Sick Berth Reserve. And the bodies of the twins were brought home to Crewe where neighbours friends, and work mates all contributed to their memorial fund.

Below is an extract from the Crewe Gazette.

Extract from the Crewe Gazette

Interesting fact

It is believed that Eric Knight based his novel ‘Lassie come home’, on a pub landlord’s crossbred collie. The landlord had on that fateful night offered the pub cellar as a mortuary. Lassie the crossbreed found her way amongst the bodies and began to lick the face of one of the victims, Able Seaman John Cowan. She nuzzled him for more than half an hour keeping him warm with her fur. then to everyone'’ amazement he stirred. John Cowan, was taken to hospital and survived!