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By Harriet Steers on

A First World War tragedy, the origins of Lassie and the loyalty of Bruce

Discover the new stories emerging as we continue to update our list of fallen railwaymen.

Whilst looking through the London and North Western Railway (LNWR) Gazette (available on the open shelves of Search Engine) we came across a small group of men that had all died on New Year’s Day, 1915. Two of the people that died were twin brothers, Henri and John Villiers Russell, both were labourers in the Locomotive Department at Crewe station.

This page from the Gazette describing the terrible loss of the twin brothers and how neighbours, friends and neighbours all contributed to their memorial fund.

LNWR Gazette Vol 3. 4.5.18 Pg 386
LNWR Gazette Vol 3. 4.5.18 Pg 386

This is just one of many tragic family stories played out through our list of railwaymen. It is also one of many stories of railwaymen who served on ships during the war (read more about this in our post about the sinking of the Aragon).

When we looked deeper we discovered that Henri and John were part of a crew that was aboard the H.M.S Formidable, with 778 others. The battleship was patrolling the English Channel, where it was hit by torpeado from German U-boat U-24, just off the coast of Dorset in the early hours of 1 January 1915.

HMS Formidable
HMS Formidable

With a second hit and being caught in bad weather, the ship sank relatively quickly resulting in the loss of 547 lives . Four of those lost were men of the LNWR company;  James Burnell, Albert Kinlay, Henri Villiers Russell and John Villiers Russell.

With those men, including Henri and John, there was another death, and that was the death of Bruce – the Captain’s loyal dog. Captain Loxley refused to leave the vessel, in a bid to try and over-see the evacuation process of the rest of the crew. This ultimately led to both drowning, as Bruce would not leave his master’s side and remained faithful to him until the very end. The body of Bruce washed ashore, where he was later found and buried at Abbotsbury Gardens, with an inscribed headstone.

It was said that the HMS Formidable had not been sailing at her top speed, and had also not used a zigzagging pattern in which to travel . The Admiralty had set guidelines which stated that ships travel at full speed, not to sail in a straight line, to avoid headlands and being too close to the coast. This was of course in a bid to try and outmanoeuvre the lurking German submarines. It was these same guidelines that were unfortunately ignored four months later, which saw the infamous sinking of the RMS Lusitania – which occurred a hundred years ago in May.

R.M.S. Lusitania
R.M.S. Lusitania

Bruce was not the only dog to prove man’s best friend with the loss of the Formidable. Some of the survivors of the sinking were found on the beach at Lyme Regis the following day and taken to a local pub, the Pilot Boat Inn. Many of the men were rescued by naval vessels, like the HMS Topaze and HMS Diamond, yet a small minority had somehow rowed toward Dorset. Those that had died were placed in the cellar of the pub, while the rescuers focused on trying to help those that could be saved.

The landlord’s dog, Lassie sat with one of the sailor’s bodies, Able Seaman John Cowan. She nuzzled his body with her fur and continued to lick his motionless body, and after half an hour Cowan began to stir. He then received immediate medical attention from the rescuers. Lassie had saved Cowan’s life, and he went on to make a full recovery.

It is widely believed that this local pub landlord’s dog was the inspiration for the Hollywood blockbuster, popular television series and even a 1940s radio segment.

Keep up to date with stories about our First World War list by following this blog (see top-right of this page).

Find out more information on railways and the great war on our website.


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