Lassie and Bruce were two canine heroes from the First World War. Their touching but sad story concerns one of the greatest of ever local maritime tragedies.
Lassie was a rough-haired collie who saved the life of Scottish seaman, John Cowan. The Able Seaman had come ashore with a boatload of survivors at Lyme Regis from the Royal Navy’s HMS Formidable. This 16,000 ton but obsolete battleship had been torpedoed in the English Channel by German submarine U24 during the early hours of New Year’s Day 1915. It had sunk some 30 miles off Portland Bill. As the weather was bad, it was wrongly assumed a submarine attack was unlikely. HMS Formidable had been engaged in gun practice.
Given up for dead, John was laid out with six others on the beer cellar floor of the Pilot Boat Inn which publican, Tom Atkins had agreed could become a makeshift mortuary. As all the Scot was wearing were a pair of thin pants and a vest, it was reasonably assumed he had not survived his 22 hour experience. Others of his shipmates, much better clothed, had succumbed following their exhaustive exposure to the elements. Many of the battleship’s crew had been asleep below decks when the U-boat had struck. There was neither food nor water on their small boat and they had had to keep baling the water out with their boots to stay afloat. The winter wind and sleet were pitiless.
Clearly the collie thought differently about the young Scottish sailor as whining piteously, Lassie lay down beside the sailor and started to lick his face. The dog had learnt to do this to the publican’s wife which had helped her recovery from epileptic attacks. Warmth from Lassie’s body, together with the face licking, began to revive John Cowan’s circulation. Despite being rebuked and called away Lassie persisted. Slowly, the sailor started to make an eventual complete recovery. Lassie was awarded a silver collar and a medal.
Hit by two German torpedoes, with strong winds and 30 feet high waves, the Formidable had sunk in less than two hours. Standing on the battleship’s bridge, commanding officer Captain Arthur Noel Loxley had gone down with the ship. Alongside his master and refusing to leave him was his loyal Airedale terrier, Bruce. The dog belonged to the captain’s son, Peter who had given Bruce to his father as ‘a little living bit of home’ upon his appointment to the vessel. Loxley was last seen by a crew member on the bridge smoking a cigarette calmly overseeing the ship’s evacuation. Bruce’s body was later washed ashore on Chesil Beach and was buried in a marked grave in Abbotsbury Gardens.
Out of a 780 crew, 547 sailors from the Formidable were reckoned to have lost their lives. Among the crew was around 100 youths and boys. Sometime later, a lifebelt from the battleship was washed ashore on the Dutch coast many miles from the site of the vessel’s wreck. The nation was greatly shocked that the vessel, which lies upside down on the sea bed, had been sunk in home waters with so great a loss of life.
At the time, Lassie’s exploits made the national newspapers and post cards of the dog were put on sale to raise funds for the families of seamen. Some reckon that Lyme Regis Lassie was the inspiration for Hollywood’s Lassie who later appeared in various films and a television series. While because of the endearing loyalty shown to Captain Arthur Noel Loxley, Bruce became equally famous. This included making the January 1915 front page of the Sketch magazine. Later that year the book Captain Loxley’s Little Dog was published.
(Illustrations: Able Seaman John Cowan and Lassie above & Captain Loxley with Bruce below.)