The Prank of a Century

The HMS Dreadnought, the hydrogen bomb of that day and age, has a legacy of something other than war

Julian Apolinario
August 21, 2019

As the old saying goes, “those that do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Now, this is applicable both in the average high school classroom and in the briefing room of the Pentagon, and while I would say that failing a class isn’t quite as bad as starting a nuclear war, I know some people who would disagree.

In all seriousness, though, a lot of people don’t know about what came before us, and even fewer really care. Instead, they write off history as nothing but boring facts spouted from the mouths of teachers or other adults. However, I think that history is both important, and the source of the best stories that we may ever come across. Now, as the other saying goes, “truth is stranger than fiction,” and that’s true for one reason: fiction needs to sound real.

Here’s the best example of that: Virginia Woolf is many things; an author, a feminist icon, and a not so well known anti-Semite. But something that most people probably don’t know about her is the time that she and her friends impersonated the Abyssinian (Ethiopian) emperor and his family in front of the British Navy’s submarine killing ship.

Woolf at 20, about 8 years before the events of the “Dreadnought Hoax”

It started like any other day: Virginia woke up, had breakfast, and set off with her friend Horace de Vere Cole, a notorious prankster, to go fool the British Navy. Now, to fully appreciate the rest of this story, you need to know something about Horace. de Vere Cole was born into a good family and served in the military like his dad, but was declared unfit for service due to injuries. It wasn’t all bad, because through this path, he became a pranking legend. See, no matter how many stores you’ve prank-called, houses you’ve TP’d, or chickens you’ve unleashed in a school, you’ve never done what this man has done.

And that thing was impersonate royalty.

 Now, before the whole Navy fiasco, he’d pulled off a similar stunt when he convinced the mayor of his town that he was the Uncle of the Sultan of Zanzibar, and pulled it off so well that he was given a ride in a carriage, a tour of the town, and dressed up so convincingly that his own friends didn’t recognize him.

Back to Virginia: she and her brother Adrian were friends with Horace, and he had another prank in mind; a similar yet better one. They decided to get some friends and dress up as the Emperor of Abyssinia and his retinue. Why do this, you might ask? Two reasons.

One: There was a ship called the HMS Dreadnought that was (to the British people of the time), bigger than Avengers Endgame, Lil Uzi dropping a new album, and a new Harry Potter book put together. It was revolutionary in the field of war, the pride of England, and so naturally, the Dreadnought wasn’t exactly open to the public. But it was to the Emperor of Abyssinia.

Two: Now, you might have been wondering, “why would anyone go to all this effort, no matter how good the bragging rights are?” Well, there was some 1910s beef. Back in the day, the officers in the of different ships in the Navy were rivals and loved a good prank, and it seemed that the sailors of the HMS Dreadnought had a stick a little too far up, and the sailors of the HMS Hawke thought that they were due to be knocked down a few pegs. And guess what ship had an officer who was friends with Horace de Vere Cole?

So, onto the prank: some telegrams were sent ahead stating that the Emperor of Abyssinia desired to inspect the Dreadnought, and that he would be coming with his entourage. Horace impersonated a government official and arranged for them a VIP train carriage on the way to Weymouth, where the ship was docked. When they got there, they were given the whole nine yards: a band performance, crew salute, and the flying of a flag.

Horace, in all his moustached glory

Here’s the interesting part. What language do they speak in that part of Africa? Amharic. What language do 1910s British twenty-somethings not speak? Amharic. So, what did they do instead? They spoke gibberish with the occasional Greek or Latin word thrown in, “translated” by Virginia’s brother, Adrian. Another interesting development was the meal. A lovely meal had been prepared for the Emperor, but guess what doesn’t mix well with eating? Disguises with fake beards; so, they were forced to pretend as if something was wrong and not eat at all.

It just so happened that Virginia and Adrian’s cousin, Willie, had a job in the Navy, and was a commander under the captain of the Dreadnought. And he didn’t recognize them. Now, this might not seem like such a big deal, but you have to understand something; Virginia Woolf was not impersonating an Abyssinian princess. She was impersonating a prince.

And so, the band of merry “royals” left the Dreadnought and boarded a free carriage all the way back to London. But, that’s not where this story ends. Eventually, the public found out about this and the Navy was the laughingstock of the country. And so, with wounded pride, the Navy demanded Horace’s arrest. But Horace had an ace up his sleeve: somehow, he had broken not a single law.

And thus, he was home free, or so he thought. See, despite the captain loving the prank, apparently armed soldiers don’t take kindly to having their pride wounded, so they decided to dish out some army style justice. They took Horace and his posse out to a field in the middle of London, and gave them a public caning.

Thus ended the Abyssinian Royal Visit.

Horace de Vere Cole‘s Wikipedia page is worth a look if you liked this kind of story. There’s a section just for his pranks, which I linked here.

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