Centenary of the first Royal Navy casualties in World War 1

One hundred years ago today the Royal Navy suffered its first loss of the Great War – just hours after its first triumph of the conflict.

More than two weeks before the British Expeditionary Force lost its first soldier on the fledgling Western Front, some 130 souls were killed when HMS Amphion sank in the North Sea with the European war barely 30 hours old.

Amphion, the second of three Active-class ‘scout’ cruisers – small, lightly-armed and armoured, but relatively fast and agile, serving as the eyes of the Fleet – had only been in service 18 months, assigned to the Harwich Force as one of the guardians of the southern North Sea, Thames Estuary and approaches to the Strait of Dover.

On Wednesday August 5, Amphion left Harwich to sweep the North Sea with a destroyer flotilla.

The blast tore apart Amphion’s forward section – every man save one on the fo’c’sle guns was killed.

Already at sea by the time the British force headed out was a former North Sea ferry, Königin Luise, determined to drop mines to block the shipping lanes to Britain’s capital.

Late in the morning of the fifth – and having already laid a considerable number of ‘eggs’ – the German ferry was spotted and intercepted by destroyers Landrail and Lance, whose 4in guns fired the first British shots of the conflict.

When Amphion entered the fray, more than 15 4in guns were pummelling the German steamer, which rolled over after a couple of hours.

Amphion moved in to pick up survivors – true to Nelson’s maxim of “humanity after victory” – and rescued 56 of the 130 men aboard, before the force continued its patrol.

The ships soon found fresh pickings. Another steamer, very similar to the makeshift minelayer, flying the Reichskriegsflagge – the German naval ensign. The destroyers closed in to attack, unaware they were about to send the German Ambassador and his staff to the bottom of the North Sea.

Amphion’s captain, Cecil Fox, realised the mistake and ordered the destroyers to break off. They did not. Fox then steamed in with Amphion, putting himself between his destroyers and the steamer, the St Petersburg, in another act of chivalry.

The action over, Fox decided to return to Harwich. In doing so, he sailed across the line of mines laid by the Königin Luise. Shortly before 7am on August 6, the Amphion ran over one. 

The results were horrific.

The blast tore apart Amphion’s forward section – every man save one on the fo’c’sle guns was killed, and most of the German prisoners being held in the bow.

Just before the explosion, 19-year-old Stoker 1st Class Herbert Street from Lyme Regis had been enjoying a break with his fellow stokers, among them a fellow Lyme Regis native, Thomas Gollop. The latter took rather longer to finish his mug of cocoa than his shipmate. It saved his life. Herbert Street was killed in the blast, Thomas Gollop survived.

As for Amphion, she was going down by the bow. Cecil Fox ordered his men to abandon ship and his destroyer to close in to pick up survivors.

They did so remarkably calmly and remarkably quickly. Within 18 minutes of hitting the mine, every survivor had been taken off, Fox the last man off.

The lifeless ship continued to float – and to move.

She drifted back into the minefield and struck a second mine, triggering her forward magazine and an explosion far more fearful than the first. Debris was flung around the North Sea, hitting some of the rescue boats. A 4in shell crashed on to the deck of HMS Lark, killing two men just plucked from the Amphion, plus a German PoW.

More than 130 Britons died in the loss of the three-year-old cruiser, while more than two dozen of the 56 German sailors rescued also perished. Her wreck, on the bed of the North Sea some 30 miles east of Orford Ness, is a protected war grave.

The survivors landed at Harwich, according to a newspaper reporter watching them being helped ashore, bore terrible burns – as if they’d been peppered with acid. “The scene here is like that which follows a colliery explosion.”

The first dead – four British, four German – were buried with full military honours at Shotley Cemetery in Suffolk on August 8 1914.

Such casualties would soon be dwarfed by the Empire’s losses in France. But even in the first month of the war, not one day passed without a member of the Naval Service dying – often of illness, a good few men drowned, and most lost their lives in action.

Images courtesy of Robin Williams