Now, it is often thought that Pte John Parr of the 4th Btn. Middlesex Regiment was the first British battle casualty of the War. Not true. Although he is obviously an early casualty (killed on the 21st August 1914) he was not the first British casualty.
In the early morning of August 6th 1914, with the war being only 32 hours old, HMS Amphion hit a German mine in the North Sea. Casualties on that day included 278171 Leading Stoker Andrew Collins, SS/4209 Able Seaman Albert Cowley, CH/18478 F Bates (Royal Marine Light Infantry), and K/16433 Stoker 1st Class Fred Coker
The following account of the sinking of HMS Amphion is taken from Naval Staffs Monographs. Vol 10.
At 2300 on August 4th 1914, England declared war on Germany. In anticipation of war the Konigin Luise, a former Hamburg – Holland holiday ferry, had been converted to an auxiliary minelayer by the Germans. On the night of 4th August she left her home port of Emden and steamed south through the North Sea to lay mines off the Thames Estuary. The ship resembled the steamers of the Great Eastern Railway that plied from Harwick to the Hook of Holland, and so she was painted in their colors of black, buff, and yellow to disguise herself.
Meanwhile, at the port of Harwick 80 miles north of London, HMS Amphion (Capt.Cecil H.Fox) and the destroyers of the 3rd Flotilla were preparing to sail. They departed in the early hours of the morning and by daylight on the 5th August they were well out into the North Sea sweeping towards the Heligoland Bight. A few hours after leaving port a destroyer on the screen spoke to a fishing vessel who had seen an unknown vessel “throwing things over the side” about 20 miles north of the Outer Gabbard.
At 1025 Amphion sighted the unknown steamer and sent the destroyers Lance and Landrail to investigate. The steamer was the Konigin Luise which made off at 20 knots, altering course, before disappearing into a rain squall where she began laying mines. At 1030, Lance signalled she was engaging the enemy and is credited with firing the first shot of World War 1. They were soon joined by Amphion ( which had won the fleetgunnery prize for 1914) and the German came under very accurate fire.
The Konigin Luise was only lightly armed with two 3.7cm MGs and some smaller weapons and offered little resistance. Commander Biermann brought her onto a south-easterly course hoping to regain neutral waters and draw the British ships into her minefield. However, after receiving numerous hits, the order was given to sink the ship to avoid any further loss of life. At 1222, on fire amidships and with smoke and steam pouring from her funnels, the Konigin Luise rolled over to port and sank at 55.5N 2.32E. 46 of the 100 crew were rescued.
During the action the Amphion gun crews from the disengaged side crossed over to watch the firing and showed their appreciation of good salvoes by cheering and applauding. After the action Capt. Fox mustered all hands and reprimanded the men for leaving their posts. He reminded them that they were at war and no matter what the other fellow was doing, each man was to go on with his duty and stick to it. The ship’s company rather enjoyed the lecture and saw the sense in it.
The British destroyers now sighted another ship of the same shape and color of the Konigin Luise. She was flying a huge German Flag and the destroyers began their attack. Amphion recognized her as the St.Petersburg which was carrying the German Ambassador back to Germany from England. Amphion signaled the destroyers to cease fire but in the excitement of the moment they ignored the signal and pressed home the attack. Capt. Fox then put the Amphion between the destroyers and the St Petersburg to deliberately foul the range.
At 2100 Amphion and the destroyers set course to return to Harwick. Unfortunately, due to reported problems with mines and submarines, the allocated course ran very close to where the Konigin Luise had laid her mines.
At 0645 on August 6th 1914 HMS Amphion struck a mine which exploded just beside the forebridge and broke the ship’s back. The explosion practically destroyed the bridge and smoke and flames poured from the slits in the conning tower. Except for one man, all the fo’csle gun crews were killed and the bridge occupants badly burnt. As the hands were at breakfast, many were killed or suffocated in the forward messdecks. This included 19 of 21 German survivors.
Capt.Fox stopped engines and proceeded aft to take charge. The ship was well down at the bows and attempts to extinguish the raging fires in the forward part of the ship failed. Abandon Ship was ordered. As most of Amphion’s boats were destroyed, the destroyers sent their boats to rescue the crew.
There was no confusion or panic. The men fell in on deck. Within twenty minutes of the first explosion all the survivors were safely on board the destroyers. Among the survivors was Midshipman E.F Fegan who would later win a VC as Captain of the Jervis Bay when it was sunk in WW2.
Unfortunately, although Amphions’s engines were stopped, she still had way on and she continued turning in a circle. At 0703, just as the last boatload of survivors were taken off, she again struck the same row of mines. Her magazine detonated in a huge cloud of pale yellow smoke and the fore part of the ship completely disintegrated showering the attending destroyers with debris. There were several casualties, one 4-inch shell falling on board the destroyer Lark, killing two of Amphion’s men and a German prisoner. Amphion then suddenly slid astern and sank at 0705 at 52.11N 02.36E. One officer and 150 men were lost.