Skip to main content

College commemorates Caians killed in WWI battleship explosion

  • 17 July 2017

This month the College is commemorating the centenary of the tragic accident that destroyed the Dreadnaught battleship HMS Vanguard, with the loss of 800 lives. Three Caians - Fleet Surgeon Edmund Cox, Robert Chessex, Lieutenant in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, and Hatfeild Back, Acting Chaplain for the ship - were among the dead.
A series of massive explosions on the ship caused the disaster, one of the largest accidental losses of life in the history of the Royal Navy.
Caius Archivist James Cox, who has researched the tragedy, writes: "HMS Vanguard was a Dreadnaught Battleship, built at Barrow in Furness. She had fought at the Battle of Jutland on 31 May 1916 as part of the fourth battle squadron, but came unscathed through the day, suffering no damage and no casualties.
During the afternoon of 9 July 1917, the crew was practising the routine for abandoning ship, and at about 6.30pm she anchored in the northern part of Scapa Flow. The court of inquiry took eye-witness accounts of what then happened. There appeared to be a small explosion between the forward mast and A Turret and a flash of white was seen. Very shortly afterwards, there were two massive explosions amidships. Large sections of the ship were hurled into neighbouring ships and up to a mile inland. It seems clear that it was an explosion of cordite similar to those that had sunk so many ships at Jutland. Some of the cordite known to be on board was past its stated safe life but it could not be proved that this was the cause. The court also considered that there was only the slightest possibility that she had suffered an attack by the enemy. 
The next day, bodies were recovered from the shore, and divers were also employed to go down to the wreck to gather bodies, evidence and sensitive material. Only two men survived the explosion."
A small exhibition created by the College's Archives department in the Gate of Virtue at Caius commemorates this little-known tragedy of the First World War.

Share Share