Mystery still surrounds two explosions which destroyed the battleship HMS Vanguard in the Great War. A total of 843 officers and men died as Vanguard sank within minutes on July 9, 1917. There were only two survivors. I reveal here how an officer and an ordinary seaman connected to my family had lucky escapes from death as the ship was lost – and how a diary kept by a ship’s steward assistant from Devon who died in Vanguard was found almost 18 months after his death.
It was just before midnight on Monday, July 9, 1917 when HMS Vanguard blew up without warning in Scapa Flow. Two explosions ripped apart the battleship, killing all but two of her 845 officers and men.
The loss sent shockwaves through the mighty British Royal Navy. For it was feared that Vanguard had been attacked by a German U-boat. But it soon emerged that her destruction was a catastrophic accident – the worst in the Navy’s wartime history.
Despite a major inquiry into the loss of the ship, how she came to be blown up and to sink within minutes was never established – although it is believed that her fate was sealed after a fire on board ignited munitions.
A young Devon-born officer appeared to be among the casualties. The service records of William Henry Batten – who had been acting mate in the ship since April 1916 – indicated that he was aboard the Vanguard on the night of the disaster.
But he was not. Why – and where he was at the time of the explosions – is not known. Perhaps he had left the ship shortly before July 9. The following month he was serving in the battleship HMS Collingwood.
William was a farm boy when he joined the Navy in 1908. He was aboard Vanguard in the Battle of Jutland – the largest naval confrontation at sea in the war – in 1916 when she survived without losing a single man.
Described as a ‘good and valuable officer – intelligent and painstaking’, he also served in the battleships HMS Devonshire and HMS Commonwealth.
William married tailoress Florrie Langdon, the only daughter of Alfred and Mary Ann Langdon, by special licence on April 20, 1916 at St Matthew’s Church, Exeter. He was appointed acting lieutenant in August 1918.
When the Vanguard exploded, another battleship – HMS Bellepheron – was close by. She narrowly avoided serious damage when a large piece of wreckage from the ship was blown on to her deck in total darkness.
Sixteen-year-old ordinary seaman Herman Warren was in the Bellepheron at the time of the drama. He was uninjured.
Herman was just 15 and a blacksmith’s apprentice when he enlisted in the Navy on December 5, 1916.
He served in Bellepheron between May 31, 1917 and February 4, 1919. Promoted to able seaman in 1921, he was in the battleship Emperor of India between July 1921 and February 1922.
One of those who died in the Vanguard was 22-year-old ship’s steward assistant William ‘Willie’ George Ellis Lee, the son of the headmaster of Willand School in Devon, Samuel Dummett Lee.
Willie – engaged to be married – was educated at Tiverton Middle School and Hele’s School, Exeter. After a year’s teaching at Heathcoat Boys’ School, Tiverton, he went to Saltley College, Birmingham.
He joined the Navy on the outbreak of war and was posted to Vanguard after training at Devonport.
His fiancée was dressmaker Dorothy Jarrett, the daughter of local newspaper reporter Albert William Jarrett.
In December 1918 – almost 18 months after Willie’s death – Dorothy was sent a diary he had kept while on board the battleship.
Remarkably, it was found on the shore of Scapa Flow by a Sgt Russell, of the battleship HMS Imperieuse while he was out walking.
The diary had been given to Willie by Dorothy as a birthday present in 1911. Although weather-beaten and water-stained, all the words within it were decipherable.
Dorothy went on to marry Frank Bennett in Tiverton in 1932. She was a grocery shopkeeper in the town for many years – living at the Corner House in Tiverton. She died on August 12, 1970, aged 76.
Willie, born in Caltestock, Dorset on October 11, 1894, is remembered on the Naval Memorial at Plymouth Hoe.
William Henry Batten was connected to my family through marriage. His sister, Edith Mary (1903-1984), married Archibald ‘Archie’ Roberts (1894-1968) at Thorverton Parish Church on February 4, 1922. Archie, who served in the 13th Hussars, was one of 30 grandsons of John Roberts (1829-1919) who served in the Great War. John was my great-great grandfather.
Herman Warren (1901-1962) was the son of Sidney Warren (1872-1962) and Ellen Hamlin (1874-). Sidney was the son of John Warren (1837-1909) and Jane Evan Roberts (1842-1881). Jane was the daughter of Elizabeth Treble Roberts (1815-1887). Elizabeth was the daughter of William Roberts (1779-1848) and Sarah Treble (1784-1861). William was the son of William Roberts (1738-), my great-great-great-great-great grandfather.
HMS Vanguard. Public Domain image by Symonds & Co (photograph Q 40389 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums – via Wikimedia Commons).