William Slarks Vidler: the first soldier of Tunbridge Wells to give his life in service of our country during The Great War.
The grave of William Slakes Vidler.
I was told this solemn fact by one of William’s descendants - his great-great-nephew, Gareth. I met Gareth at the Kent & Sussex Cemetery so we could visit William’s grave and talk about his life.
Before we get into the meat of the story I wanted to share with you perhaps the most remarkable of all of the facts that came to light in my research, and that is the fact that William’s story is quite unknown. Unknown to the point that Gareth himself had no idea until he read it on William’s gravestone whilst researching his family history. Strangely none of his family talked of it either. Well, from today we will all know the story of William Slarks Vidler.
William, born at Brenchley on the 25th October 1885, was the fourth son of William Vidler and Mary Jane Slarks, they lived at 55 Nelson Road, Tunbridge Wells.
He was a popular local lad, known for his bright and cheery disposition. He had enlisted into the Royal Marine Light Infantry as soon as he came of age at 17.
During his first years he served in many foreign campaigns including a spell under the command of Prince Louis of Battenburg onboard HMS Drake. He also served with the British Fleet which chased the Russian Baltic Fleet into the Mediterranean after the Dogger Bank incident. It was in 1913 that he joined the crew of the HMS Amphion and would become a special part of our history.
On August the 2nd 1914 Mr and Mrs Vidler received a letter from their son, he said he was in good health.
On August the 4th 1914 war was declared on Germany.
That night a holiday ferry - the Königin Luise - left the port of Emden bound for the Thames Estuary in the North Sea. The ferry was painted black, buff, and yellow to disguise her as Great Eastern Railway property. She was disguised because she was no longer a passenger ferry, the Germans had converted her into an auxiliary minelayer.
The SS Königin Luise.
Meanwhile, the HMS Amphion and the 3rd Destroyer Flotilla were setting out from the port of Harwich towards the Heligoland Bight. After just a few hours at sail they were relayed a message of a ship "throwing suspicious objects overboard”. The Amphion’s flotilla gave chase and sighted the ship at 10:25. The destroyers HMS Lance and HMS Landrail were ordered to investigate.
The HMS Amphion. Source: Royal Navy official photograph courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.
The mysterious ship was the Königin Luise. Seeing the two destroyers descending on her she quickly made off, violently altering her course to escape before disappearing out of sight into a rain squall.
At 10:30 HMS Lance had located the Königin Luise again and fired what was to be the very first shot of the Great War. After two hours under a constant barrage of gunfire the Königin Luise had sustained heavy damage, she then rolled onto her side and sank. The HMS Amphion picked up as many of the survivors as it could from the freezing waters and proceeded back on her initial mission towards the Heligoland Bight.
It wasn't long before the flotilla sighted another ship of the same shape and colour as the Konigin Luise, this time flying a huge German Flag. The destroyers began their attack. Captain Fox of the Amphion recognised this new enemy ship as the St. Petersburg which was carrying the German Ambassador back to Germany from England. He signalled to the destroyers to cease firing but to no avail. Captain Fox then deliberately put his ship between the destroyers and the St. Petersburg to halt the attack. The St. Petersburg was allowed to safely escape.
It was proving to be a eventful voyage for the crew.
The flotilla continued on and at 03:30 on the 6th August, with their mission complete, they turned around and began their return course back to Harwich port.
Unfortunately part of that course home carried the ships very close to the area in which the Königin Luise was spotted laying mines. At 06:30 the HMS Amphion struck one of those mines.
A painting of the HMS Amphion hitting the first mine. Source: Public Domain.
The explosion rips through the fore part of the ship, the explosion is big enough to lift her huge 4-inch guns clear from the decks, flames and debris shoot out of the funnels and rain down on the rest of the flotilla. Except for one man, all the forecastle gun crews are killed and the bridge occupants are badly injured. As it was early in the morning the majority of the crew were at breakfast and most of them are killed or suffocated in the forward mess. Captain Fox was incapacitated by the blast but manages to regain consciousness and showing great bravery dashes below deck to attempt to stop the engines.
Despite the chaos the crew shows great British spirit and the sound of “Rule Britannia! Britannia rules the waves!” can be heard across the decks. It was said that whilst signs of death and destruction were all around, the British naval discipline and courage triumphed over the emergency.
The flotilla reacts to the unfolding disaster and immediately sails to the Amphion’s aid.
It’s 06:50, twenty minutes have passed since the incident began and the captain has managed to stop the engines and race back to the bridge to regain control. He is too late, the ship’s back is broken and is going down. Attempts to extinguish the raging fires in the forward part of the ship have also failed. The captain gives the order to abandon ship.
At 07:00 the captain and the final few survivors are being lifted off the deck as the ship’s 4,000 tons of forward momentum carries her further into the minefield.
Photograph of the HMS Amphion exploding. Source: Navy Photos/Bruce Constable.
At 07:03 she hits a second mine. Her side is torn apart in another huge explosion, her magazine explodes with great force and a giant cloud of pale yellow smoke rises into the air. Fragments of the ship smash into the rescue boats killing as many trying to escape as trying to help. One of the Amphion’s 4-inch shells lands on the deck of HMS Lark and explodes, three of the men rescued from the Amphion are killed including one of the German prisoners.
The Amphion then falls beneath the surface.
Around 150 British sailors were lost in the sinking, as well as, rather ironically, 19 of the crew rescued from Königin Luise. Our William Slarks Vidler was one of those poor souls.
The Great War was only 32 hours old.
Gareth pays his respects to his great-great-uncle.
William now lies in the Kent & Sussex Cemetery.
I have put some rather special plans into motion to commemorate William Slarks Vidler on the 100th anniversary of his death. Hopefully it will be very worthwhile so stay tuned.