German warship wreck off Kent coast given heritage protection

Memorial to 284 men in Folkestone cemetery also to be listed at Grade II

The SMS Grosser Kurfürst sank in 1878 off Folkestone in Kent after being rammed by another German warship during a training exercise. Photograph: HIstoric England

The wreck of a German battleship that sank in the Channel in 1878 after being accidentally rammed has been given heritage protection.

Historic England said a memorial in a Folkestone cemetery to the 284 men who lost their lives on the SMS Grosser Kurfürst would also be listed at Grade II.

The announcement shines light on a fascinating if tragic episode in 19th-century naval history. In 1878 Britain and Germany were at peace and the Grosser Kurfürst and the König Wilhelm, another German warship, were preparing for annual summer training exercises off the coast of Kent.

The warships came across a pair of sailing ships and attempted to get out of their way. A lack of room for manoeuvre led to the König Wilhem ramming into the Grosser Kurfürst.

“These ships are ironclad so they are really big, tough, strong and heavy,” said Hefin Meara, a maritime archaeologist at Historic England. “[The König Wilhelm] collided and tore a great big hole in the side of the Grosser Kurfürst and it went down in minutes; there was no chance for it at all.”

Approximately 500 crew were on board. Some were rescued by Kent fishing boats. A total of 284 men died, with bodies washing on to the shore for days to come. Most would have been below deck when the collision took place. Many of the recovered bodies were interred in Cheriton Road cemetery in Folkestone and a memorial, paid for by German sailors, was made by the sculptor Eduard Lürssen.

The memorial in Folkestone, Kent, to the 284 Germans who died on the Grosser Kurfürst. Photograph: Historic England/PA

The shipwreck has been scheduled and added to the national heritage list for England, which means recreational divers can dive the wreck but its contents have protection.

Meara said it was quite an unusual ship, and as it was lying upside down on the seabed, “the chances are a lot of that superstructure is going to be preserved. It might be squashed but it hasn’t been exposed to the tides so there is a lot of interesting information to be gained.”

There are about 6,000 known shipwrecks in England’s coastal waters and documentary records for about 32,000. The Grosser Kurfürst is interesting because it falls in an experimental period of naval warfare, between wooden sailing ships with cannons and the Dreadnought battleships of the first world war.

The MP for Folkestone and Hythe, Damian Collins, welcomed the news. “The monument is an important reminder of Anglo-German friendship and solidarity in times of disaster, to be remembered as well as times of enmity.”

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