Royal Navy, H.M.S. Natal, 30th December 1915
Synopsis of Life and Military Service
The son of the Reverend Samuel Back and Eugenie Gertrude Coventry, Eric Percy Coventry Back was born on 5 August 1870 in Torquay, Devon. He entered the navy on 15 January 1884 when he joined the training ship HMS Britannia and passed out of there in December 1985 as a Midshipman without the need for passing an examination.
Eric’s first ship as a Midshipman was aboard HMS Alexandra which he joined on 5 February 1886. This was about the time that the then Duke of Edinburgh became an admiral and the Alexandra became his flag ship when he was Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet. Eric was made an acting Sub-Lieutenant on 14 February 1890 – a position that was confirmed in November 1891 – and was further promoted to Lieutenant on 30 June 1892 serving aboard HMS Warspite. During his time as a Sub-Lieutenant, Eric had his boots (valued at 30 shillings) stolen. He was serving aboard HMS Volage based at Portsmouth Dockyard went he went on leave for a few days. He’d left his boots by his chest in the steerage and on his return found them missing. The thief, Arthur Hilton, a gun room servant, had pawned them for 4s 6d at the shop of Mr Cudlipp in St James’ Road, Southsea.
In 1899, Eric was transferred to HMS Monarch in Simon’s Bay, South Africa and was subsequently part of the Royal Naval Brigade during the Second Boer War. He was Mentioned in Despatches twice during this time and one of his reports was published in the London Gazette:
“I HAVE the honour to forward the following report of proceedings of the 12-pr. Battery under my command, which was operating from the 11th instant to the 15th instant, in conjunction with the 83rd Battery R.F.A. and the Guards Brigade, under the command of General Inigo Jones. At 6.30 a.m. on the 11th instant the above force moved to within about 5 miles of the enemy’s position at Pienaarspoort, and on the following day advanced to support General Hamilton, who was attacking on our right flank. At about 2 p.m. No. 1 12-pr. gun came into action (having been dragged by hand up a small kopje), and shelled the enemy’s position, whose artillery fire was silenced at the first few rounds. At 2.45 p.m., acting on orders received from the G.O.C., I directed Lieut. French, R.M.L.I., to place No. 2 gun on a position some 200 yards to the left, and to enfilade with shrapnel the positions occupied on our right front by the enemy’s riflemen, and to assist General Hamilton’s advance, which had been temporarily checked. At 3.15 p.m. orders were received to “cease fire,” as our infantry were advancing on to the line of fire from the right. Shortly afterwards the G.O.C. signalled that the 12-prs. were to advance and rejoin the Guards Brigade, which had in the meantime moved forward towards the long ridge occupied by the enemy. Owing to the difficult nature of the ground, it took over an hour to reach the foot of this ridge, on the top of which a severe engagement was taking place. As it was getting dark, I was directed to remain under cover of the ridge. The troops remained during the night in the positions which they held. There had been no casualties among the 12-pr. Battery during the day. Ranges varied from 3,700 to 6,000 yards. Satisfactory results were obtained with the long-range fuses supplied to field artillery for trial, and borrowed from them for trial with the 12-pr. gun. Shrapnel shells were by this means burst over the Boer “sangars” at a range of 5,900 yards. 12th June.—At 5.30 a.m., in accordance with orders received from the G.O.C., the guns were placed on the top of the ridge, in the position occupied on the previous night by the 82nd Battery (under General Hamilton), and which was from 2,500 to 3,500 yards from a further ridge then held by the enemy. The guns were in position by daylight, but it was found that the enemy had retreated during the night, and left us in possession of the entire ridge, which was an extremely strong and extensive position. The Brigade under General Inigo Jones refrained at Donkerhoek (west of ridge) during the 13th and 14th, and on the 15th marched to the camp of the 11th Division 2 miles east of Pretoria, where the 12-pr. Battery rejoined your command. The officers (Lieut. French, R.M.L.I., and Mr Cunningham, midshipman) and men worked well throughout.”
As a result of his actions during the Boer War, Eric was promoted to Commander on 26 June 1902. He was subsequently promoted to Captain on 30 June 1908. Eric specialised in Gunnery (something that may have been instilled in him by the Duke of Edinburgh during his time in HMS Alexandra) and between 8 September 1908 and January 1910 was on the staff of the Inspector of Target Practice.
On 18 February 1911, Eric married Violet Hammill and they had three children.
During the early months of World War One he was flag captain to Admiral Sir George Egerton, Commander-in-Chief at Devonport aboard HMS Impregnable. On 5 June 1915 Eric took command of HMS Natal, a Warrior class armoured cruiser.
On 30 December 1915 the Natal was with the 2nd Cruiser Squadron of the Grand Fleet anchored in the Cromarty Firth, Scotland. On that day, Eric had organised a film party and invited the wives and children of officers, civilian friends, and nurses from the hospital ship Drina to attend. Fortunately (as it turned out) his children were unable to attend as they had the flu. The party had just started when, about 3.20pm, smoke was spotted near the ship’s mainmast. This was followed shortly by flames and then an explosion. Within minutes the ship began to heel over to port and then capsized with the loss of 422 lives. Eric and his wife’s bodies were never recovered and he was honoured and remembered on the Chatham Naval Memorial, Kent.
The following family information has been ascertained :-
- Wife – Violet Hammill or Back, b. c.1887, Greenwich, London, d.30 December 1915.
- Son – Eric Ford Schomberg, born c.1912 at Devonport, died 25 April 2004.
- Daughter – Helen E. V., born c.1913 at Devonport.
- Daughter – Diana C., born c.1914 at Devonport.
- Father – Rev. Samuel Back, born 2 Oct. 1825 at Norwich, died c.1917.
- Mother – Eugenie G. Coventry, b. c.1826 at Versailles, France, d.6 March 1922.
- Sister – Maud H. S., born c.1860 at Berkswell.
- Sister – Winifred A. S. M., born c.1861 at Berkswell.
- Sister – Beatrice H. M., born c.1863 at Berkswell.
- Brother – Hugh Cairns Alexander, born c.1864 at Berkswell, died c.1928.
- Brother – Guy Seymour, born c.1866 at Berkswell, Warwickshire, died c.1926.
Records identify that Eric lived at the following addresses :-
- 1871 – Vicarage, Maxstoke, Meriden, Warwickshire.
- 1881 – Boarder, School, Marcham, Abingdon, Berkshire.
- 1891 – Royal Naval College, Portsea, Portsmouth, Hampshire.
- 1915 – 8 Penlee Gardens, Stoke Devonport.
For his service in South Africa during the Second Boer War, Eric was awarded the Queen’s South Africa Medal. Eric Percy Coventry Back was awarded the 1914-15 Star, Victory and the British War Medals for his service in the Great War.
Eric is remembered and honoured on the following memorials :-
- Chatham Naval Memorial, Kent.
- St Michael & All Angels Churchyard, Maxstoke, Warwickshire.
- St Thomas a Beckett Church Memorial, Warblington.
Links to Additional Information
- Commonwealth War Graves Commission – Eric Percy Coventry Back
- Lives of the First World War – Eric Percy Coventry Back
- A Street Near You website – Eric Percy Coventry Back
- Find a Grave website – Eric Percy Coventry Back
- HMS Natal – The Captains website
- Imperial War Museum Memorials – Captain Back and Maxstoke Men WW1 Memorial
- 1871 England, Wales and Scotland Census.
- Find My Past: Portsmouth Evening News 1 May 1890.
- 1891 England, Wales and Scotland Census.
- Page 5986 | Issue 26224, 17 November 1891 | London Gazette | The Gazette
- Page 4187 | Issue 26309, 22 July 1892 | London Gazette | The Gazette
- Page 1743 | Issue 27293, 17 March 1901 | London Gazette | The Gazette
- Page 4198 | Supplement 27448, 24 June 1902 | London Gazette | The Gazette
- Page 4644 | Supplement 28151, 23 June 1908 | London Gazette | The Gazette
- Find My Past: The Scotsman 3 January 1916.
- England and Wales, National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administrations), 1858-1995.
- Trevor Torkington