During exercises off Folkestone on 31 May 1878, a squadron of German navy ships was sailing in two columns destined for Plymouth, with the flagship SMS Koenig Wilhelm and SMS Preussen in one division and SMS Grosser Kurfurst making up the other.
As they were sailing under the cliffs, two small sailing craft crossed the bows of the German ships, provoking both Koenig Wilhelm and Grosser Kurfurst to make emergency manoeuvres.
The larger Koenig Wilhelm tore into the side of her companion, spilling sailors into the sea, ripping off armoured plating and tearing large holes into Grosser Kurfurst.
The damage was fatal, and the ship rapidly began to sink, with her compatriots and numerous rescue craft despatched from Sandgate and Folkestone pulling as many sailors from the wreck as they could. Despite this enormous effort, 284 of her crew drowned and almost 200 of those men now lay buried in the grassed area around the memorial.