The dangerous potential of men, mines, and munitions – Without a shot being fired, the mixture of men, mines and munitions is always a potential for danger. This was proved on the morning of Thursday, November 26th, 1914, when HMS Bulwark (photo above), moored near Sheerness, was torn apart with an internal explosion and sank. At least five men from Northern Ireland died. A similar incident occurred on HMS Princess Irene the following May in which at least eight men from Northern Ireland were killed.
HMS Bulwark, a battleship of 15,000 tons, was moored to No.17 buoy in Kethole Reach on the River Medway, almost opposite the town of Sheerness, Isle of Sheppey, Kent. It was one of the ships forming the 5th Battle Squadron.
She had been moored there for some days, and many of her crew had been given leave the previous day. They had returned to the Bulwark at 7 o’clock that morning and the full complement was onboard. The usual ship’s routine was taking place. Officers and men were having breakfast in the mess below deck, others were going about their normal duties. A band was practicing while some men were engaged in drill. The disaster struck.
A roaring and rumbling sound was heard and a huge sheet of flame and debris shot up. The ship lifted out of the water and fell back. There was a thick cloud of grey smoke and further explosions. When the smoke eventually cleared, the Bulwark had sunk without trace.
The scene was described to a local newspaper by an eye witness, who was on board a ship nearby:
“I was at breakfast when I heard an explosion, and I went on deck. My first impression was that the report was produced by the firing of a salute by one of the ships, but the noise was quite exceptional. When I got on deck I soon saw that something awful had happened. The water and sky were obscured by dense volumes of smoke. We were at once ordered to the scene of the disaster to render what assistance we could. At first, we could see nothing, but when the smoke cleared a bit we were horrified to find the battleship Bulwark had gone. She seemed to have entirely vanished from sight, but a little later we detected a portion of the huge vessel showing about 4ft above water. We kept a vigilant look-out for the unfortunate crew, but only saw two men.”
The explosion was heard in Whitstable, 20 miles away, and in Southend where the pier was shaken by the explosion but not damaged. Ships anchored off Southend holding German civilian prisoners also reported hearing the explosion. Residents in Westcliffe-on-Sea claimed they saw “a dense volume of greenish smoke which lasted for about ten minutes”. The nearby areas of Sheerness and Rainham took the brunt of the blast with reports of damage to property being made. Rumour began to run wild amongst the residents. Some claimed it was the expected and feared Zeppelin raids commencing, others said that a periscope had been sighted and the Bulwark had been sunk by a submarine. Others thought that espionage had taken place and were on the lookout for suspicious people in town. All these rumours were later discounted.
Boats of all kinds were launched from the nearby ships and shore to pick up survivors and the dead. Work was hampered by the amount of debris which included hammocks, furniture, boxes and hundreds of mutilated bodies. Fragments of personal items showered down in the streets of Sheerness. Initially, 14 men survived the disaster, but some died later from their injuries. One of the survivors, an able seaman, had a miraculous escape. He said he was on the deck of the Bulwark when the explosion occurred. He was blown into the air, fell clear of the debris and managed to swim to wreckage and keep himself afloat until he was rescued. His injuries were slight.
None of the Bulwark’s officers survived; although 11 of them were recovered for eventual burial. Rescue work continued during the remainder of the week and on Saturday November 28th.
On Monday, November 30th, the funerals of 21 of the victims took place in the Naval Burial Ground at Woodlands Cemetery, Gillingham. The funeral procession left the Naval Hospital headed by the Royal Marines Band (Chatham Division). The bodies were conveyed in five lorries. Following the bodies were private mourners and a naval party. All along the route, signs of mourning were apparent and flags were flown at half mast.
The service was conducted by the Rev. R. S. Hartley (Chaplain RN Hospital) and the Rev. F. G. L. Cruce (Chaplain RN Barracks, Chatham). Following the interment of the bodies, the Royal Marine Buglers sounded the Last Post to close the ceremony.
At the inquest into the tragic loss of HMS Bulwark and her crew, the first witness was Lt. Benjamin George Carroll, who was assistant coaling officer at Sheerness. He stated that he was passing down the River Medway on the day in question and saw the Bulwark lying in Kethole Reach. He was looking at a signal she was flying, indicating the amount of coal on board, when he saw a spurt of flame abaft the after barbette turret. Then the flame seemed to rush towards the after funnel and the whole interior of the ship blew into the air and everything seemed on fire. He added that the water was calm and there was no tide and saw no disturbances in the water. He finished his evidence by stating that he rendered what assistance he could and was convinced it was an internal explosion that he had seen.
The deposition of Sgt. John Albert Budd, RM, who was still in hospital suffering from burns and a fractured leg, was read out to the court. In his deposition, he said that he was serving on the Bulwark at the time of the explosion and had been with her since mobilization. At 7.30 he was finishing his breakfast on the portside second mess deck when he saw a sudden flash aft. He turned and then the deck seemed to open up under him and he fell down. He recalled coming to the surface of the water and saw the Bulwark had disappeared. He had heard no explosion.
Finally, Rear-Admiral Gaunt took the stand and gave his evidence. He stated that exhaustive and scientific investigations had been completed. There was no evidence to suggest that the explosion was external; and that everything pointed towards the explosion being internal. There was no evidence of treachery or of loose cordite. He said that loose cartridges in the cross ammunition passages had been found.
The Coroner, clearly not quite satisfied with the evidence, summed up the findings. He said it was impossible to discover exactly how the ignition was caused. The theory of external explosion could be discounted. If the jury was prepared to endorse the views placed before them, then their duty would be very simple. A verdict of accidental death was returned and the inquiry on the crew of HMS Bulwark was closed.
In terms of loss of life, the explosion on Bulwark remains the second most catastrophic in the history of the United Kingdom, exceeded only by the explosion of the dreadnought battleship Vanguard, caused by a stokehold fire detonating a magazine, at Scapa Flow in 1917.
A naval court of inquiry into the causes of the explosion held on 28 November 1914 established that it had been the practice to store ammunition for Bulwark’s 6 in (150 mm) guns in cross-passageways connecting her total of 11 magazines. It suggested that, contrary to regulations, 275 six-inch shells had been placed close together, most touching each other, and some touching the walls of the magazine, on the morning of the explosion. The most likely cause of the disaster appears to have been overheating of cordite charges stored alongside a boiler room bulkhead, and this was the explanation accepted by the court of inquiry. It has also been suggested that damage caused to one of the shells stored in the battleship’s cross-passageways may have weakened the fusing mechanism and caused the shell to become ‘live’. A blow to the shell, caused by it being dropped point down, could then have set off a chain reaction of explosions among the shells stored in Bulwark’s cross-passageways sufficient to detonate the ship’s magazines.
During January 1915 many more bodies of the Bulwark’s crew were washed up on the Kent shoreline. Many were identified some were not. Woodlands Cemetery in Gillingham has 82 graves to unknown ratings from World War I, they all contain the bodies of crew members from Bulwark.
Naval War Memorial to HMS Bulwark and HMS Princess Irene
A memorial to those lost on Bulwark and Princess Irene was erected at the Dockyard Church, Sheerness in 1921. It was dedicated by Archdeacon Ingles, the Chaplain of the Fleet. It was unveiled by Hugh Evan-Thomas, Commander-in-Chief, The Nore. Victims of both ships are also commemorated on the Naval War Memorial at Southsea. Another memorial was placed in Woodlands Road Cemetery, Gillingham, as part of the Naval Burial Ground
HMS BULWARK ROLL OF HONOUR
RM Band. RMB/108 (Po). Musician. HMS Bulwark. Died 26/11/1914. Explosion Sheerness. Enrolled as a Band Boy (342840) 10/10/1902 for 12 years. Boy service in Impregnable and Caledonia. To RN School of Music Eastley, 07/08/1903. Born Shoreditch, London 10/10/1984. Husband of Georgina Aversely from Bangor, later of Lakeview Lodge, Gilford Rd., Lurgan. ADM 188/518/342840
RNR. Seaman. 4154B. HMS Bulwark. Died 26/11/1914. Age 34. Explosion Sheerness. From Co. Antrim. Husband to Susan Finn, Macdougall St., Pollokshaws, Glasgow. Portsmouth Naval Memorial, Panel 6.
+GARDNER, James Thomas
RN. AB. 123062. HMS Bulwark. Died 26/11/1914. Aged 46. Son of late Thomas and May Gardner, Soberton, Hants. Husband to Bertha Gardner, Albert Drive, Carrickfergus. Father of two children. Portsmouth Naval Memorial
RNR. Stoker. U1979 (PO). HMS Bulwark. Died 26/11/1914. Husband to Jane, father of three young children. Grove St., Belfast. Sinclair Seamans Mission – PCI RH, York St – PCI RH
Stoker. HMS Bulwark. Hogarth St., Belfast. York Street – PCI RH
+MONTAGU, Alexander Cyril
RN. Lieutenant. HMS Bulwark. Died 26/11/1914. Age 24. Son of Robert Acheson Cromie Montagu, and Annie Margaret Montagu (nee McMicking), Cromore, Portstewart. Brother of George Frederick Montage who served in HMS Shannon and of Fr Walter Phillip Montagu, SJ, Chaplain to the Forces, who died 31/10/1918 at 45th Casualty Clearing Station, France, of wounds received. Portsmouth Naval Memorial, Panel 1. Portstewart WM. IMR