|On the afternoon of
Thursday, November 26th, 1914, Winston Churchill made the following
statement to the House of Commons :
"I regret to say I have some bad news for the house. The
Bulwark battleship, which was lying in Sheerness this morning, blew up
at 7.35 o'clock. The Vice and Rear Admiral, who were present, have
reported their conviction that it was an internal magazine explosion
which rent the ship asunder. There was apparently no upheaval in the
water, and the ship had entirely disappeared when the smoke had
cleared away. An inquiry will be held tomorrow which may possibly
throw more light on the occurrence. The loss of the ship does not
sensibly affect the military position, but I regret to say the loss of
life is very severe. Only 12 men are saved. All the officers and the
rest of the crew, who, I suppose, amounted to between 700 and 800,
have perished. I think the House would wish me to express on their
behalf the deep sorrow with which the House heard the news, and their
sympathy with those who have lost their relatives and friends."
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 Sheppy, 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, other were going about
their normal duties. A band was practising 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 upwards. 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 by an eye witness, who was onboard a ship
nearby, to a local newspaper:
"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 look out 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, an inquest was opened at the Royal Naval
Hospital in Chatham. The Admiralty was represented by a local
solicitor Mr. E. L. Baker. The Coroner informed the jury that the
proceedings were to be kept to evidence concerning the identification
of bodies, and that on occasions he may have to re-open the inquest
for subsequent identification. By this time only 30 bodies had been
recovered and 14 could be identified. These bodies were identified by
Cooks Mate William Frederick Cooper who was on sick leave on shore at
the time of the explosion. The Chief Surgeon at the Naval Hospital,
Percy Minett, gave evidence that the cause of death to all of the 30
men was burns. He also stated that two of the original survivors,
Private Gilbert Guy and Able Seaman Walter Crow had died the previous
night from their injuries without making any statement.
The Coroner then adjourned the inquest until Wednesday, December
16th when it was hoped the results of the Admiralty Court of Inquiry
would be available.
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 funeral party was met at the cemetery by Read
Admiral E. F. A. Gaunt and Flag Captain P. H. Colomb representing the
Admiralty; the Commander-in-Chief Nore, Colonel A. E. Marchant
represented the Royal Marines. Representatives from the local councils
were also in attendance showing how the local population felt the
horror of this incident.
The service was conducted by the Rev. R. S. Hartley (Chaplain RN
Hospital) and the Rev. F. G. L. Cruce (Chaplin RN Barracks, Chatham).
Following the interment of the bodies, the Royal Marine Buglers
sounded the Last Post to close the ceremony. On Monday, December 1st,
the burials of Captain H. C. Morton RM and Lt. Cdr. C. M. Queripel
took place at St. Nicholas Cemetery, Rochester and Woodlands Cemetery,
The Bulwark inquest was re-opened on December 2nd to identify and
establish the cause of death on Stoker Anthony Eames and Able Seaman
James Anderson, both original survivors and Reginald Overton a boy.
Lt. Cdr. Queripel had been identified at a previous re-opening of the
Wednesday, December 16th, the Kent Coroner again re-opened the inquest
at Gillingham. Among those present were Rear-Admiral Ernest Frederick
Augustus Gaunt (Commodore RN Barracks, Chatham) who was also the
President of the Admiralty Court of Inquiry. Surgeon-General A. J. J.
Johnston and Mr. G. W. Ricketts were representing the Admiralty. Major
Cooper Key, Inspector of Explosives, Home Office, was in attendance to
assist the Coroner. Thus the scene was set for 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 onboard, 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
Finally Rear-Admiral Gaunt took the stand and gave his evidence. He
stated that exhaustive and scientific investigations had bee
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
The Coroner asked if this had any relation to the cause of the
explosion. Rear-Admiral Gaunt replied "No". The Coroner pressed the
point "There must have been ignition somewhere ?" The Rear-Admiral
replied as follows : "All the evidence we had was that the explosion
occurred. After that there was no proof of the actual cause. There
were many possible causes, but no direct evidence and there have been
many theories which are untrue." The jury were not satisfied with this
explanation, even after a Commander Wilton confirmed that every
cartridge onboard was traced and that no evidence of loose cordite was
found. A juror asked the question again, "We should like to know how
ignition occurred ?" The Coroner replied, "That is precisely what we
cannot solve !"
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 were 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.
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.
Twelve lie in individual graves, the 70 are in a large communal grave
with those from another disaster in Sheerness the following year. Of
those identified, 67 are buried in Woodlands.
Article written by Richard Stacpoole-Ryding/Published
by Medal News© September 1991.