| During the war there were a number of Naval Accidents which we have isolated because of their shocking caualties and the corresponding impact on members of the craft. There were a number of vessels destroyed in port by explosions which we would today categorise as 'Health & Safety' failures.|
On the afternoon of Thursday, November 26th, 1914, The House of Commons hushed as Winston Churchill rose to make a statement. 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. HMS Bulwark, a 15,000 ton battleship, had been moored to No.17 buoy in Kethole Reach on the River Medway, near Sheerness, Kent. It was part of the 5th Battle Squadron. Some of her crew had been given leave but by 0700hrs that morning they had returned to the Bulwark 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. Then 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.
An eyewitness on another ship described it; 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 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. 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 (HMS Irene) in Sheerness the following year. Of those identified, 67 are buried in Woodlands Road Cememtery, Gillingham. At least 17 freemasons died on the Bulwark. Most are commemorated on the PORTSMOUTH NAVAL MEMORIAL.
Naval Historical Collectors & Research Association