Disasters in Medway - The HMS Bulwark Explosion
On 26th November 1914 HMS Bulwark, a 15,000 ton battleship, was moored at buoy number 17 at Kethole Reach on the River Medway. She was taking on coal from the airship base at Kingsnorth, on the Isle of Grain.
At 7.50am, as the crew were having breakfast, an explosion ripped the ship apart. The explosion was heard as far away as Whitstable to the south and Southend (in Essex) to the North. Eye witnesses stated that once the smoke had cleared, there was no sign of the ship. This evidence is supported by the fact that naval divers who investigated the wreck three days after the explosion found just two large fragments of wreckage - a section of the port bow as far aft as the sick bay, and 30 feet further away, a section of the starboard bow. Nothing that was above the waterline remained - it was all blown away from the area. Debris from the explosion fell up to four miles away, and contemporary accounts tell of clothes and bodies being blown into the masts of other ships in the area.
In all, the explosion killed 745 men and 51 officers. Five of the 14 men who survived died later of their wounds, and almost all of the others were seriously wounded. There are mass and individual graves in Woodlands Cemetery in Gillingham, for the Bulwark's dead, who were mostly drawn from the Portsmouth area.
Although the local papers immediately suspected sabotage, the subsequent naval court of enquiry (held at the Royal Naval Hospital, Gillingham) found that much of the ammunition for the ships guns had been stored in the corridors between the 11 magazines, and that either a fault with one of the shells or overheating cordite near a boiler room bulkhead could have started a chain reaction which destroyed the ship.
The site of the wreck is now a restricted area, designated as a Military Wreck by the Admiralty, and is marked by two buoys the East Bulwark (Green Conical at 51. 25. 21. 25 N, 00. 39. 13. 78 E) and West Bulwark (Red Can at 51. 25. 23. 25 N, 00. 39. 13. 78.E). You can see a satellite image of the wreck site on Google Maps. The red buoy is quite clearly visible, but the green buoy isn't so easy to see - it's around 200 yards to the south east of the red one. Both are very close to the shore. [Coordinates provided by David Brown of Sheppey Sea Cadet Corps.].
The bodies of the men who died when the ship exploded, and of those who died later, are buried in Woodlands Cemetery in Gillingham. Those who could not be identified are buried in a communal grave, along with those of the HMS Princess Irene explosion.
The grave is in the middle of the naval section of the cemetery, amongst the individual graves.
The inscription on the grave states:
TO THE HONOURED MEMORY OF SEVENTY SAILORS
OF HMS BULWARK TEN OF HMS PRINCESS IRENE
AND BERTIE CLARY A SKILLED LABOURER OF
HM DOCKYARD ALL OF WHOM LOST THEIR LIVES
THROUGH INTERNAL EXPLOSION OF THE TWO
SHIPS OFF SHEERNESS AND LIE BURIED HERE
The identified victims, including those who died later of wounds, are buried around the communal grave.
One of the things that struck me, walking around the naval section of the cemetery, was the mixture of different types of gravestones. The usual Commonwealth War Graves Commission pattern isn't used exclusively - some are slightly taller with a slightly different curve along the top. There are also some privately purchased stones. Presumably these were allowed because the men died in Britain, not abroad.
If you know why there are two patterns of gravestone, please e-mail me.