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
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 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
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, Gillingham
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 inquest.
On 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 explosion.
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 found.
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.