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  • Writer's pictureSi Biggs

HMS Bulwark Ripped Apart

Unit/ Formation: Memorial

Location: River Medway.

Period/ Conflict: World War I

Year: 1914

Date/s: 26th November 1914

HMS Bulwark was one of five London-class pre-dreadnought battleships built for the Royal Navy at the end of the 19th century. The London's were a sub-class of the Formidable-class pre-dreadnoughts. Completed in 1902 she was initially assigned to the Mediterranean Fleet as its flagship. The ship then served with the Channel and Home Fleets from 1907 to 1910, usually as a flagship. From 1910 to 1914, she was in reserve in the Home Fleet.

HMS Bulwark in 1912

Following the start of the First World War in August 1914, Bulwark, along with the rest of the squadron, was attached to the reformed Channel Fleet to protect the British Expeditionary Force as it moved across the English Channel to France. On 26 November 1914 she was destroyed by a large internal explosion with the loss of 741 men near Sheerness; only a dozen men survived the detonation. It was probably caused by the overheating of cordite charges that had been placed adjacent to a boiler-room bulkhead.

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 7.53am, 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.

Her remains were designated a controlled site under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986. Diving on the wreck is generally forbidden.

All the ship's officers were killed in the explosion and only a dozen ratings survived.

A total of 741 men were lost, including members of the band of the gunnery school, HMS Excellent, which was playing aboard. Only about 30 bodies were recovered after the explosion.

In terms of loss of life, the incident remains the second most catastrophic accidental explosion 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. 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 209 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."

The HMS Bulwark and HMS Irene War Memorial

Search HMS Bulwark in the Royal Marines Roll of Honour & War Graves Database and see the names of 108 Royal Marines who lost their lives in this tragedy.

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