A calm and clear morning on 26 November, 1914, gave no inkling of the tragedy about to befall the crew of HMS Bulwark. Witnesses spoke later of a slight haze on the horizon on the River Medway and silence — broken at just before 8am by a huge bang, a flash and a pall of smoke.
The Bulwark had exploded. The explosion was heard and seen as far as the Medway towns to the west and Conyer to the east. At Sittingbourne, a man later described the flash as “like a wonderful sunset”.
The aftermath of the explosion was horrific. Lieut Charles Drage, who was on board HMS London nearby in Sheerness harbour, wrote in his diary: “As the smoke cleared, we saw a circle of floating debris”. This was all that remained of the huge battleship, which had vanished beneath the waves in an instant.
Just 14 men of a total of 741 on board Bulwark were rescued. Of these, two died on their way to hospital and a further three within days of the blast.
It was a tragedy of immense proportions, enhanced by mystery surrounding the cause of the explosion — in particular rumours that it was the work of a German spy. These were the early months of the First World War and speculation was rife that the loss of the Bulwark was sabotage.
So intense was speculation that no delay was spared in finding the cause of the explosion. A court of inquiry was set up the next day, chaired by Rear Admiral Ernest Gaunt. Witnesses and survivors were interviewed over two days, bringing conflicting reports.
Excitement was intense when one witness reported seeing the periscope of a German submarine in the area immediately after the blast, but this was later dismissed as being the mast of the Bulwark, standing straight in the water as she sank.
Other rumours were rife that a certain “foreign gentleman” had been seen in Sheerness in the days before the blast, taking “an undue interest” in the ship. But after exhausted investigation, the conclusion of the hearing was that the faulty cordite in the aft magazine Bulwark had simply blown up, with disastrous results.
Rumours of sabotage persisted and, after the loss of two more naval ships — the Vanguard and the Natal — in similar circumstances, a man was arrested and held in the Tower of London. To add fuel to the fire of accusation, it was said the man could repeat a German phrase word-perfect and that he had worked on all three fated ships.
Strangely, this was never taken further at the time, but an author in the 1960s, Cecil Hampshire, expanded on the hypothesis of foul play. His book They Called it an Accident, published in 1961, said the inquiry into the loss of the Bulwark should not have reached such a categorical conclusion that the ship had “simply blown up” and that it had been held too soon after the disaster.
Other aspects to the tragedy have since been pursued. It has been said that the practice of storing and moving ammunition on board ship without the use of anti-flash shutters could have led to the disaster, with one commentator adding that the 11 magazines on board Bulwark, connected by passages made the scene “as good as a powder trail”.
Finally, it has been pointed out that the normally strict anti-smoking rules might have been relaxed because of the large number of reservists on board.
Captained by the ill-fated Antarctic explorer
The Bulwark that sank to the bottom of the Medway was the fifth ship in the Royal Navy to bear the name.
The 15,000-ton battleship was built in Devonport Dockyard and commissioned in 1902, spending five years as flagship of the Mediterranean fleet.
In 1907, she returned to Britain to become flagship of the Nore, a part of the newly formed home fleet based between Medway and Sheerness concentrating on defending the English Channel and North Sea. Her skipper at the time was Robert Falcon Scott, later to become famous for his ill-fated expedition to the Antarctic.
From 1912, Bulwark became part of the reserve fleet and in November the next year, Capt Guy Sclater took charge. With storm clouds gathering, Bulwark became part of the 5th battle squadron and, on the outbreak of war in August, 1914, she moved to Sheerness in preparation for active service.
The tragedy of November that year meant she never saw this, but her name lived on with the recommissioning of a sixth Bulwark 34 years later.