On the morning of 26 November 1914, the pre-dreadnought HMS Bulwark blew up whilst moored near Sheerness. Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty, told the House of Commons later that day that:
‘I regret to say that I have bad news for the House. The “Bulwark” battleship, which was lying in Sheerness this morning, blew up at 7.53 a.m. The Vice and Rear-Admirals who were present have reported their conviction that it was an internal magazine explosion which rent the ship asunder. There was, apparently, no upheaval of water. The ship had entirely disappeared when the smoke had cleared away. An inquiry will be held to-morrow, which may possibly throw more light on this occurrence. The loss of the ship does not sensibly affect the military position; but I regret to say that the loss of life is very severe. Only twelve men are saved, and all the officers and the rest of the crew, which, I suppose, amounted to between 700 and 800 persons, have perished. I think the House would wish me to express on their behalf the deep sympathy and sorrow with which the House has heard the news, and the sympathy they feel with those who have lost their relatives and friends.’ [click here for online version of Hansard, the record of debates and statements in the British Parliament.]
Witnesses reported seeing a large sheet of flame and thick smoke, followed by an explosion. The ship had, apart from some debris, disappeared once the smoke cleared. Crockery and glassware on nearby ships was broken, buildings up to six miles away were shaken and debris was found over a wide area.
Rumours that the explosion resulted from sabotage, a U boat torpedo or a mine were dismissed by the Admiralty. Rear Admiral E. F. A. Gaunt, the President of the Admiralty Court of Enquiry told the Inquest into the 39 of the deaths that Bulwark had suffered an accidental internal explosion. It was impossible to be sure what had happened, but the court suspected that hot ashes had been piled up against the bulkhead that separated a boiler room from a magazine.
Six inch shells might also have been left in passageways after a recent exercise. This was against regulations, but Gaunt noted that a large proportion of Bulwark’s crew were reservists, who might not have properly followed the rules.
The Inquest concluded:
‘That the vessel had been destroyed by the exploding of a magazine or magazines – it was not certain which – and it was probable that some loose ammunition or cordite may have been detonated by some means that caused the explosion. There was no evidence of any external cause and the burns and multiple injures was the cause of death in almost all of the cases heard so far. The findings of the Court of Enquiry were satisfactory and endorsed that cause of death was by accident”. The jury agreed and returned a verdict of ‘Accidental Death’ in the thirty-nine cases.’ [quoted on the website of the Wessex Branch of the Western Front Association, which also includes a number of statements from witnesses and survivors.]
Churchill stated that there were 12 survivors, but there were actually 15 or 16 men alive when he spoke, of whom nine lived. However, he was speaking shortly after the event, so probably had incomplete information. Naval-history.net lists the dead and 16 survivors, of whom one died the same day, one on each of the next three days, two on 30 November and one on 18 January 1915.
Bulwark was an old ship and Churchill was correct that, even from a military rather than a human point of view, the loss of the men was a more severe blow than the loss of the ship.