The large scale loss of life in the First World War is more often than not attributed to engagements in battle or, at least, as a result of enemy action of some sort. However, this is not always the case. The event that caused the greatest number of deaths in a single incident to those serving in the armed forces during the Great War was not caused by enemy action. It occurred in July 1917 when HMS Vanguard exploded at Scapa Flow (the Royal Navy's base for the Grand Fleet).

HMS Vanguard in 1909On the morning of 9 July 1917, HMS Vanguard undertook routine exercises around Scapa Flow. The ship returned to its anchorage with the rest of the fleet at about 6.30pm. At about 11.20pm witnesses reported:

... visible flame coming up from below just abaft the foremast, this being followed, after a short interval, by a heavy explosion accompanied by a very great increase of flame together with a very large quantity of wreckage fragments thrown up abaft the foremast in the vicinity of "P" and "Q" turrets. This explosion was followed after a short interval by a second explosion which considerably increased the volume of flame and smoke (and no doubt debris), but smoke had previously obscured the ship so that the vicinity of this explosion could not be exactly located. The evidence, however, points to it being just abaft the first one.

(Report of the Court of Enquiry into the Circumstances Attending the Loss of H. M. S. Vanguard on the 9th July, 1917. From The National Archives, Reference ADM 137/3681)

The cause of the explosion that ripped through the Vanguard was never determined. One suggestion is that unstable cordite detonated in one of her magazines, another is that a fire may have heated a bulkhead – and that the heat was transferred through the bulkhead into the magazine, thus igniting the cordite.

Whatever the cause, the explosion was spectacular, with one of her 12 inch turrets being blown off and landing a mile away.

Vanguard was launched in 1909, and commissioned the following year. She was part of a class of battleship that had evolved out of the design of the revolutionary HMS Dreadnaught, a vessel which redefined how such vessels were constructed. First Sea Lord Admiral 'Jacky' Fisher was determined that Britain would not be out-gunned at sea by the rapidly expanding Imperial German Navy, so he commissioned a number of classes of battleships as part of the pre-war arms race with Germany.

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Image: Admiral Fisher (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Vanguard was present at the Battle of Jutland (which took place on 31 May 1916), and she returned to Scapa Flow with the rest of the Grand Fleet in readiness for any future naval action. No action came, and a series of exercises and drills became the usual routine. With a complement of about 758, it seems from surviving lists that about 95 officers and crew were fortunate enough not to be on board at the time of the explosion. However the CWGC database lists a total of 835 who were killed on 9 July 1917 who were part of the ship's crew. Of these, 621 are commemorated on the Chatham Naval Memorial, and most of the rest on the Portsmouth and Plymouth Naval Memorials. Only 17 bodies were recovered. Just three men survived the explosion and one of them, Lt-Commander Duke, died of his injuries a few days later.

Not included amongst those commemorated by the CWGC (as he was not a member of Britain's armed forces) is Commander Kyosuke Eto. Eto was a military attaché of the Imperial Japanese Navy and, in 1916, he was assigned as a military observer on board Vanguard.

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Image: Kyosuke Eto (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

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Image: Kyosuke Eto being introduced to HM King George V (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

The loss of the Vanguard was not the first catastrophic, accidental loss of a battleship. The war was only three months old when HMS Bulwark, a much older vessel, exploded.

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Image: HMS Bulwark (image courtesy of www.maritimequest.com)

Bulwark was part of the 5th Battle Squadron and based at Sheerness. The role of the squadron was to protect the South East of England from the threat of a German invasion. On Thursday, 26 November 1914 she was moored in the Medway Estuary approximately between East Hoo Creek and Stoke Creek when, at 7.50am, a massive explosion ripped through the ship.

Of the 14 men to survive, most were seriously injured. Miraculously a small number survived without even being injured, having been blown out of an open hatch. One of these survivors, Able Seaman Marshall, described feeling a "colossal draught" and, as he flew through the air, seeing the Bulwark's masts shaking.

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Image: The aftermath of the explosion of HMS Bulwark (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Other witnesses were on the battleship HMS Implacable, which was moored next to Bulwark, and they described;

"...a huge pillar of black cloud belched upwards ... [which] was followed by a thunderous roar. Then came a series of lesser detonations, and finally one vast explosion that shook the Implacable from mastheads to keel."

Among those killed were six 15-year-old sailors: Midshipman William Ellice (who had earned 'blues' at Osborne in Rugby, Cricket and Hockey); Signal Boy Benjamin Spencer; Midshipman Evelyn Williamson, Bugler Philip Bullen, Royal Marines; Boy 1st Class William Kellow; and Midshipman Charles Wilson.

On that afternoon, Winston Churchill (The First Lord of the Admiralty) 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.

The subsequent naval court of enquiry found that shells and other ammunition had been stored in the corridors between the magazines, and that 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 CWGC Debt of Honour database names 788 men from HMS Bulwark as having lost their lives in this explosion. Most of the fatalities are named on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial, but 61, whose bodies were located, and could be identified, are buried in Gillingham (Woodlands) Cemetery (photograph below).

Gillingham (Woodlands) Cemetery

The inscription on the memorial reads:

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 

HMS Princess Irene, which is mentioned on the memorial in Gillingham Cemetery, exploded just five months after the Bulwark disaster.

Built in Scotland in 1914, Princess Irene, and her sister ship Princess Margaret, were ocean-going liners designed to serve the West Coast of Canada. Both were requisitioned by the Admiralty before they could sail to Canada and converted into mine-layers.

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At about 11.15 on the morning of 27 May 1915, HMS Princess Irene was moored at Number 28 buoy about three miles west of Sheerness. Of the Princess Irene's complement of 225 officers and men, three were ashore that morning. Also on board was a party of 80 Petty Officers from Chatham plus 76 Sheerness Dockyard workers.

As the mines were being primed on the ship's decks, there was a massive explosion. Two columns of flames shot to a height of about 300 feet followed by a pall of smoke which hung over the spot where Princess Irene had been. The smoke reached up to 1,200 feet. The explosion also destroyed two barges that were lying alongside Irene. Although the explosion was much larger than that which had destroyed HMS Bulwark, the loss of life was somewhat smaller.

Some 350 fatalities were incurred in this explosion, including a nine-year old girl who was hit by flying debris. A farmhand and another man working on a collier moored half a mile away also died of their injuries (the latter being killed by flying metal weighing 70 lbs). Body parts and sections of the ship were blown over a wide area, with some wreckage being located 20 miles away. There was just one survivor from the Princess Irene.

Evidence at the official enquiry showed that the work of priming the mines was being carried out in a hurry and by untrained personnel, although it was believed that there may have been a fault in the primer of one of the mines.

Most of the dead are commemorated on Naval Memorials at Portsmouth, Plymouth and Chatham, but seventeen are – as with the casualties from HMS Bulwark – buried at Gillingham (Woodlands) Cemetery, including the civilian Bertie Clary.

Yet another internal explosion caused the loss of a Royal Naval vessel within a further few months. On 30 December 1915, HMS Natal was lying at Cromarty Firth with the rest of her squadron. Whilst a number of the Natal's 700 strong crew were on shore watching a football match, most of her officers and men were on board. They had been joined by a small part of civilians, who, at the invitation of the captain, had come on board to watch a film. At 3.25pm a number of explosions racked the stern of the ship.

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On this occasion there was a much larger number of survivors, perhaps as many as 300. The five minutes it took for her to capsize was probably crucial in allowing this many to escape. However, losses were still heavy, with up to 420 being killed.

Of the 407 officers and men from HMS Natal commemorated by the CWGC, nine named casualties (plus one unidentified fatality) are buried at Rosskeen Parish Churchyard Extensions, with a further eight buried at Cromarty Cemetery. (Images courtesy of the CWGC).

Rosskeen Parish Churchyard Extensions

Image: Rosskeen Parish Churchyard Extension

Cromarty Cemetery

Image: Cromarty Cemetery

The official enquiry into the loss of HMS Natal concluded that it was caused by an internal ammunition explosion, possibly due to faulty cordite.

Major losses of life in 'home waters' were not confined to large battleships and cruisers of the Royal Navy. Troops were coming to the UK from abroad, often from far-flung parts of the British Empire.

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Image: SS Mendi

The SS Mendi was a steamship chartered by the Government and, on 21 February 1917, was passing the southern tip of the Isle of Wight on the last leg of her journey from South Africa to France. On board were 823 members of the 5th Battalion, South African Native Labour Corps. Most of the men had never been to sea before and could not swim. In thick fog, the Mendi was inching her way forward, when out of the mist came the SS Darro, travelling at full speed. The Darro was twice the size of the Mendi, and hit the Mendi in the bow, virtually cutting her in two. Because of the list which the Mendi immediately assumed, half of the lifeboats were unable to be deployed.

In the following 25 minutes, the troops gathered on deck, and what followed has become famous in South Africa. The battalion's chaplain, the Reverend Isaac Wauchope addressed the men:

Be quite and calm, my countrymen, for what is taking place is exactly what you came to do. You are going to die, but that is what you came to do. Brothers, we are drilling the death drill. I, a Xhosa, say you are my brothers. Zulus, Swazis, Pondos, Basothos and all others, let us die like warriors. We are the sons of Africa. Raise your war cries my brothers, for though they made us leave our assegais back in the kraals, our voices are left with our bodies.

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Image: Rev Isaac Wauchope Sometimes referred to as Rev Isaac Wauchope, and sometimes as Rev Isaac Dyobha, legend has it that he addressed the men on the sinking ship (image courtesy of Wessex Archaeology)

Of the 611 South Africans who lost their lives, only 14 have known graves (of these, most are buried in Portsmouth (Milton) Cemetery); the 597 with no known graves are commemorated on the Hollybrook Memorial, in Southampton.

Only weeks before the end of the war, there was a further collision which led to a dramatic - and now sadly forgotten - loss of life.

On 6 October 1918 the HMS Otranto (an armed transport) was approaching the UK when she collided with HMS Kashmir (another troop transporter) in poor visibility and rough seas in the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and Scotland.

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Image: HMS Otranto

The Otranto was transporting US troops as part of the build up of the American Expeditionary Force. The sinking caused the deaths of 351 US 'Doughboys' and eighty British sailors. The destroyer HMS Mounsey managed to take off many troops, thus preventing a much greater loss of life.

The British dead are buried at Kilchoman Military Cemetery on the Isle of Islay. The remains of the American troops were also once buried there too but, in 1920, the US Government exhumed the bodies and these were either repatriated to the USA or reburied in the American Cemetery at Brookwood in Surrey. This cemetery adjoins the CWGC Military Cemetery and Memorial (also on this site is the relatively new Brookwood (United Kingdom 1914-1918) Memorial).

Article contributed by David Tattersfield

Acknowledgements: other than those mentioned in the text, also grateful thanks to Wessex Archaeology for use of the passage about the sinking of the SS Mendi.

 

 

This photograph shows members of the Natal crew and was provided by John Eastaugh. Perhaps, with close scrutiny, people might be able to add some details on this, even, recognise a face.

Crew HMS Natal
Some of the crew HMS Natal

 

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