river_medway_bulwark_disaster

More than ‘just a buoy’ – Remembering HMS Bulwark

For some, including myself, the River Medway is a beautiful river, the start of an adventure at Sea, the perfect place to go sailing. To 741 men serving in the Royal Navy, the Medway became their final resting place. This is their story.

Picture the scene…

26th November, 1914.

105 years ago today.

It’s a cold, dark, wintery morning. Fog hangs in the air, the clouds are grey. The ground is damp and muddy underfoot. On the North bank of the River Medway, 4nm West of Sheppey; a Royal Navy battleship, the HMS Bulwark is moored up. Hundreds of smartly dressed servicemen are busy with their early morning duties.

There is much hustle and bustle. Some of the crew are busy cleaning the decks, while others are running drills. The chefs are preparing a breakfast of porridge and bread for the huge crew. Further along the corridor several crewmen are busy re-stowing the munitions.

Not long ago, the infamous battleship was called back in from active duty in the Channel. Their mission:  prepare to defend the UK from an imminent German invasion. World War One is raging.

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The ships boilers roar in to action, providing much needed warmth for the crew. At 7.45am the bell is rung. Breakfast. The crew leave their duties and start to form an orderly queue. There’s plenty of chatter in the breakfast line, some friendly humour, talk of wives and children. Others are discussing Christmas plans.

At 7.53am, with no prior warning an explosion so loud it can be heard for miles around, rips the Bulwark apart. The mighty battleship is torn in to tiny pieces. The crew silenced. Thick black plumes of smoke rise high in to the sky.

The munitions which were being re-stowed had been left leaning against the boiler bulkhead. The cordite charges detonating, and instantly spreading to the unstowed shells and magazines. The result was an explosion so powerful that only 12 men survived. And only 30 bodies were recovered.

711 servicemen disappeared beneath the water never to be seen again.

To this day, the explosion remains the 2nd most catastrophic that the UK has ever witnessed.

Divers sent to find the wreck reported that the ship’s port bow as far aft as the Sick Bay had been blown off by the explosion and lay 50 ft east of the mooring. The starboard bow lay 30 ft  further away. The remainder of the ship had been torn apart so violently that no other large portions of the wreck could be found. 

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The site of the Bulwark Disaster

Today, the wreck site is classified as a military grave, and there are restrictions in place to ensure it is protected and respected. The site is marked by two buoys – the East and West (red and green) Bulwark Buoys. Each day, mariners pass the site, many are unaware of the significance of the buoys, or the tragedy that they represent, to them it may be ‘just a buoy’. But, we must never let that be the case.

One of the men that died on-board that day, was a distant relative of mine (my Grandfathers Uncle). His name was Andrew May, he was 34yrs old, and a father of young children. He was typical of many of the crew onboard. Collectively they left hundreds of women as widows, and hundreds of children fatherless. Andrew, and the other 740 men who died were serving our country. I think we owe it to them to remember them, and to tell their story.

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A chart extract, showing the Bulwark Disaster site

Often when I sail past the site, I tell people of the Bulwark and why the buoys are there, other times I look across the water and quietly reflect, giving a few moments of thought to those who lost their lives. 105 years have passed since the Bulwark disaster, but today let us remember them. And let us never forget.

“The meek inherit the earth, the brave will get the Oceans”

(In memory of all who perished. 26th Nov, 1914 aboard HMS Bulwark.)

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