Exploding warships left more than 1,500 sailors dead

HMS Bulwark.
HMS Bulwark.
Portsmouth in 1717 (from William Gates History of Portsmouth, 1900)

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Continuing with Portsmouth’s losses during the First World War, I come to two devastating incidents.

One of the worst fatal accidents suffered by the Royal Navy occurred before the war had really started. In all, 736 men of the senior service died when the pre-dreadnought battleship HMS Bulwark blew up while anchored off Sheerness on November 26, 1914.

The grave of Armorer Edwin Amos Wood. His daughter Gladys who died  on November 11, 1921 aged 6 lies with him'        but her name is not allowed on a CWGC headstone. PPP-140915-110342001

The grave of Armorer Edwin Amos Wood. His daughter Gladys who died on November 11, 1921 aged 6 lies with him' but her name is not allowed on a CWGC headstone. PPP-140915-110342001

Virtually every man on board was a Portsmouth-based rating.

What made it worse for the families was that the men and boys died not in action where fatalities were expected, but in an accident.

It is believed cordite charges were stored next to the boiler room bulkhead. They overheated and exploded. It was the biggest accidental explosion in UK history.

In the Portsmouth roll of honour 182 men serving on board are mentioned.

The remains of many were buried at Woodlands Cemetery, Gillingham, Kent, although one, Edwin Amos Wood, 37, is buried in Kingston Cemetery, Portsmouth. He was married to Edith and they lived at 26, Stamshaw Road, North End.

Others who died were:

William John Walters, 16, a Boy 1st Class and the son of Mr CG Walters of Orange Street, Portsea.

Petty Officer John Woodgate, of 4, Talbot Road, Southsea, where he lived with wife Nellie. He had been in the navy for more than 20 years.

1st Class Shipwright George Waggett, the husband of Ethel. They lived at 150, Jervis Road, Stamshaw. He was buried at Woodlands.

Petty Officer Ernest George Tedrake had served for many years and was hoping for retirement when the war started. But he never saw it. He lived with wife Alice at 6, Kimberley Road, Southsea.

Three years later the loss of Bulwark was superseded when on July 9, 1917, the St Vincent-class dreadnought HMS Vanguard blew up at Scapa Flow, Orkney, in a repeat of the Bulwark explosion.

She took more than 800 men with her to the bottom and only two survivors were picked up.

Most of the company were Chatham ratings and I could find only six who are mentioned in the Portsmouth roll of honour.

Edgar Brown was the 20-year-old son of Andrew and Jane Brown who lived at 178, Shearer Road, Buckland.

William Christmas lived with his wife at 57, North End Avenue, North End; Charles Cooke, 43, was married to Emma. They lived at 21, Paulsgrove Road, North End.

Percy Franklin, 23, was the son of Sir John and Lady Florence Franklin. Percy was married to Caroline Mary and they lived at 48, Widley Road, North End.

Albert Martin was 21. He lived with his widowed mother Elsie at 36, Devonshire Avenue, Southsea.

And Harold James Potter, 25, was the son of Charlotte, a widow, who lived at 26, Kensington Road, Copnor.

A century on it does not seem possible that 1,538 sailors died in what were officially recorded as accident.

There were several other accidental explosions in Royal Naval ships, including the Princess Irene. She also exploded at Sheerness, in 1915, with the loss of 325 lives, again many of them from Portsmouth.