Standing quietly alone in the cool midday sunlight in the naval section of Gillingham’s Woodland Cemetery amid the graves of so many sailors from so many ships from so many families, I could not help but feel so proud of our naval heritage.
The ships named on the headstones read like a naval history book: HM ships Princess Irene, Pembroke, Repulse, Glatton and Sandringham. One grave is of a young Australian, Frank Bayley who served in HMAS Melbourne who never saw his home in Ernest Street, north Sydney again.
But I was there to commemorate another ship and men much nearer home – a ship that blew up and in seconds took more than 700 men to a watery grave while anchored at Sheerness.
Many of these men were from Portsmouth and Gosport. Every one of them was a Portsmouth Division sailor who never returned to their loved ones leaving heartbroken wives and girlfriends, devastated parents and children weeping for their father.
The headstones of Welsh slate stand proudly in line as if the men they guard were on parade. The world passes them by and they shall not grow old as we that are left grow old.
For these were men of the battleship HMS Bulwark that exploded after cordite charges were stored close to the boiler room bulkhead.
It led to a chain reaction of explosions eventually reaching the magazines. No one stood a chance on that cold morning of November 26, 1914.
By 1.30pm last Saturday several other people had come to pay their respects and then more. By 2pm more than 100 were gathered around the memorial to the men from Bulwark.
Soon after, 34 musicians from the Band of Her Majesty’s Royal Marines, Portsmouth, could be heard. Leading the parade playing a solemn march, they approached along the leafy drive that leads to the memorial surrounded by the graves of those who were found.
Seven standard bearers proudly followed: Bulwark and Centaur Association; Canterbury RMA; Isle of Thanet RMA; RBL Hordon on the Hill, Essex; Chatham RNA; Chatham RNA, Country and Maidstone RNA.
Following them were Royal Navy and Royal Marines veterans all proudly wearing campaign medals and behind them boys and girls from the local cadet forces, warriors of the future.
A solemn service took place around the memorial with prayers and hymns. The Last Post and Reveille immaculately played by Royal Marines buglers.
It was an honour to be part of the occasion.
One of the people I met was Lt Col Michael Phillips RM Rtd whose grandfather Albert Markham Hood Phillips, 37, was a commander in Bulwark. His father was Capt John Phillips of Weymouth.
Another who attended was Catherine Currie from Portchester who I mentioned last week. She came to find the grave of her great uncle Percy Cronshaw who lived in Twyford Avenue, Stamshaw.
Another who attended was a lieutenant from the modern day HMS Bulwark. She is at present homeward bound from the Mediterranean but Lt Hodgekiss was given permission to fly on ahead to attend the service.
I left feeling quite emotional that so many could turn out in remembrance of men they never knew but would remain in their families’ hearts forever.