Late November, winter is settling in all over Europe and the 1914 fighting season is drawing to a close. Trench warfare in Belgium and northeastern France, while hardly quiet, will be defined by defensive successes during the next few months, and operations around Poland in the east are coagulating into a long winter stalemate. In the south, where the weather stays warmer, the battered but unbeaten Serbian army is regrouping for one last effort to repel a third planned Austrian invasion, while over in Armenia and Georgia the first Ottoman offensive is grinding to a halt in foul conditions. Even in the Middle East, where winter is more battle-friendly than summer, British imperial forces are resting on their laurels after taking Basra on 23 November, waiting until spring to begin a reckless advance up the rivers towards Baghdad.
A hundred years on, relative calm on the battlefronts gives me a chance to focus on a tragedy that was relatively insignificant, though only in the context of mass carnage. On 26 November 1914 the British battleship HMS Bulwark exploded while moored at Sheerness in the River Medway, so this seems a good day to talk about the everyday dangers of serving aboard a major warship in 1914, and about the everyday wartime importance of Britain’s massive, hugely expensive Royal Navy.
The Bulwark had been completed in 1902, only to be rendered obsolete as a front-line weapon four years later, when the arrival of HMS Dreadnought signalled a fundamental upgrade in battleship technology. After service in the Mediterranean, Channel and Home Fleets, Bulwark was reduced to reserve status in 1910, but as naval rivalry with Germany heated up she was refitted and returned to Channel service in 1912. When war broke out she performed patrol duties in the Channel, based at Portland, tasked with protecting the southern English coast from the predations of German minelayers, submarines and torpedo boats, from attack by major German warships and from the possibility, taken seriously at the time, of a full-scale German invasion.
Protection of Britain’s long coastline was just part of an enormous workload that meant few serviceable Royal Navy ships could malinger in reserve once war broke out. The Navy’s other basic responsibilities included protecting colonies and trade routes all over the world, imposing blockades on enemy ports and maintaining a battle fleet bigger than any likely combination of opposing fleets put together.
It’s often said that the First World War’s massive battle fleets were outdated by the time the war began and served little practical purpose. True enough, hugely expensive dreadnoughts and battlecruisers had become fatally vulnerable to cheap, easily deployed mines and torpedoes, and contemporary fleets served primarily as deterrents, but the populist idea that the Royal Navy therefore failed to pull its weight in the Great War could hardly be further from the truth.
The Navy’s maintenance of trade routes was vital to Britain’s wartime survival, as was the connected battle against enemy submarines, and denying imports to Germany was one of the War’s slow-burning strategic successes. The service also acquitted itself more than adequately throughout the four-year battle for control of the Channel that was an (often forgotten) adjunct to nearby fighting on the Western Front, and acted as vital support to coastal and supply operations on all the other Allied fronts.
There were major failures, and heritage commemoration’s fascination with them – particularly the ill-conceived Dardanelles operation in 1915 and the inert performance at Jutland the following year – tends to preserve the myth of naval irrelevance. There were also plenty of individual screw-ups to write home about, some of them grimly entertaining, but these were inevitable when such a gigantic organisation was stretched to the limit and relying on emergency staff. The high-profile failures weren’t the whole story, and they shouldn’t replace the Navy’s vital contribution to survival and victory in the modern public mind.
All of which brings me meandering back to HMS Bulwark. She served a short stint in early November as host to the court martial of Admiral Troubridge (in charge of shambolic attempts to intercept the Goeben back in August), and was then transferred from Portland to Sheerness, in the Medway estuary, as part of the battle group on watch for German attacks across the North Sea.
On 26 November the battle group was at anchor off Sheerness, having completed a set of North Sea exercises, and at ten to eight in the morning most of the Bulwark‘s crew were having breakfast while the ship took on coal and a marine band played on deck – when the ship exploded. The blast tore the ship to pieces, shook buildings in Southend, nine kilometres away, and scattered personal items belonging to the crew all over northern Kent. All 51 officers and all but fourteen of the 759 crewmen on board were killed at the scene, and five of the survivors later died of their wounds.
Saboteurs, mines and U-boats were immediately installed as chief suspects by much of the British press, encouraged by persistent rumours of suspicious foreigners around the docks, but the Navy inquest that followed decided the disaster had been a tragic accident. The same public paranoia followed explosions that destroyed HMS Natal in 1915 and HMS Vanguard in 1917, but contemporary warships, crammed full of oil or coal, explosive devices and relatively primitive electrical equipment (not to mention hundreds of smokers), were always likely to explode if flame found the wrong feeding ground. That’s all that happened on the Bulwark, but it was enough to cause instant, total destruction, and it was a stark reminder of another fundamental fact of naval warfare often overlooked, then and now: an armed warship was a very dangerous place to work.