On 26th November 1914 HMS Bulwark, a 15,000 ton battleship, was moored at buoy number 17 at Kethole Reach on the River Medway. She was taking on coal from the airship base at Kingsnorth, on the Isle of Grain.
At 7.50am, as the crew were having breakfast, an explosion ripped the ship apart. The explosion was heard as far away as Whitstable to the south and Southend (in Essex) to the North. Eye witnesses stated that once the smoke has cleared, there was no sign of the ship. This evidence is supported by the fact that naval divers who investigated the wreck three days after the explosion found just two large fragments of wreckage – a section of the port bow as far aft as the sick bay, and 30 feet further away, a section of the starboard bow. Debris from the explosion fell up to four miles away.
In all, the explosion killed 745 men and 51 officers. Five of the 14 men who survived died later of their wounds, and almost all of the others were seriously wounded. There are mass and individual graves in Woodlands Cemetery in Gillingham, for the Bulwark’s dead, who were mostly drawn from the Portsmouth area.
Although the local papers immediately suspected sabotage, the subsequent naval court of enquiry (held at the Royal Naval Hospital at Gillingham found that much of the ammunition for the ships guns had been stored in the corridors between the 11 magazines, and that either 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 site of the wreck is now a restricted area, designated as a Military Wreck by the Admiralty, and is marked by two buoys the East Bulwark (Green Conical at 51. 25. 21. 25 N, 00. 39. 13. 78 E) and West Bulwark (Red Can at 51. 25. 23. 25 N, 00. 39. 13. 78.E).