Across the course of World War One, five Royal Navy warships were destroyed by internal explosions causing the deaths of 2,291 sailors, including two local men.
These ships were HMS Bulwark lost 1914, HMS Princess Irene lost 1915, HMS Natal lost 1915, Vanguard lost 1917 and HMS Glatton lost 1918.
Stoker Hugh Gilmour was born in Banbridge on 29 December 1868 to John Gilmour and Mary Tinsley. He was a stoker in the Royal Naval Reserve and died on HMS Bulwark. His S/N was 1586U.
His wife Isabella was notified of his death at 36 Murano Street, Maryhill, Glasgow.
His body was not recovered and he is remembered at Portsmouth Naval Memorial.
Engine Room Artificer 4th Class Nathaniel Taylor was born on 1 June 1893 in Banbridge to his parents Robert and Susan Taylor.
His address at the time of the war was Rockvale, Katesbridge and this is where his mother was notified of his loss. His S/N was 768. He died when HMS Natal exploded. His body was not recovered and he is remembered at Chatham Naval Memorial.
On 26 November 1914, the 15,000-ton battleship, HMS Bulwark was moored on the Medway in Sheerness. While the men on board were having breakfast, the ship suddenly exploded.
An eyewitness saw ‘a great volume of flame and smoke shot into the air. The ship seemed to split in two and then heeled over and sank’. The explosion was heard across a 30 mile radius. Once the smoke cleared no trace of the ship remained.
The Times led with the strapline ‘Ship’s company almost eliminated. The Bulwark disappeared in three minutes. The explosion shook every building in the vicinity, and some of the debris was thrown six miles’.
The Belfast Newsletter printed an eyewitness statement ‘At first we could see nothing but when the smoke cleared a bit we were horrified to find that the battleship Bulwark had gone’.
He continues describing finding a body in the water ‘The poor fellow was terribly mutilated. He looked as if he had been dragged for miles over rough stones,
There was considerable damage in Sheerness and more than 700 men on the ship were killed. Winston Churchill reported the disaster to the House of Commons later that day, noting that only 12 had survived.
There were rumours of sabotage or enemy action, but Bulwark was almost certainly destroyed after cordite was ignited and there may have been some mishandling of the powder charges. 30 Irish men were killed in the explosion, seven of them from Ulster, including Banbridge man Hugh Gilmour.
Just over six months later another explosion occurred near Cromarty, Firth on HMS Natal, a Warrior-class armoured cruiser.
On 30th December 1915 the Captain was hosting a Christmas film show on board the warship. Invited along were wives of officers and nurses from a nearby hospital ship. Just as the party was starting at around 3.25pm, a series of massive explosions tore through the rear part of the ship and she capsized within 5 minutes. Reports that she had been torpedoed by a German U-boat or detonated a mine were proven false when examinations of the wreckage revealed that the explosions were internal. The Admiralty court-martial concluded that the explosion was caused by an ammunition explosion, possibly due to faulty cordite.
The Admiralty issued a list of the dead and missing that totalled 390 in January 1916, but did not list the women and children on board that day, perhaps embarrassed by the loss of non-combatants. Losses are now listed between 400 to 421 people. Seventeen Irish men were killed in the explosion, nine of them from Ulster, including Nathaniel Taylor from Katesbridge.