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Tributes to 38 Ulstermen killed in accidental explosions on warships

By Ivan Little

They're the forgotten victims of an unforgettable war.

And tributes were paid today to the 38 Ulstermen among the 2,291 British servicemen who died during World War One in what were initially seen as mysterious explosions on their warships.

It was later established that the blasts weren't caused by the enemy but were mostly accidents caused by carelessness.

The full roll call of tragedy has been published for the first time today by Belfast-based research group History Hub Ulster, which meticulously pieced together records of the casualties and newspaper reports after five Royal Navy vessels were destroyed over the four years of the Great War.

The ships were HMS Bulwark, HMS Princess Irene, HMS Natal, HMS Vanguard and HMS Glatton.

Seven hundred men were killed as the 15,000-ton battleship Bulwark exploded at its mooring on the Medway in Sheerness on November 26, 1914 as everyone on board was having breakfast.

There were rumours of sabotage or that the blast, heard 30 miles away, was caused by enemy action. It's now thought that cordite, a smokeless propellent, ignited after mishandling of power charges.

Seven Ulstermen were among the 30 Irishmen who died. They were James Begley (24) of Greencastle, Donegal; Jeremiah Byrne (38) of Kilcar, Donegal; Edmund Finn (34) of Red Bay, Antrim; James Thomas Gardner (46) of HM Coastguard Station, Carrickfergus; Hugh Gilmour (36) of Banbridge; William Gray (32) from Hogarth Street in Belfast, and Alexander Cyril Montagu (24) from Portstewart.

Six months later, unstable cordite was blamed for a second explosion which wrecked the HMS Princess Irene, a former ocean liner which had been commandeered as a minelayer. The ship was in the Medway for a refit on May 27, 1915 when a huge explosion shook the ground for miles around.

A packet of butter from Irene was found in a garden eight miles away and a mechanic on another ship 1,000 yards away was ki lled by debris, as was a nine-year-old girl on a nearby island after a piece of iron struck her.

Nineteen Irishmen died in that explosion, six from Ulster. The Ulstermen were James Larmour (19) of Lilliput Street, Belfast; James Maxwell (20) of Barbour Street, Greencastle; John McAdorey (30) of Garmoyle Street, Belfast; Matthew McEnroe (19) of Union Street, Derry; John Carleton (23) of Belgrave Street, Belfast, and Alexander McMurray (22) of Bangor.

The third ship devastated by an accidental blast was the HMS Natal, a Warrior-class armoured cruiser. The captain was hosting a Christmas film on December 30, 1915 when a series of huge explosions ripped through the warship off Cromarty Firth in Scotland.

The Natal capsized within five minutes. It was later established that faulty cordite was again the probable cause. It was only some time later that the full death toll was confirmed at up to 421 people, as initially the Admiralty didn't reveal that women and children had been on board.

Nine of the 17 Irish casualties were from Ulster, including two 17-year-old boys: Francis Pasteur Goodman of Keady and Robert Woodney of Queensland Street, Belfast. The others were William McConkey (20) of Agnes Street, Belfast; John Stratton (20) of Portadown; William Walsh (26) of Spamount Street, Belfast; Henry McKee (24) of Malone Road, Belfast; Thomas McKeown (23) from Cookstown, Tyrone; Nathaniel Taylor (22) from Rockvale, Katesbridge, and Thomas Newell (22) of Lachagh Street, Belfast.

The dreadnought battleship HMS Vanguard, which had seen action at the Battle of Jutland, was destroyed just before midnight on July 9, 1917 as she patrolled the North Sea at Scapa Flow. Reports said cordite was being heated beside magazines which served gun turrets. Eight hundred and four people were killed, the deadliest toll from an accidental explosion in the UK and one of the worst accidental losses in Naval history.

The dead included: Alexander Baird (19) from Upper Meadow Street, Belfast; John Devine (32) from Ballymoney; William Harvey (18) from City Street, Belfast; Joseph McCracken (26) of Crimea Street, Belfast; Samuel McIlvenny (24) from Stratheden Street, Belfast; Hugh Robert Murray (22) from Halliday's Road, Belfast; William George Reid (23) of Mervue Street, Belfast; Charles Magee Thompson (23) from Gracehill, Ballymena; Randal William McDonnell Johnston (17) from Glynn, Co Antrim; Bernard Ferris (22) from Co Londonderry; Hugh Fisher (27) from Portaferry; Samuel Montgomery McCargo (21) from Co Antrim; John Wilson Adams (29) from Spittal Hill, Coleraine; Thomas Rainey Agnew (23) from Spamount Street, Belfast; John Neville (37) from Cregagh Road, Belfast.

The fifth accident was on HMS Glasson, originally built as a coastal defence ship for the Royal Norwegian Navy but requisitioned by the British at the start of the war.

On September 16, 1918, before she had even gone into service, a fire broke out off the south coast of England. She was torpedoed to avoid an explosion which, it was thought, would have devastated Dover and sunk ships nearby.

An inquiry found that the piling of clinker against the magazine bulkhead provided the source of the ignition of the cordite causing the explosion. Sixty men died, including one Ulsterman: William Thomas Brown (20) of Jonesboro Street, Belfast.

Karen O'Rawe of History Hub Ulster said: "These five ships and the 2,291 lives were needlessly lost and not as a result of enemy action but rather from the mismanagement of explosives."

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