The first phase of the Battle of Kolubara is coming to an end; but before we go to Serbia, let’s spend a moment in the more bucolic English surroundings of Sheerness, a port on the River Medway. Also, in something I’m leaving to today’s Daily Telegraph to report, an American ship arrives with Christmas presents for all of Europe (no, really, I’m not making that up).
Bulwark is part of the Royal Navy’s 5th Battle Squadron, an important part of the Channel Fleet. Consisting entirely of still-strong pre-dreadnought battleships, Bulwark and her fellows have been carrying out important work in the Channel. It must be regularly patrolled to keep German Navy ships out. (Enforcing the naval blockade against merchant vessels is the responsibility of the Dover Patrol, of which more later.) However, the only action that Bulwark has seen so far in the war came at the start of the month. While anchored off Portland, the ship hosted the court-martial of Admiral Troubridge for his actions during the pursuit of Goeben and Breslau.
It’s hardly stirring stuff. Unfortunately, things are about to become considerably more interesting. Early this morning, Bulwark is moored off Sheerness in Kethole Reach. At about a quarter to eight in the morning, the men of her fellow ships Agamemmon and Prince of Wales notice smoke coming from the stern of the ship, quickly followed by a massive sheet of flame. Shortly thereafter, a colossal explosion devastates the ship. The largest portions to survive are her bows, ripped in two. The port bow eventually was discovered at the bottom, some 17 yards east of the mooring, with the starboard bow coming to rest another 10 yards beyond it. No other identifiable portion of Bulwark was ever found.
Of a crew of 750 officers and men, there are only eight survivors. Five more were rescued, to later die of their wounds. An inquiry will be convened a few days later. It will find serious deficiencies in Bulwark’s magazine safety procedures. Ammunition has been improperly stored in the cross passages that connected the magazines, and with shells pushed flush against each other. The cause of the explosion was never definitively established. There are two theories, not necessarily exclusive. The first is that heat from a boiler room could have ignited some cordite on the other side of the bulkhead, causing a fire, causing Bulwark’s ammunition to detonate. The second is that a faulty, improperly-stored shell may have fallen point-downwards and detonated, beginning a chain reaction.
The official verdict will be an accident caused by the explosion of a magazine. Latrine rumours had briefly spread about submarine periscopes and suspicious persons on shore, but they soon die out. We’ll give the last word on Bulwark to Winston Churchill, speaking today in the House of Commons.
I regret to say that I have some bad news for the House. The Bulwark battleship, which was lying in Sheerness this morning, blew up at 7.53 a.m. The Vice and Rear Admirals who were present have reported their conviction it was an internal magazine explosion, which rent the ship asunder. There was apparently no upheaval of water.
The ship had entirely disappeared when the smoke cleared away.
The Austro-Hungarians make their first attempt to cross the Kolubara today. Usually when someone says this in the First World War, it gets followed by “…and it failed miserably, and it took them two months to finally do it.” For once, this is not the case! They achieve almost complete success and hold several important positions on the far side of the river by mid-day.
And then comes the Serbian counter-attack. The invaders are now at the sharp end of a massive and unwieldy logistics-chain. They’re exhausted from two solid weeks of fighting, and marching up hill and down dale. The counter-attack throws them straight back across the river, with interest. Casualties in many units are as high as 50%, and these are units that are far from full strength. Once again, the spearhead of an Austro-Hungarian invasion of Serbia comes to a grinding, ignominious halt.
I don’t want to sound like a broken record, but here’s another reason why you should take a minute to at least skim today’s Daily Telegraph. On Page 12 there’s an article headed “War in Frost and Snow”, an apparent eyewitness account/funny story from the British positions south of Ypres. The section of particular interest is sub-headed “Hot Tea Armistice”. Hopefully they won’t mind it I clip it for my readers.
Actions in Progress
As you may have gathered, the Daily Telegraph is republishing its archives from the war day-by-day. In today’s paper: The person who writes the modern-day blurb for this is really, really good at their job. Trust me, check them out. Page 4 has a great discussions of the legal issues around suing enemy aliens, and issuing bills of outlawry (no, you haven’t landed on the Robin Hood blog by mistake, they’re really thinking about it). It also notes how dashed unfair it is for equality between the sexes that only men can be outlawed!
Ahem. The official communique on Page 9 notes that “Between Langemarck and Zonnebeke we have gained ground”, but sadly fails to note whether this is to be measured in inches or feet. And Page 12 we’ve already talked about. The same page also has a note to mention that President Poincare’s wife is now working as a nurse in Bordeaux.