Today I acted like a real vicar for a little while as I was invited by the Royal Naval Association in Chatham to conduct an annual memorial service at the Drill Hall in the dockyard which is now the University Library.
The event we were remembering happened on this day, well in the evening actually, of 3rd September 1917 when over 130 RN ratings were killed while sleeping in the drill hall. The area was bombed and although the bomb itself did not kill many, the fact that the building had a glass roof meant that many died from horrific injuries from falling shards of quarter inch thick glass that tore into bodies and limbs.
The bombing was the first night time bombing raid from the Germans and took everyone by surprise. Ordinary Seaman Frederick W. Turpin went to the scene to help with the wounded. He recorded what happened in his notebook:
It was a gruesome task. Everywhere we found bodies in a terribly
mutilated condition. Some with arms and legs missing and some
headless. The gathering up of the dismembered limbs turned one
sick….It was a terrible affair and the old sailors, who had been in
several battles, said they would rather be in ten Jutlands or
Heliogolands than go through another raid such as this.
You can read more on the history here.
Today it was an honour to stand with the men and women of the Royal Navy. In some ways it may seem starange to remember an event from such a long time ago as this could not really have an effect on us today … could it? I believe it is good to remember but this morning I spoke to an old sailor. He told me his grandfather was due to sleep in the hall on that night. As it happened he had shore leave and was in a house in Chatham that night. A tear came in the mans eye as he said ‘and of course, if my grandfather had been there, the likelihood is I would not be here.’
The frailty of life is something to be remembered, not to be morose, but to spur us on to take opportunities that come our way because none of us know what is around the corner.