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Ernest Harry Brocks

Ship's Corporal 1st Class 210865 Ernest Harry Brocks, HMS Bulwark, Royal Navy


Harry Brocks

Harry Brocks

Harry was born in Kingston-upon-Thames, Surrey, on 17 March 1884, the son of William Henry Brocks and his wife Fanny (née Baldwin). His name appears in records as both Harry Ernest and Ernest Harry. He was the eldest of their six children, five boys: Harry, Frederick John (born 1886), Arthur William Velmont (1888), Albert Baldwin (1892) and Arthur Percival (1894); and one girl: Frances Nellie Winifred (1890). William was a baker who had been born in Tilehurst, Fanny was from Cholsey; they spent most of their married life in Shepherd’s Bush. Harry began his schooling at St Stephen’s Parochial School in Shepherd's Bush on 18 April 1887 at the early age of 3 years old.

 

His schooling would have ended when he was 14 following which he would have begun his working life. It is not known what work he undertook, but it does not appear to have satisfied him, instead he opted for a more adventurous life and signed up with the Royal Navy.  He joined up on his sixteenth birthday when he gave his civilian occupation as ‘clerk’. He was 5ft 4¼in tall with brown hair, blue eyes and a fresh complexion. His naval service record shows the many ships and shore establishments where he served and also shows his physical development: aged 18 he had grown only ¾ of an inch, but when he re-enlisted in March 1914 he was 5ft 7¼in tall with dark brown hair, brown eyes and a fresh complexion with scars on his left shin.


His Navy career began as a Boy 2nd Class and developed through the Signaller ranks to 2nd Yeoman of Signals – a junior Petty Officer, roughly equivalent to a Sergeant in the Army.  At this stage, on 1 February 1911, his career path to a turn and he was appointed Ship’s Corporal. At the time he was serving on HMS Prince of Wales, but a month later he was ashore in Portsmouth for two months, probably receiving formal training for his new role. A Ship’s Corporal was a member of the Navy’s equivalent of the Military Police responsible for the prevention of crime and disorderly behaviour.  Harry would have been one of a small number of Ship’s Corporals responsible to the Master-at-Arms, the Warrant Officer in charge of the ship’s police. He served in the role on HMS Royal Arthur and HMS Jupiter before being posted to HMS Bulwark on 4 June 1912.


In early 1913 Harry married his sweetheart, Edith, the daughter of Charles George and Mary Ann Langton who lived at ‘Ionia’, Priory Road, Newbury (now 13 Priory Road).  The marriage took place in Newbury, possibly at St John’s church.


Although Harry had signed up on his sixteenth birthday it was not until his eighteenth that he could enlist fully, which he did, signing on for a 12 year term. In March 1914 this term ended but he did not leave, instead, on his thirtieth birthday he re-enlisted for a term given in his record as ‘to comp’.  This was, in fact, a nine year enlistment – to complete the 21 years that would entitle him to a full pension.


HMS Bulwark

HMS Bulwark

(Wikipedia)

When war was declared in August 1914 HMS Bulwark, a pre-Dreadnought battleshiop, was based at Portland as part of the Channel Fleet’s 5th Battle Squadron. Although Bulwark was only completed in 1902 (two days after Harry signed on for his 12 year stint) by 1914 she was virtually obsolete, overtaken in capability by the new generation of Dreadnought battleships. From 5 to 9 November 1914 the Bulwark hosted a high profile court-martial when Rear-Admiral Sir Ernest Charles Thomas Troubridge was tried for his actions during the pursuit of the German battlecruiser SMS Goeben and light cruiser SMS Breslau in the Mediterranean Sea in August 1914. As a ship’s corporal Harry may well have had a role to play in the procedure.


On 14 November the 5th Battle Squadron was transferred to Sheerness to guard against the feared German invasion. Twelve days later, at 7.50am on 26 November, HMS Bulwark was moored in the River Medway at Kethole Reach, 4 miles west of Sheerness when a powerful internal explosion ripped her apart. Only 14 of her 750 man crew were found alive, two of whom died in hospital of their wounds.  In terms of loss of life this remains the second worst accidental explosion in the history of the United Kingdom.


That afternoon in the House of Commons the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, made the following statement: "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. An enquiry will be held tomorrow, which may possibly throw more light on this occurrence. The loss of the ship does not sensibly affect the military position, but I regret to say that the loss of life in very severe. Only twelve men were saved, and all the officers and rest of the crew, which, I suppose amounted to between 700 and 800 persons have perished. I think the House would wish me to express on its behalf the deep sympathy and sorrow with which the House had heard the news, and the sympathy it feels with those who have lost their relatives and friends."


HMS Bulwark explodes

HMS Bulwark explodes

(Wikipedia)

A court of enquiry found that the extent of explosion resulted from the practice of storing ammunition for the Bulwark’s 6in guns in the passageways connecting her 11 magazines. The initiating cause of the explosion remains unknown, one suggestion is that cordite stored close to a boiler room bulkhead overheated and exploded, a second theory is that one of the 275 shells stored in the passageways had a faulty/damaged fuse which initiated when knocked or dropped.  There was remarkably little of the ship left to investigate, two segments of the bow were the only large sections of the ship found when divers investigated the wreck.


Harry’s record ends with the entry ‘D D 26 November 1914 when HMS Bulwark was sunk’ – D D standing for Discharged Dead, the Navy’s traditional way of recording the death of a seaman.


Harry’s body was never recovered; there is a very small possibility that his was one of the fourteen unidentifiable bodies interred at the Naval Reservation Section in Gillingham (Woodlands Road) Cemetery. However, almost all of the crew went down with the Bulwark; the wreck has been designated as a war grave under the Military Remains Act and is marked by two buoys (East and West Bulwark) in the Medway Estuary. His name is remembered on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial on the seafront in Southsea.


Harry’s connection with Newbury is through his marriage to a Newbury girl, who lived in the town all her life. She never remarried and died in Newbury, aged 77, in 1955.  It is a mystery why she did not put her husband’s name forward when the war memorial asked for names to be submitted.  Perhaps she did and the committee concluded that Harry did not have a good enough Newbury connection – but this is very unlikely as others with even weaker connections are on the memorial.  Perhaps they were estranged?  Harry’s decision to re-enlist for another nine years only a year after they were married may have upset Edith, or could even have been a result of marital difficulties – marriage to a sailor who spent most of his life afloat cannot have been easy. 


However, Edith was not Harry’s only Newbury connection, his cousin Horace Benjamin Baldwin, the son of his mother’s brother Benjamin, is remembered on tablet 3 of the Newbury War Memorial.  Perhaps it was through his Newbury cousins that Harry originally met Edith?


Horace was one of four brothers who all served their country in the Great War – as reported in the local paper, which also noted Harry’s death in the Bulwark disaster:


Newbury Weekly News, 24 June 1915, p8 - Local War Notes

The Baldwin Brothers

The Baldwin Brothers

Mr and Mrs B Baldwin, of Railway-terrace, are proud to know that all their sons, four, are serving King and Country. The eldest son, Albert Victor, he served nine years in the Royal Garrison Artillery, and has been in India for a good part of that time. The second son, Walter Charles Baldwin, enlisted last August in the City of London Fusiliers, and has risen to the rank of corporal, his regiment being now stationed at Cairo. He was for some time a ticket collector at Newbury Railways Station, but for some time had been a ticket examiner at Paddington from whence he enlisted. William John, the third boy, was formerly employed at Wyman’s Bookstall, Newbury Station, and had been promoted to relief manager, being on duty at Northampton when he enlisted in the Northamptonshire Yeomanry. The youngest son, Horace Benjamin, 1/4th Royal Berks, had served about four years of his apprenticeship at the “Newbury Weekly News” printing office when he was called up with the Newbury Territorials on the outbreak of war. He has since transferred to the Signal Service, Royal Engineers as a driver, and is now at Chelmsford with his company. Mrs Baldwin had also three nephews on service, Ernest Harry Brocks, who went down on the Bulwark at about the same time his brother, William, was gazetted second-lieutenant. A third brother, John, is also “doing his bit.”

 

Harry' two brothers mentioned in the newspaper article, [Arthur] William and [Frederick] John would be joined in uniform by Arthur.

 

William and Albert

William and Albert

William was another regular signing up in 1904 as a boy, aged 15, with the Royal Garrison Artillery. By 1911 he was a Sergeant Instructor of 'Gymnasia' (ie Physical Education). In 1913 he left the army for civilian life, though remaining in the Reserve. In August 1914 he was soon back in uniform and working as an instructor. He was rapidly promoted to Sergeant Major with the Army Gymnastics Staff on 15 September, Company Sergeant Major on 9 November and to 2nd Lieutenant on 19 December 1914. He was commissioned into the Worcestershire Regiment where he continued to shine. He ended the war as a Captain having been awarded a Military Cross. In 1919 he was awarded an MBE in appreciation of his work while seconded to the New Zealand Corps. He remained in the army after the war, retiring to the Reserve in 1927. John's medal card shows that he was a Sergeant in the AGS, suggesting that he too was a gymnastics instructor. The fact that he was awarded the Victory and British War Medals shows that he saw service in a theatre of war, probably in France. Albert had a more typical war, serving with the Army Service Corps and rising no further than Temporary Lance Corporal. But he too was a bit of a hero being mentioned in dispatches in 1918.

 

Thanks to Antony Saunders for the Brocks family photographs.

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