Accidental deaths in Audruicq explosion 25 April 1916

Where is Audruicq?

Audruicq is a commune in the Pas-de-Calais department in northern France. For much of the Great War it was the site of a principal British Army ammunition depot.

With thanks to Viamichelin for the use of this map.

A 1917 map of the area shows no detail of the Ammunition Depot but a clue comes from the railway yard that had been constructed to the south of it.

The events at Audruiq on 25 April 1916

The 25 April 1916 entry in the war diary of the army’s Director of Ordnance Services says

COO Boulogne telephoned from Audruicq and informed me that there had been an accident at Audruicq. Two tents had been pitched in the Trench Munition Area for the removal of the charges from 4-inch mortar bombs and substituting in them ophorite [a different form of explosive]. This work had been arranged by GHQ with the Director of Artillery and two experts were sent over from England to supervise the work.

So far as can be ascertained at present it is believed that the ignition of the ingredients was spontaneous. The fire from the tent in which the explosion first occurred communicated to the second tent and the contents of both tents were destroyed – somewhere about 200 rounds [of mortar bombs] altogether. Four or six men have been killed and about 40 wounded. The casualties occurred amongst Army Service Corps Labour Corps and men from the Royal Engineers Special Brigade who were doing the work.

The diary then mentioned that similar work going on at Boulogne had been stopped and that a court of enquiry was being organised.

Court of enquiry

I searched records of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to see if I could determine who the casualties were. On isolating a list of “possibles” I then examined their service records and by luck they include papers from the court of enquiry.

The enquiry was conducted by Captains D. Lyell and I. Simson and Lieutenant P. H. Poole. All were officers of the Royal Engineers, with Poole being attached to the Army Ordnance Department. The witnesses who gave evidence were listed as Captain H. C. Dolphin of the Army Ordnance Department; Lieutenant C. E. H. Bird of the Army Service Corps; Cpl 141090 S. M. Hay; Pte 141683 J. Bell; Pte 126864 J. Murphy; Cpl 25673 G. W. Adkins and Pte 141258 W. J. Smith. The Privates and Corporals were all of the Army Service Corps. It was explained that potential witness from the Royal Engineers had by then left Audruicq.

The summary was that

No evidence whatever was given to show that any neglect or blame could be attached to any of the NCOs or men killed or injured, as the only men who could give that evidence are the Special REs who have left Audruicq.

Captain Dolphin said

Shortly after 9am an explosion occurred in the Ordnance Depot, Audruicq. There was a laboratory operation being performed according to written instructions of Captain Trelawney who had been sent out from England for this purpose [Trelawney was at Boulogne when this happened]. … To the best of my belief all of the killed and injured were on duty at that time in that particular part of the Depot. Of these, Pte Cameron [Army Ordnance Corps] was given orders to stand the fire buckets in the Trench Munition Area and was thus on duty in the marquee at the time. The sentries of the [Audruicq] Ammunition Depot have orders not to allow anybody into the Depot except on duty.

Lieutenant Bird’s statement was not dissimilar, adding that he had two gangs of his ASC men working in and around the marquees at the time.

Cpl S. M. Hay of 32 Labour Company ASC said he had 15 men working in No. 2 Marquee and listed his men who had been injured: Bargery, Mitchell, Wallum, Watson, Bell J, Butler, Smith A, Smith W J,  Newbery and Page.

Pte J. Bell of the same unit said that his gang had been working on this task for 5 or 6 days and that at the time of the explosion he had been carrying boxes from inside the marquee to a stack outside: he was blown some ten feet.

Cpl Adkins and Pte J. Murphy said that they had been working with Ptes Peck, Figgins and Bell D in No. 1 Marquee.

Pte W. J. Smith said that the only man he knew who was not of the ASC was named Britton and he was of the Royal Engineers.

The army’s Director of Ordnance Services said on 1 May 1916 that the court of enquiry had not shed much light on the cause of the explosion and that application had been made by GHQ for an expert on chemical explosives to be sent out from England for further investigation.

The casualties

Reports contains in some of the men’s service records provide a list of casualties. This appears to be complete but it is possible through oversight or accidental omission that some of the men affected are not named within.

Admissions to 35 Lahore British General Hospital at Calais

A roll of men injured in the Audruicq explosion reported by 35 Lahore British General Hospital (undated). Errors made in this report in the initials, rank and number of these men have been corrected for the Long, Long Trail by reference to their service and medals records. All references to "RE" are to 5 (Trench Mortar) Battalion.

RankNumberNameUnitDiagnosisNotes
PteT4/127244Bargery, J H32 Labour Coy ASCShell woundsDied 1pm 25 April 1916*
Pte2086Beniston, MSherwood Foresters attached RESevere burns
Pte130203Caldwell, DRE (ex Highland Light Infantry)Severe burnsDied 6.30am 29 April 1916
Pte013799Cameron, D42 Coy AOCSevere burnsDied 9.05am 28 April 1916
Pnr129462Hanson, ERESevere burnsDied 10am 28 April 1916
Pnr130130Harding, SRE (ex Bedfordshire Rgt)Shock following burnsDied 9pm 25 April 1916
Pnr130059Hayes, GREBurns and shockDead on admission
Pte3534 [?]Knowles, J11th Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders attached RESevere burns
Pnr147264Lawrence, H H ARE (ex Wiltshire Rgt)Shock following burnsDied 6.40am 26 April 1916
Pte20008 [?]Lloyd, JWelsh Rgt attached RESevere burns
PteT4/141368Mitchell, W G32 Labour Coy ASCShock following burnsDead on admission
Pnr 147225Purton, FRE (ex Bedfordshire Rgt)Burns and shockDead on admission
Pnr 147277Sadler, FRE (ex Royal West Kent Rgt)Burns and shockDied 1.45am 26 April 1916
Pnr147231Ward, R CRE (ex Highland Light Infantry)Burns and shockDead on admission

*Bargery’s service record confirms that he died while en route from Audruicq to the hospital

Admissions to 30 General Hospital at Calais

A roll of men injured in the Audruicq explosion reported by 30 General Hospital at Calais (undated). Errors made in this report in the initials, rank and number of these men have been corrected for the Long, Long Trail by reference to their service and medals records. All references to "RE" are to 5 (Trench Mortar) Battalion.

RankNumberNameUnitDiagnosisNotes
Pte11022Grain, H.2nd King's Royal Rifle Corps attached RE*Burns and Erysipelas
PteT4/141253Newbury, W. A.32 Labour Coy ASCBurns and Erysipelas
PteT4/129324Page, A. J.32 Labour Coy ASCShock
PteT4/140849Wallum, J. S.32 Labour Coy ASCBurns and NephritisSince died
Pte11471Smith, A. J.8th Leicestershire Rgt attached RE**Burns and Erysipelas
CplT4/141090Hay, S.ASCBurn
Pte409031Peck, W.ASCBruise
PteT4/141638Bell, J.ASCBurn
Pte107504 [?]Watson, I. G.ASCBurn
Pte129040 [?]Britton, T. H.REBurn
PteT4/141574Figgins, J. H.ASCBurn
Pte126864Murphy, W.ASCCut eye
PteT4/141258Smith, W. J.ASCCut face and knee
PteT4/141277Butler, P.ASCBurn
PteT4/140828Bell, D.ASCCut head

* This man had possibly already transferred to the RE.
** He was killed in action on 14 July 1916.

Burials in Calais Southern Cemetery

As far as I can tell, all of the dead from the explosion are buried within this cemetery.

RankNumberSurnameForenamesAgeDate Grave
Pte'T4/127244'BARGERYJOHN HENRY3525/04/1916ASCPlot C. Row 3. Grave 12.
Pnr'130203'CALDWELLDAVID1929/04/1916REPlot C. Row 4. Grave 4.
Pte'C/3799'CAMERONWILLIAM3128/04/1916AOCPlot C. Row 4. Grave 3.
Pnr'129462'HANSONEDWARD HENRY FILMER1728/04/1916REPlot C. Row 4. Grave 1.
Pnr'130130'HARDINGSYDNEY18*25/04/1916REPlot C. Row 3. Grave 15.
Pnr'130059'HAYESG25/04/1916REPlot C. Row 3. Grave 16.
Pte'147264'LAWRENCEHERBERT HENRY ALLAN1926/04/1916REPlot C. Row 3. Grave 13.
Pte'T4/141368'MITCHELLW G25/04/1916ASCPlot C. Row 3. Grave 18.
Pnr'147225'PURTONFREDERICK WILLIAM2125/04/1916REPlot C. Row 3. Grave 14.
Pnr'147277'SADLERFREDERICK3226/04/1916REPlot C. Row 3. Grave 11.
Pnr'147231'WARDRICHARD CROFT2225/04/1916REPlot C. Row 3. Grave 17.
PteT4/140849'WALLUMJOHN EDWARD3508/05/1916ASCPlot C. Row 4. Grave 8.

*The birth of Sydney Harding, the son of Benjamin and Elizabeth Harding of Bedford, was registered in the January quarter of 1898. He enlisted into the 5th Battalion of the Bedfordshire Regiment (Territorial Force) on 28 June 1915, giving his age as 20. Sydney transferred to the Royal Engineers on 18 March 1916 and appears to have gone to France at around that date.

Passers by, please visit and spare a thought for these men.

Official notice

The deaths were not classified as “Killed in action “or “died of wounds” but simply “died”: this was usually applied to cases of death to illness, natural causes or accident. The men are listed under this heading in the official War Office casualty lists that appeared in the newspapers.

This example is the list printed in the “Times” on 19 May 1916.

Not surprisingly there was no mention of the explosion in the newspapers produced in Britain.

This clipping from the “Reading Mercury” of 13 May 1916 underlines the personal tragedies that lie below the stark official reports. The death of 35 year old Pte John Wallum left a widow to care for their five children. He had voluntarily enlisted in High Wycombe on 13 September 1915 and went to France on 8 February 1916. John, who had been working in No. 2 Marquee, died of his burns complicated by nephritis, tetanus and pleurisy.

 

Sources consulted

War diary of GHQ Director of Ordnance Services (National Archives WO95/58)
War diary of 5 (Mortar) battalion RE (WO95/122) Uninformative.
The service record of John Henry Bargery (WO363)
The service record of Sydney Harding. He enlisted  (WO363)
The service record of John Edward Wallum (WO363)
Commonwealth War Graves Commission database
Times Digital Archive
British Newspaper Archive

Links

Special Companies of the Royal Engineers