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.
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.
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.
|Pte||T4/127244||Bargery, J H||32 Labour Coy ASC||Shell wounds||Died 1pm 25 April 1916*|
|Pte||2086||Beniston, M||Sherwood Foresters attached RE||Severe burns|
|Pte||130203||Caldwell, D||RE (ex Highland Light Infantry)||Severe burns||Died 6.30am 29 April 1916|
|Pte||013799||Cameron, D||42 Coy AOC||Severe burns||Died 9.05am 28 April 1916|
|Pnr||129462||Hanson, E||RE||Severe burns||Died 10am 28 April 1916|
|Pnr||130130||Harding, S||RE (ex Bedfordshire Rgt)||Shock following burns||Died 9pm 25 April 1916|
|Pnr||130059||Hayes, G||RE||Burns and shock||Dead on admission|
|Pte||3534 [?]||Knowles, J||11th Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders attached RE||Severe burns|
|Pnr||147264||Lawrence, H H A||RE (ex Wiltshire Rgt)||Shock following burns||Died 6.40am 26 April 1916|
|Pte||20008 [?]||Lloyd, J||Welsh Rgt attached RE||Severe burns|
|Pte||T4/141368||Mitchell, W G||32 Labour Coy ASC||Shock following burns||Dead on admission|
|Pnr||147225||Purton, F||RE (ex Bedfordshire Rgt)||Burns and shock||Dead on admission|
|Pnr||147277||Sadler, F||RE (ex Royal West Kent Rgt)||Burns and shock||Died 1.45am 26 April 1916|
|Pnr||147231||Ward, R C||RE (ex Highland Light Infantry)||Burns and shock||Dead 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.
|Pte||11022||Grain, H.||2nd King's Royal Rifle Corps attached RE*||Burns and Erysipelas|
|Pte||T4/141253||Newbury, W. A.||32 Labour Coy ASC||Burns and Erysipelas|
|Pte||T4/129324||Page, A. J.||32 Labour Coy ASC||Shock|
|Pte||T4/140849||Wallum, J. S.||32 Labour Coy ASC||Burns and Nephritis||Since died|
|Pte||11471||Smith, A. J.||8th Leicestershire Rgt attached RE**||Burns and Erysipelas|
|Pte||107504 [?]||Watson, I. G.||ASC||Burn|
|Pte||129040 [?]||Britton, T. H.||RE||Burn|
|Pte||T4/141574||Figgins, J. H.||ASC||Burn|
|Pte||126864||Murphy, W.||ASC||Cut eye|
|Pte||T4/141258||Smith, W. J.||ASC||Cut face and knee|
|Pte||T4/140828||Bell, D.||ASC||Cut 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.
|Pte||'T4/127244'||BARGERY||JOHN HENRY||35||25/04/1916||ASC||Plot C. Row 3. Grave 12.|
|Pnr||'130203'||CALDWELL||DAVID||19||29/04/1916||RE||Plot C. Row 4. Grave 4.|
|Pte||'C/3799'||CAMERON||WILLIAM||31||28/04/1916||AOC||Plot C. Row 4. Grave 3.|
|Pnr||'129462'||HANSON||EDWARD HENRY FILMER||17||28/04/1916||RE||Plot C. Row 4. Grave 1.|
|Pnr||'130130'||HARDING||SYDNEY||18*||25/04/1916||RE||Plot C. Row 3. Grave 15.|
|Pnr||'130059'||HAYES||G||25/04/1916||RE||Plot C. Row 3. Grave 16.|
|Pte||'147264'||LAWRENCE||HERBERT HENRY ALLAN||19||26/04/1916||RE||Plot C. Row 3. Grave 13.|
|Pte||'T4/141368'||MITCHELL||W G||25/04/1916||ASC||Plot C. Row 3. Grave 18.|
|Pnr||'147225'||PURTON||FREDERICK WILLIAM||21||25/04/1916||RE||Plot C. Row 3. Grave 14.|
|Pnr||'147277'||SADLER||FREDERICK||32||26/04/1916||RE||Plot C. Row 3. Grave 11.|
|Pnr||'147231'||WARD||RICHARD CROFT||22||25/04/1916||RE||Plot C. Row 3. Grave 17.|
|Pte||T4/140849'||WALLUM||JOHN EDWARD||35||08/05/1916||ASC||Plot 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.
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.
Not surprisingly there was no mention of the explosion in the newspapers produced in Britain.
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