The Great Explosion: Gunpowder, the Great War and a Disaster on the Kent Marshes, by Brian Dillon

As war raged, health and safety were abandoned – with devastating results, writes Stephen Halliday

June 25, 2015
Book review: The Great Explosion: Gunpowder, the Great War and a Disaster on the Kent Marshes, by Brian Dillon

This book’s title does less than full justice to its moving and perceptive content. It is more than an account of a disastrous accident that occurred in 1916 in an explosives plant in that neglected corner of Kent that lies in the marshy land north and east of Faversham, a town little visited (but which, evidently, was the only one in England permitted to use the royal coat of arms and the motto of the Order of the Garter, Honi soit qui mal y pense). The Great Explosion is also a lesson in chemistry that your reviewer, who abandoned the subject as soon as was decently possible, found fascinating. Brian Dillon describes the journey from plain old gunpowder to TNT with admirable clarity, with every step of the way involving greater perils for those who used it and, above all, those who made it.

The explosion began with a small fire in a pile of empty bags shortly after noon on Sunday 2 April as the plant worked frantically to produce explosives for the forthcoming Battle of the Somme, which would begin three months later. No one was unduly worried, but firefighters were asked to attend. The small fire eventually spread to a building that contained both TNT and ammonium nitrate, a fatal combination strictly forbidden by the regulations. But as the plant’s inspector later argued in his report, “at the present time rapidity of output is of the first importance, and from this point of view it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, strictly to adhere to the exact letter of a licence”. The coroner’s report observed “that it was fatally easy to be wise after the event”. Ah, so that’s all right then.

The death toll reached 116, and would include every single firefighter who attended the blaze. The bodies of some victims were never recovered because they were vaporised by the intensity of the explosion. Windows rattled in Norwich, and a shopkeeper in Southend claimed compensation for his broken glass. A labourer working on a farm 15 miles from the explosion died of shock, and nine-year-old Hilda Johnson, playing in her garden nearby, was killed by a piece of flying metal. Were precautions taken as a result? Not really. In January 1917, a similar disaster at Silvertown in East London would result in 73 fatalities. But in the meantime, David Lloyd George had replaced Herbert Henry Asquith as prime minister with a promise to improve munitions production following the failure of the Battle of the Somme to end the war. Never mind health and safety.

Finally, The Great Explosion is a reflection on human beings’ relationship with danger, as depicted in literature by writers from the 13th-century Franciscan Roger Bacon to De Quincey, Conrad and Tolstoy. Dillon draws attention to the passage in War and Peace in which Prince Bolkonsky complacently contemplates the shell that is to kill him – not unlike the complacency with which passers-by observed the burning bags in the Kent disaster, in fact. The explosion took place not far from the Isle of Grain, where Magwitch confronted Pip in Great Expectations, Hilda Johnson died and her namesake Boris wants to build an airport. Happily for its residents, health and safety have moved on since 1916.

Stephen Halliday is a senior member of Pembroke College, Cambridge.


The Great Explosion: Gunpowder, the Great War and a Disaster on the Kent Marshes
By Brian Dillon
Penguin, 288pp, £18.99
ISBN 9781844882816 and 2823 (e-book)
Published 7 May 2015

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Featured Jobs

Assistant Recruitment - Human Resources Office

University Of Nottingham Ningbo China

Outreach Officer

Gsm London

Professorship in Geomatics

Norwegian University Of Science & Technology -ntnu

Professor of European History

Newcastle University

Head of Department

University Of Chichester
See all jobs

Most Commented

men in office with feet on desk. Vintage

Three-quarters of respondents are dissatisfied with the people running their institutions

students use laptops

Researchers say students who use computers score half a grade lower than those who write notes

Canal houses, Amsterdam, Netherlands

All three of England’s for-profit universities owned in Netherlands

sitting by statue

Institutions told they have a ‘culture of excluding postgraduates’ in wake of damning study

A face made of numbers looks over a university campus

From personalising tuition to performance management, the use of data is increasingly driving how institutions operate