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