On this day in history : 8th September 1914 – Nineteen-year-old Private Thomas Highgate is the first British soldier to be executed for desertion during World War I….
Three days earlier, on the first day of the Battle of Marne, Thomas had been found hiding in a barn, dressed in civilian clothing – his nerves having got the better of him…. Thomas had fled from the battlefield and had hidden in a barn in the French village of Tournan; he was discovered by a gamekeeper – who happened to be an English ex-soldier….
Thomas was tried by court martial – a brief trial presided over by three officers…. The following morning at 6.20am he was informed that he was going to be executed; at 7.07am he faced the firing squad….
In total 306 executions of British and Commonwealth soldiers took place in World War I – for ‘crimes’ such as cowardice and desertion….
On this day in history : 19th January 1917 – An explosion in a munitions factory in Silvertown, West Ham, London kills 73 people and injures 400 more…. It also destroys the nearby fire station and a gasometer….
The factory, belonging to Brunner-Mond had been built in 1893 to produce soda crystals and caustic soda…. By 1912 the production of caustic soda had ceased and so the factory was not running to full capacity….
At the time there were strict controls in place in the City of London as to where dangerous explosives and substances could be processed and manufactured…. However, Silvertown, although heavily populated fell outside of this main central area – and being over half way through the war Britain was running low on ammunition…. With this in mind the War Office decided to take over the vacant part of the factory – even though it was opposed by Brunner-Mond….
The factory in Silvertown was used to purify TNT – an extremely dangerous process…. The manufacture of TNT is a risky enough procedure in itself – but to purify it carries even more risk…. It was, perhaps, an accident waiting to happen….
And happen it did…. A fire broke out in the factory – and although every effort was being made by fireman from the nearby fire station – at 6.52pm 50 tonnes of TNT (much of which was being stored in railway trucks, awaiting transportation) ignited…. The factory was destroyed instantly….as were many of the surrounding buildings; some 900 were immediately destroyed or had to be demolished – and a further 70,000 were damaged…. Many of the buildings were nearby warehouses – but also included were people’s homes and the Silvertown fire station…. A gas holder containing 200,000 cubic metres of gas was damaged – causing a massive fireball to erupt…. The gasometer was later repaired….and remained in situ until 1986….
The death toll, in one of the worst disasters in Britain during World War 1, could have been much higher…. 69 people died instantly (including the firemen attending the original fire) and 4 more died of their injuries later….over a further 400 people were injured…. However, because of the time of day, being almost 7pm on a Friday evening, the warehouses and factory were mainly empty…. Had it of been during the working day many, many more people would have lost their lives….
The blast could be heard 100 miles away, as far as Sandringham, Norfolk – and fires could be seen from Guildford and Maidstone…. An investigation could find no single cause but did conclude that the TNT had not been stored safely enough…. Although most of London could not have failed to notice the explosion happening – it took the Press three days to report it….