Chatham is a town located at the mouth of the River Medway in North Kent.
The town developed around the Naval Dockyard and several Army barracks, together with 19th-century forts which provided a defensive shield for the dockyard. The Corps of Royal Engineers is still based in Chatham at Brompton Barracks.
Chatham Drill Hall sits to the north of the town, and was built in 1902 to provide a covered parade ground for HMS Pembroke, the training establishment for the the dockyard.
About 250yds (230m) long and 25yds (23m) wide, it was constructed with solid brick walls and a glass roof. In its time it had various uses: naval store, building supplies warehouse, exhibition centre and overflow barracks.
In September 1917, with the war at its height, the Drill Hall was being used as a temporary overflow dormitory for sailors from HMS Pembroke. The problem of housing the men had been exacerbated by two events: men who had been earmarked to join the HMS Vanguard had been forced to remain at the barracks after the ship had been sunk at Scapa Flow: an outbreak of ‘spotted fever’ in the barracks meant that the sleeping accommodation had to be increased in an effort to avoid further infection.
The situation meant that, on the night of 3rd September 1917, there were nearly seven hundred men in the Drill Hall, either asleep or resting in their hammocks.
At this point in the conflict, the Germany Air Force were trialling night raids with their bombers; they had suffered high losses during daytime flights, and so moonlight raids seemed a viable option.
At around 11pm, four bombers passed over the Isle of Sheppey, heading up the River Medway towards Chatham. Not expecting a night raid, the whole of the town was illuminated and none of the local artillery were prepared for an attack.
Chatham Drill Hall took a direct hit. The glass roof shattered and those inside stood little chance. Ninety-eight men died instantly, while a further thirty-five subsequently passed away from their injuries.
Survivors tore at the rubble with their bare hands in their efforts to find those lost beneath the rubble. The rescuers continued to work through the night and the search was only completed some seventeen hours after the explosion.
Onlookers reported a tragic, moonlit scene – officers and men carrying bodies into buildings transformed into temporary mortuaries, while the seriously wounded were placed into ambulances which sped to the hospital – flying glass and falling debris accounting for many of the casualties.
The funerals of 98 of those killed in the air-raid were held at the Woodlands Cemetery in Gillingham on Thursday 6 September 1917. All the men were buried with full military honours and were followed by a procession of marching soldiers and sailors with thousands of people lining the streets.