Published: 06:00, 08 August 2020
While the huge explosion in Beirut has sent shockwaves around the world, it is here in Kent where the first devastating effects of ammonium nitrate - the cause of last week's disaster - were truly laid bare.
Regarded as one of the worst disasters on British soil, a blast - similar to the one in the Lebanese capital - ripped through a Faversham gunpowder mill in 1916, killing 108 people.
The Great Explosion, in Uplees, beside the River Swale, was of such immense magnitude it left behind a 150ft-wide crater, shattered windows in Essex and could be heard on the French coast.
It was the first epic-scale disaster in the world to highlight the fatal dangers of ammonium nitrate, before other tragedies followed in Germany, Belgium, China and most notably in Texas City when 581 people were killed in 1947.
In what would undeniably be international headline news in modern times, the Faversham catastrophe was all but hushed up in the interests of the First World War, with publication of an official inquiry and inquests being discreetly suppressed.
The immediate area was obliterated, with buildings reduced to matchsticks. A flattened head of smoke is said to have spread out, like a smaller version of a nuclear mushroom cloud.
Harrowing tales of the aftermath have been passed down through the subsequent generations, including miraculous stories of survival.
In bizarre circumstances, it was said a man standing next to a workmate might find himself cut, bruised and deafened by the explosion, while his unfortunate colleague stood no chance against the blast.
At the time, the sprawling Explosives Loading Company and Cotton Powder Company factory was one of the town's numerous gunpowder mills - an industry for which Faversham's history is significantly rich and dating back centuries.
A complex of huts and occasional brick-built buildings connected by rail lines and served by jetties made up the 1,500 workforce manufacturing guncotton and other explosives.
Work at the factory was non-stop during the war, but in 1916 demand for munitions was greater than ever following the shell crisis of the year prior due to the prolonged conflict on the Western Front.
Stock was dangerously piling up both indoors and outside - and building no.833, a wooden hut, was storing about 150 tonnes of white-crystallised ammonium nitrate, as well as 15 tonnes of TNT.
If a flame were to ignite, a mixture of the two explosives would spell disaster, and sadly on the morning of April 2, that is exactly what unfolded.
A spark from a chimney at a nearby boiler house set alight sacks beside the hut. When the alarm was raised managers and men raced to 833, some dousing the building with water from buckets from the dyke, others moving TNT.
An account from firefighter and blast survivor Steve Epps reads: "We was chucking it to one side, handing it down - it kept falling all round about you.
"They were slamming it round, and one old chap - he could see I was a bit nervy - said 'that won't go off unless it's detonated, old chap'. I said, 'right, I feel safe enough'."
The Cotton Powder Company fire brigade, who were stationed at the site, tried their best at controlling the flames but with no hydrant stored nearby, calming the fire was an impossible task.
Three fire crews from Faversham were also on their way, yet their journey was hampered by having to navigate 18-inch ruts on an ill-surfaced and indirect route to the factory at Uplees.
Ninety minutes after the initial report of a small fire, the lively blaze became uncontrollable and at about 1.20pm a string of explosions rung out.
An account from a Dr Evers, who arrived at the scene and treated the wounded, gives insight into the tragedy.
"A continuous stream of injured men were dribbling in - pitiable objects," it reads.
"Some had been blown into dykes and were wringing wet and shivering with shock; many were shaking all over.
"One man cheerfully proclaimed that he had a broken leg.
"Others were bleeding and some had half their clothes torn off or burnt off - an awful procession.
"Even then we did not realise the full extent of the disaster, as we had not penetrated to the heart of things and could do no more than attend to those who kept coming up faster than we could deal with them.
"We had not time to realise that behind that curtain were the worst stricken men, who could only be moved very slowly, and a number that need never be moved at all, for no help could restore them.
"Five of the national reserves who were on guard were killed instantly: of one, nothing but his rifle was ever found.
"The vagaries of the explosion were many: two men side by side - one killed instantly, the other hardly hurt; a number of men between 30 and 40 yards away from the explosion unharmed, while men 100 yards away were blown to pieces... men had all their clothes blown off them and were yet unhurt."
There were five, perhaps six, explosions but the confusion made it difficult for surviving witnesses to piece together the events.
But by far the largest was the one at building 833. The unintended mixing of TNT and ammonium nitrate, used to manufacture amatol, at high temperature on a hot, dry day detonated materials that would otherwise have co-existed benignly.
"Five of the national reserves who were on guard were killed instantly: of one, nothing but his rifle was ever found..."
News of such a disaster was deemed likely to deflate national morale, as well as provide the enemy with intelligence about Britain's armaments industry.
Therefore, due to military censorship, press cuttings from the day give little idea of what occurred.
Brief reports made it into the national and local press based on a bland government statement released three days after the explosion.
It stated: "A serious fire broke out in a powder factory in Kent, which led to a series of explosions in the works.
"The fire, which was purely accidental, was discovered at midday, and the last of the explosions took place shortly after two in the afternoon. Approximate number of casualties 200."
In total, 108 people lost their lives in the explosion.
Seventy-five of the victims were buried in Faversham Cemetery in Love Lane, with the Archbishop of Canterbury presiding over the service attended by 400 mourners.
The two youngest of those killed in the blast were both aged 17, while the oldest was 61. Only about half of the bodies could be identified.
A mass grave of 69 was dug, with each victim having a separate coffin. The memorial marking the tragedy and lives lost, reads: 'Sacred to the memory of men who died in the service of their country 2nd April 1916. Father in thy gracious keeping leave now thy servants sleeping'.
There were also six private burials in the same cemetery and the remaining number were buried elsewhere.
As Sunday was an exclusively male-working day, no women lost their lives in the disaster. A week after the catastrophe, another body was discovered in a ditch.
Meanwhile, an ambulance driver who had been at the apocalyptic scene returned home to Doddington, lay awake all night, then took his own life the following morning.
The injured were treated across Faversham at the Salvation Army Hall, Lees Court, the Workhouse Infirmary and The Mount. In what was a collective effort, doctors and helpers from across Kent came to offer their much-required help, while some patients were taken by barge to Sheerness.
Dr Evers' account continues: "The great business was answering the poor relatives who were hunting for their husbands, fathers, sons and brothers - most heart-rending.
"People [were] going from one hospital to another, tramping about for hours in search of those whom they might never find - and some have not been found at all."
Steve Epps, who was in hospital for 19 weeks following the explosion said his family failed to recognise for days due to his injuries.
"When my wife came to the hospital the first time, she didn't recognise me," he said.
"My sister went to the hospital that Sunday night - and the Monday and the Tuesday and the Wednesday - and she didn't recognise me either. She thought to herself, my brother's dead."
"Men had all their clothes blown off them and were yet unhurt..."
In adding to the tragedy, just three days before the explosion H.M. Chief Inspector of Explosives, Major Aston Cooper-Key, had carried out an inspection of the factory.
He noted an absence of hydrants and fire buckets, but work still continued to help with the massive war effort.
A post-explosion inquiry by the same inspector recognised shortcuts to working procedures at Uplees - forced on management by raised production targets - may have contributed to the scale of the disaster.
Eight recommendations on how to prevent further calamities, including "TNT and ammonium nitrate never to be stored together in the same building", were passed onto the government.
But such was the military’s need for the mill, that the plant was rapidly rebuilt and brought back into production, until the war’s end in 1918.
By the mid-1920s the factories had been wound down and operations completely ceased in the following decade.
Four days ago in Lebanon, it is thought almost 3,000 tonnes of stored ammonium nitrate ignited. The commonly-used chemical, produced by reacting ammonia with nitric acid, is often now used in manufacturing fertiliser.
It is classified as an "energetic material", one that produces heat as it decomposes - similar to the way heat is generated by rotting material in a compost heap.
Obviously, the presence of TNT is the differing factor when comparing the Faversham and Beirut explosions, but the 1916 disaster was the first in the world to showcase ammonium nitrate's immense dangers.
The lives of those lost have certainly not been forgotten - with the mass grave being well looked after and anniversary memorials being held in the town and other areas such as Chilham.
Prior to the dark events of the early 20th century, Faversham was the gunpowder capital of England.
It is thought explosives used in the Battle of Trafalgar and the Battle of Waterloo were produced in the town, with it becoming a leading supplier to British East India Company.
It is also believed gunpowder from Faversham is likely to have been used in the infamous 1605 plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament.