A first-hand account of the sinking of the RMS Leinster by the woman hailed as the incident's heroine 100 years ago this week, has been published for the first time.
The sinking of the vessel by a German U-boat was the single greatest loss of life ever on the Irish Sea. At least 550 people were killed when torpedoes from the UB-123 struck the mail boat just off the Kish lighthouse as it was on its way from Kingstown (Dún Laoghaire) to Holyhead.
There were also 220 survivors, among them Hilda Dudgeon née Denroche from a middle-class Co Wicklow family that owned property in Britain and Ireland.
Then 29, she was on her way back to the home she shared with her husband Peter Dudgeon in Watford when she boarded the Leinster on the morning of October 10th.
The wind was up and the seas were already choppy when the Leinster left port on time at 9am. She had gone to her cabin to lie down. She took off her outer garments and lay on the bed. She feared seasickness and said to herself that she would make a bad sailor.
At about 10am a torpedo exploded in the hull of the ship. It was, as she recalled, “as if every match in the world had been struck”.
Four days after the sinking, The Irish Times named her as the heroine who had saved many lives by showing some men in the lifeboat how to row in heavy seas. Now, a century on, this newspaper can publish for the first time her own account of what happened. It is contained in a letter she wrote the following day to her husband who was serving in France with the Royal Field Artillery. It was discovered in the personal effects of a relative who died last year.
“My dearest darling Peter,” it begins, “here I am snatched once more from the jaws of death . . . Don’t mind if I appear to doddle-do, it isn’t swank just to show you that you would not have been ashamed of your little one in the face of death.”
She recounts her ordeal as she and a number of men including the Irish Party MP Michael Joyce tried to keep the lifeboat steady as the Leinster went down.
It was hit by a second torpedo and the sinking ship blew up, as she remembered, “scattering human limbs, coals and beams etc high into the air”.
By that stage, those in the lifeboat with her were in their own life or death struggle. “The rudder was gone and it took us all our time to keep her head to sea and avoid being swamped.”
At one stage some of the men in the lifeboat cursed the politicians for prolonging the war, but Mrs Dudgeon was having none of it. “It made my blood boil. I told them to keep their minds on the sea and our boat or they would never get out alive. Somehow they were so surprised to hear a woman’s voice.”
They were almost drowned when the HMS Lively, a Royal Navy destroyer, pulled up beside them causing the lifeboat to nearly capsize in its wash. Eventually she made it back to Kingstown. She signed off to her husband in a chipper fashion despite her ordeal. "I am A1 darling and only minus clothes."
Tragically, though her husband survived the war, he died just eight days after its end from influenza in a field hospital in France. She remarried a Cork solicitor, Charles James Lane, who was a cousin of the art collector Hugh Lane.
Mrs Lane died at the age of 97 in 1986.
According to Jeremy Rickford, a relative of hers by marriage, she was still travelling back to Ireland in her 90s and was as "clear as daylight" about her past.
“She was formidable, but that generation tended to be,” Mr Rickford said. “They went through a lot. She was clearly a lady of the era. She was an Edwardian in the truest sense of the world.”
Text of letter from Hilda Dudgeon dated October 11th, 1918
October 11th 1918
My dearest darling Peter,
Here I am snatched once more from the jaws of death. How grateful I am -grateful, above all, I had no one I loved with me to worry about. I am quite fit and well and will try and give you a true account of my experiences and send you a paper for the facts.
Of course, I have lost nearly everything- all my clothes, my cheque books, receipts, our invoices, bills, your fountain pen and cig case-which worries me most, our 7 G’s music etc but it would be wicked to fret. Oh! And your valise which I was taking back. Don’t mind if I appear to doodle do, it isn’t swank just to show you that you would not have been ashamed of your Little One in the face of Death.
I was lying in my cabin in my petticoat with my coat and hat and skirt off and a rug over me -thinking I was probably going to be seasick as there was a very big sea running-when I heard a sickening crash.
Thinking “that’s done it this time” I got up and opened my door. Looking down at my scant attire and realising what was coming ran back and put on my Burberry, grabbed skirt, coat, purse, hat and life-belt and hurried on deck. I could not put the life-belt on properly and remember asking some men how it went but they were too dazed to answer. Somehow I found myself on the Hurricane deck where some men were loosening a boat.
Colonel and Mrs Blackbourne followed-he with only one arm. He said to her “stay here, dear, and I will go and look after the children”. Shortly after that the boat was over the side and something told me to jump.
I did. A long way to the heavy sea. We could not free her and every minute I expected to be capsized and share the fate of many others. Sailors yelled directions “get out the oars”. I struggled hard-the oar broke like a match. I seized a boat hook and pushed off with all my strength. The high seas flung us hard against the vessel and we were in danger of being smashed to pieces. I put all my strength into my oar so did four or five men and we got clear.
There were three other women in my boat too sea sick or too collapsed to be of any use along with some panic stricken worms(?) of men. Alderman Joyce took command or tried to for a bit and Lawrence Crowe, myself, the second mate and Chief Steward Lewin did the work. The rudder was gone and it took us all our time to keep her head to sea and avoid being swamped.
The boat began to fill-a girl tried to bale. I left my oar and got into the bottom of the boat and baled and was seasick in turn. Then went back to my oar. After about one and a half hours someone sighted a destroyer. Would they see us? The excitement turned some of the weaker men’s heads. They cursed the politicians for prolonging the war, wanted Peace-(and after that too) cursed fate etc. it made my blood boil. I told them to keep their minds on the sea and our boat or they would never get out alive. Somehow they were so surprised to hear a woman’s voice they settled down.
I tried to sing. The man beside me, (Crowe), was bleeding from the head the ?Cork way lying near me. I stooped down and rubbed the poor woman at my feet to keep the life in her. I had last seen her husband and child sinking in the water. I found myself saying “God, God”, out loud, “send help”.
I never once felt frightened having sent up a prayer at the beginning. I set about helping myself and others when possible. I refused to think, refused to look on horrors I could not assist.
Soon we picked up two men and a woman who were clinging to a raft-the woman was on her last gasp. A little way off was an officer on a wee raft. Whenever we rose up I waved to him to cheer him up.-he was alone-and the brave fellow waved back. Then someone shouted “Hoist a signal”.
There was nothing to hoist. I began to take off my blouse but the men found my coat in the bottom of the boat (where I had flung all my belongings to row) and put that up. My skirt was round a sailor and was drenched through and me in my petticoat but warm still from rowing with my scant hairs all over my face
The worst was still to come. The destroyer, HMS Lively” made for us. Our mate yelled “we are alright, go and save the man on the raft” The weak men protested and swore but we didn’t heed and shouted “yes, go”. It was an awful feeling seeing the destroyer pass on.
After a time she came back and then the trouble began. We got along side with a crash that sent me sprawling again the seat and nearly winded me. Our boat rose on the waves to almost a level with the destroyer. Someone jumped and we descended again. Again we rose and this time I jumped, caught the rail and hung on with my body and legs dangling over the sea and the ship tossing like an eggshell every moment expecting to be crushed by the rising boat. Several sailors dragged me over. Then the second officer said “come along, kiddie. I’ll look after you” and put me in his cabin where I sat on the wet floor for two more hours ‘til we landed in Kingstown. The sailors gave me tea, called me “dear” and were so good.
Soon after the men from my boat came along to shake hands with me-said I had been a brick and had kept them up-invited me to dine with them and they hoped we would meet again. I felt so proud to be praised by these splendid fellows. No one has any idea of their courage-their fearless behaviour in the face of death and their wonderful tenderness to the women. They called me “kiddie” and it was so ?funny and put their arms round me at every opportunity!! I suppose it was the round face and short hairs.
I am sending you the Times and I wired you on landing. I had hoped that nobody here would know but they heard at once and all Dublin was waiting. When “Hi” heard he ran for David thinking that two would be better than one and took a taxi to Kingstown. David promptly fainted- Hi shook him and told him to act. Then they heard everyone was saved. Where upon David collapsed again-poor boy-he is rather bad with his heart and nerves.
Miss Holloway drove me home and here I am. The telephone has not ceased all day-everyone seems to have heard I was on board. I am A 1 darling and only minus clothes. £50 at least gone down but I'm going to get more. I expect our 7 G to see to that!! I have written all this to him and the girls and wired both.
Undated account from Hilda Dudgeon of the sinking of the RMS Leinster
We were late starting. The goodbyes had been said, the gangways pulled up, and people were itching to get below to their warm cabins. Still we waited. Suddenly a door opened in a shed on the quay-out poured British soldiers fully equipped and disappeared into the ship. It was during “the bad times” in Ireland and their movements were kept secret. They were never seen again.
I went to my cabin, took off my outer clothing and lay down wondering if I would be seasick as it was very rough and I am a bad sailor.
We were gone about half an hour when there was a crash as if every match in the world had been struck. I waited and, as nobody, came I got up and put on my Burberry-a tweed coat with a waterproof lining-grabbed my skirt and handbag and went out. I still did not realise we had been torpedoed. When I reached the deck there was pandemonium. Hating crowds I climbed up to the top deck. There I found some men trying to launch a lifeboat. I lent a hand and, as it was being lowered, I clutched a woman who a man had left saying, "Goodbye, I'll go for the children". We jumped. The sea was terribly rough and our boat was liable to be smashed against the side of the Leinster every time we rose on top of a wave. With the help of some oars we managed to push off.
Then the important thing was to get as far away as possible from the ship so as not to be sucked down with her as she foundered. I seemed to have no feeling as we rowed through a sea of dead and drowning people unable to help. Few in our boat seemed to know anything about how to handle one.
At last I got a few who were able to keep her bow to the waves, thinking each time we were in a trough it would be our last. The wind must have been in our favour as we made it just as there was another almighty blast and the “Leinster” blew up scattering human limbs, coals and beams etc high into the air. Then she settled and slowly the water curled over her and she disappeared.
There was a deadly hush in our boat as she disappeared. I think everyone was praying. I distinctly saw a wisp of cloud form itself into the shape of a cross where she foundered, stand a second, then melted and was gone. I was odd as I am not given to seeing things.
We continued to bob up and down on an empty sea, feeling hopeless, searching the horizon for a ship and all the time we had to keep watch on the boat. From somewhere someone produced a bottle of whiskey, perhaps they keep them on the lifeboats. It was handed round. Everybody had a swig- except me! Thinking it would break the monotony I thought I would sing. The only thing that came into my head was a hymn. At first no voice would come out but I succeeded. Someone behind me said “If I could get hold of the man who wrote “a life on the ocean wave I’d…..!”
After what seemed an eternity we sighted a ship-“would she see us?” The excitement was intense and all precautions went to the wind and we were in danger of being swamped. When she came alongside how to manage with such a huge sea running?
When we were on a wave about level with the deck someone threw a rope and I helped a man to tie it round a seat. Then with it in one hand when we rose I made a frantic leap, caught the rail and willing hands pulled me to safety. I was taken below and a voice said “Drink this, dearie”. It was a mug of very hot strong tea
We were taken back to Kingstown where there was a large space roped off to keep the crowds back. I heard the family whistle and walked up to my father who had been standing there for hours.
When I got home I went straight to bed. Mother sat by the fire with me all night. I was delirious.
Looking back it seems extraordinary that men should have taken orders from me-a mere woman! I suppose they looked for orders from someone. They were but seamen.
Hilda Dudgeon nee Denroche