‘Half-way through lunch, we heard a terrible crash’: Interviews with Lusitania survivors

The passenger liner was torpedoed on this day in 1915 off Ireland’s southern coast

The first reports of the sinking of RMS Lusitania carried in The Irish Times (May 8th, 1915). Photograph: The Irish Times

The first reports of the sinking of RMS Lusitania carried in The Irish Times (May 8th, 1915). Photograph: The Irish Times

 

The sinking of the passenger liner RMS Lusitania by a German U-boat off Ireland’s southern coast on this day in 1915 would elicit outrage and much coverage in newsprint around the world.

About 1,200 people lost their lives in the disaster. In March this year, it was reported that the Old Head of Kinsale - the closest point on land to the location of the sinking - is the planned location for a museum dedicated to telling the story of the tragedy. The Lusitania Museum/Old Head Signal Tower group, which was gifted the wreckage in 2019, is undertaking fundraising efforts to contribute to the project, estimated to cost some €4 million.

In the aftermath of the ship going down, The Irish Times ran vivid interviews with some of those who had survived the attack. The following selection of stories is taken from the edition of Sunday, May 9th, 1915 - the accounts have been edited for length.

The chief electrician

The first passenger interviewed was Mr George Hutchinson, of Liverpool, the chief electrician on board the Lusitania. He gave a short but graphic account of the occurrence. He was in his apartment preparing a return of work during the voyage when he heard a loud explosion. He surmised what had happened, and ran to the dynamo to keep the current going to the wireless installation.

The operators both of whom were saved, had barely time to send out the “SOS” message when the current was cut off. Mr Hutchinson emphasised the fact that he examined the watertight compartments. They were in perfect working order. After the discharge of the first torpedo the ship sank in about nineteen minutes.

The vessel was listing heavily, and the port propellers shone like gold as he jumped overboard. He was not able to jump clear of the ship, and he practically slid down her side into the seas.

He was dragged beneath the surface by the suction caused by the sinking vessel, and thought he would never regain the surface. When he found himself able to breathe again, he saw the ship diving below. He clutched a plank and managed to retain his hold for three hours until he was picked up by the steamer Brock.

“It was a terrible experience, he said, “but I’m glad to be able to say that I managed to save two lives. I helped to keep afloat a man and a woman until we were picked up.”

Mr Frohman’s fate

One survivor, asked why so few saloon passengers were saved, stated that one of the torpedoes struck the vessel amidships, and that many of those who travelled first class were really killed by the explosion.

In proof of his statement he mentioned that he had seen the body of Mr Charles Frohman in Queenstown. It was covered with blood, and apparently death was caused by injuries from the explosion, and not from drowning. He also mentioned that many of the passengers died of exposure, as it was impossible to get them into the boats owing to the rapidity with which the vessel sank.

Passenger who saw the torpedo

“I was a saloon passenger,” said an American, Mr J H Brooks of Bridgeport, Connecticut, “and had only just come up from lunch. I went to the wireless deck, and was standing near the Marconi room when, happening to glance out over the starboard side, I saw about 150 yards away the track of a torpedo which was rapidly approaching. I leaned over the rail and saw it strike the ship under the bridge.

“Immediately a great volume of water was flung into the air, and I was violently thrown on the deck. Then there was a cloud of steam, which enveloped the entire fore part of the ship, which made it impossible to see. The impact lifted the bow of the port side, and then the vessel immediately settled back to a level keel and began to settle down slowly to port.

“The vessel immediately took a sharp course towards Kinsale Head and was travelling apparently at 17 knots. The ship took such a list to starboard that the port side boats were useless.”

Mr Brooks, the interview says, managed to jump free of the sinking ship and climb onto a collapsible lifeboat, along with three other people. “We pulled in a number of women and men who were floating near it. The boat had no oars, and the collapsible sides could not be raised to the full height, but we propped them up as well as we could, and fished six floating oars from the sea. Long before this, the Lusitania had disappeared. She went down bow first, and the funnel struck several boats and numbers of men, women and children who were struggling in the water, with many dead bodies in their midst. We rowed towards Kinsale Head and were picked up by a Kinsale trawler.”

Arm amputated with a penknife

Dr S B D Vescovi, an Italian, returning home from Chile, said he was on deck near the café when he felt a shock, and water and debris were thrown upwards. Then the people rushed about. They were told there was no danger because the watertight compartments were going to be shut. It was found impossible to lower some of the boats.

Then suddenly the ship sank, and he went down with her. He was in the water some hours, but at length reached an upturned boat, on which there were several ladies. A Greek steamer picked them up. On the steamer he found one man’s arm was so badly injured that he had to amputate it with his penknife. He also dressed the injuries of another man, who had three fingers crushed. Lady Allan was aboard the boat suffering injuries, and to her and other ladies he gave restoratives.

Swimmers dragged down

Another passenger stated that he also saw the torpedo coming. This was Mr N N Alles of New York. He said he was standing at the veranda café at the time. When it struck he went for a life belt, but soon after he had reached the funnel deck the ship went down. On coming to the surface he found himself surrounded with bodies turning round and round with pieces of wood and other debris.

He swam to an upturned boat, and clung to it for an hour and a half. About 38 other people were also clinging to it. Eventually they were picked up by the Greek steamer and were treated with great kindness by the crew.

Mother and her baby

Mrs Stewart, who was travelling from Toronto to Robertson Street, Glasgow, said that she was in her cabin, and her eight months’ old baby was asleep in bed, when she heard the noise. She snatched up the baby, and came upon the deck, when she saw a lifeboat being sent off. A man yelled: “Come on with the baby.” She handed him the child and then he said: “Now for yourself.” She jumped into the boat and, with others, was saved.

Clontarf man rescued

George Scott, a young Dublin man, who was a passenger on the Lusitania and who had a terrible struggle for life, reached Dublin on the Saturday afternoon, arriving at Kingsbridge about six o’clock, The Irish Times reported.

At the time the Lusitania was torpedoed, Mr Scott, with about 200 others, was lunching in one of the dining apartments. “When we were about half-way through our lunch,” he said, “we heard a terrible crash. The vessel trembled first, and then listed to one side. Everyone jumped from their seats and rushed on deck. The women and children shrieked wildly, and when we got on deck there was a great deal of panic.

“Men, women and children rushed about on all sides. We were not sure at the time if the disaster had been caused by a floating mine or a submarine, and indeed, the only concern uppermost in our minds was what our fate was to be. It was evident at this time that the vessel must perish, for she was sinking fast by the head.”

Mr Scott next went on to describe his own struggle for life. “I was in the water only a short while when the Lusitania sank, and the suction of the vessel brought me down. I don’t know how long I was under the water, but it appeared to me to be something like an hour. On coming to the surface, I felt very much exhausted, and was tangled up in a mass of wreckage. I struggled here for a few minutes, and an upturned boat drifting towards me, I got on to it with the assistance of an oar, which was thrown out by one of the men.”

“My place in the future is in the trenches”

John Davis, a member of the crew who gave a detailed account of the sinking, told the interviewer: “No more sea for me … I have finished with it. My place in the future is in the trenches to find and punish the race of hell hounds who were responsible for the most cruel, cowardly and most dastardly outrage on record.”

The article noted that “his sentiments were heard and shared by others about his table, and from yesterday’s work there will be many a new soldier in the ranks.”

For more on this story, and to view the original reports, see the full edition of The Irish Times, May 8th, 1915 here.

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