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100 years ago: Lusitania sinks

US Army Surgeon-Major Frederic Warren Pearl had a new job. He was asked to report to the American Embassy in London in 1915, and he booked passage across the Atlantic for himself and his young family. They left New York on 1 May onboard the fateful steamship Lusitania.

100 years ago: Lusitania sinks

Photo: Bundesarchiv, DVM 10 Bild-23-61-17 / CC-BY-SA

The Warren family, and their two nannies, were just 8 out of 1,959 people onboard the doomed Cunard liner.

The sinking

Lusitania was sunk by a German submarine on 7 May off the coast of Co Cork. The German military claimed that the liner was carrying munitions, which justified the attack in a time of war. The British government denied this, and the American people were outraged that a civilian ship carrying 128 US citizens had been targeted.

The sinking of the Lusitania influenced American public opinion to the extent that it is often cited as a contributory factor in bringing the US into the First World War.

For those onboard on that calm Summer’s day in 1915, there were more immediate concerns. The torpedo hit the ship at 2.10pm, and a second, more powerful, blast followed almost immediately. The ship was devastated. She sank, bow-first, in 18 minutes.

The family

Frederic and his wife Amy were travelling with their four children - Stuart, Amy, Susan and Audrey - and the children's nannies Alice and Greta.

After the impact, the family were separated in the crowd. Alice had got little Audrey and Stuart safely onboard one of the ship’s lifeboats and escaped, but Greta, little Amy and Susan were not so lucky.

Margie Clark, Audrey’s daughter, tells us: ‘My grandmother was taking coffee on deck after lunch prior to disembarking at Liverpool when she looked down and saw something silver streak through the water. She knew exactly what it was, and a fraction of a second later the torpedo hit.

‘Down in her cabin Alice, realising what had happened, grabbed my mother and wrapped her in a shawl. Taking Stuart by the hand, she headed for what she assumed would be the safety of a lifeboat, but as history knows there was little the lifeboats could do because of the way the ship was listing.

‘She found a lifeboat that was ready to be lowered and handed Stuart down to it. As she prepared to follow him she was told that there was no more room. There was no way that Alice was going to be separated from her charge. So she jumped into the sea, which was teeming with bodies, both dead and alive.

‘A hand reached out of the lifeboat and grabbed Alice by her exceptionally long hair and hauled her aboard … with my mother still safe in her arms. She always maintained that it was her hair that saved their lives.

‘Both my grandparents survived, but had no idea if any of their young family or nursemaids had, until they heard of someone answering Alice’s description and they were reunited with her, Stuart and mum. They searched for days in the hopes that Greta and the two little girls had by some miracle also survived, but they had gone down with the ship.

‘When asked about the tragedy, mum would say they didn’t really talk about it in the family. And it never put them off re-crossing the Atlantic, but they always went Cunard as they got a 25% discount!

‘Alice remained very close to mum all her life, and we went to her 100th birthday party down in Bexhill-on-Sea. Everyone adored Alice and she remained lucid to the end of her days.’

The rescuers

Lusitania’s mayday call was received at Queenstown Naval Station at 2.15pm. Admiral Coke sent all available tugs and trawlers to the scene immediately. There were no motor lifeboats on the Cork coast at the time, so the Queenstown RNLI lifeboat James Stevens No. 20 caught a tow to the scene from a tug.

The Queenstown fleet found survivors onboard the ship’s lifeboats – and people and bodies in the sea. Due to the severe list Lusitania developed in the minutes before her sinking, it was only possible to launch half her lifeboats. Survivors were taken onboard the larger powered vessels and ferried to safety in Queenstown.

Meanwhile, volunteers from Courtmacsherry had also launched their lifeboat, Kezia Gwilt. Coxswain Timothy Keohane saw the ship go down, and rounded up his crew. But there was no tow for them, and because it was such a calm day there was no point in raising sail. They rowed 12 miles, which took 3½ hours. By then, all survivors had been recovered.

Lifeboat Secretary Reverend William Forde wrote in his report: ‘It was a harrowing sight to witness. The sea was strewn with dead bodies floating about, some with lifebelts on, others holding on to pieces of rafts – all dead. I deeply regret it was not in our power to have been in time to save some.’

Nevertheless, the Courtmacsherry men spent 6 hours on scene, taking bodies from the water and transferring them to the larger ships to be brought back to Queenstown.

The legacy

Amy Lea Pearl was to become a popular London socialite, and a keen fundraiser for the RNLI. She passed her support for our charity on to her daughter Audrey, who was just 3 months old when saved from the Lusitania disaster.

Audrey grew up hearing how the RNLI lifeboat crews had helped her family and other survivors – and recovered the bodies of those less lucky. She would tell her own children: ‘I was put on this Earth for some reason; I was saved for some reason.’

Audrey’s gratitude towards her rescuers was evident throughout her life, culminating in her funding of two lifeboats for New Quay RNLI – Amy Lea and Audrey LJ.

The lifeboat Audrey LJ was recently involved in the rescue of another lucky little girl. See that story here.

The anniversary

May 2015 sees the 100th anniversary of the Lusitania sinking. Today’s lifeboat crew in Courtmacsherry Harbour are planning a number of commemorative events. See the schedule here, or follow them on Facebook and Twitter for all the latest updates.