We are now more accustomed to the blurred boundaries between civilian and military casualties but the response to the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915 was one of profound shock. It severely tested people’s perception of civilised behaviour. In fact the whole concept of sinking civilian ships without warning or any attempt to evacuate its human cargo was highly controversial. To the British public it was an outrage that fuelled the propaganda stereotype of the ‘Beastly Hun’. To the families of the people on board it was a traumatic experience.
Walter Dawson of Fixby Avenue, was one of the lucky ones, (Halifax Courier Weekly 15 May 1915). He had been working in America – recorded on the passenger list as living in Lowell, Massachusetts and of British nationality. He was on his way home to visit family when he was caught up in the tragedy.
The Halifax Courier interviewed him ‘in bed’ and noted that ‘the young man shows direct signs of the terrible hardships he faced.’ His claim that ‘he actually saw the periscope of the submarine’ has a somewhat sensationalist feel about it so we must be a little sceptical of the accuracy of some of the report. Nevertheless, he went on to say that the ship was travelling at 16 knots and the torpedo struck a little forward of where he was standing. The explosion ‘threw up a huge volume of water which drenched him’ and others in his party. He returned to the starboard side but the ship had taken a heavy list. In order to ‘get to the port side he had to crawl up the deck’. The ship started going down by the nose so he ran to the port bow deck and dived into water. From here he witnessed the ship go down and thought he stood no chance of survival because he had no life belt. He managed to reach a waterlogged boat and was pulled onto it. There he remained for five hours before being by picked up by a torpedo boat which took him and others to Queenstown, Ireland. He paid tribute to the way in which all behaved, adding (almost reminiscent of the Titanic) that there was ‘no panic’.
The second reported story is not so happy. George Arthur Smith was a native of Sowerby Bridge where his fiancée lived. He had been working in America for two years in Rochester, New York and was of British nationality. He had written home at the end of April to say that he had booked his passage with the Lusitania and expected to be home by the weekend of 8 May. By the time that the weekend had arrived the news was on the streets of Halifax – the Lusitania had been torpedoed by U-20 off the southern coast of Ireland and had gone down within 18 minutes. The speed of the sinking had made it difficult to get many of the lifeboats away and out of a total of 1959 souls on board 1201 perished. The weekly Courier reported that for the Smith family ‘there was great anxiety in both homes respecting the fate of the traveller’.
Cunard issued passenger lists which featured two George Smiths – a third class passenger reported as rescued and another, a second class passenger listed as missing. For a while, which must have felt like an eternity, George Smith’s family would have suffered the agonising uncertainty of not knowing their son’s fate. They were soon to hear what they had dreaded and what they had probably secretly expected. Their George Smith was not the survivor.
All recovered bodies had been photographed and George’s mother and father were to travel to Liverpool to try and identify him from them; gruesome job bearing in mind the time spent in the water and the ravages of marine life such as seagulls. In the event, George’s brother went and established that his photograph was not among those posted. He was informed that George Smith’s body had not been recovered and he was probably one of several hundred who would never be found. The Halifax Courier of 22 May reported that Sam Smith and his wife had ‘resigned themselves to the certainty’ that their son had perished in the sinking.
Halifax born preacher, Dr J H Jowett, whose main childhood influences had been at Square Congregational Sunday School, preached from New York. The disaster was:-
a colossal sin against God; it is premeditated murder; it is a relapse to dark, savage barbarity.
And this was only 1915.