Special report: 100 years on Cork region remembers arrival of US fleets during 'Great War'

Sean O’Riordan explores the arrival of American navy fleets in Cork Harbour during the First World War and their subsequent impact on the local infrastructure, economy, and society.

US sailors in Cobh. The US navy also had sites in Passage West, Haulbowline, Ringaskiddy, Aghada, Bere Island, Berehaven and Whiddy Island.
US sailors in Cobh. The US navy also had sites in Passage West, Haulbowline, Ringaskiddy, Aghada, Bere Island, Berehaven and Whiddy Island.

AMERICA didn’t officially enter the First World War until April 6, 1917, but tensions had been simmering away since the sinking nearly two years earlier of the Lusitania liner just a few miles off the Cork coast.

However, before they could take the war to the Germans on land, the Americans first had to secure the transportation of thousands of its “Doughboys” (soldiers/sailors) across the sea.

On May 4, 1917, cameramen and cinematographers were on hand to record the arrival of the American advance guard, when Commander Joseph Taussig of USS Wadsworth led six destroyers of the US Atlantic Fleet into Cork Harbour.

That evening Taussig was asked by the British when his ships would be ready for action. He is famously said to have replied, “We are ready now, sir.”

Crewmen of the USS Melville en route to Queenstown in May 1917. Pictures: Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC)

Now major centenary commemorations are being planned to commemorate the US Navy arriving in Cork.

The main event will happen on May 4, which is the exact day 100 years ago that the American advance guard fleet arrived to anchor off Cobh, then known as Queenstown.

The arrival of the American fleet sparked a long association with Cork Harbour.

Over the two years between 1917-1919, thousands of US naval personnel would be stationed in Cork Harbour and Bantry Bay, engaging in the war against German U-boats and seeking to ensure convoy security.

Their extensive network of facilities in the county by war’s end included sites in Cobh, Passage West, Haulbowline (now the Irish Naval Service headquarters), Ringaskiddy, Aghada, Bere Island, Berehaven and Whiddy Island.

Aside from their storage and barrack sites, the Americans also set up training areas, recreational centres and a hospital.

The US Naval Hospital in Queenstown. Picture: Imperial War Museum

By late 1918 their operations from Cork included not only destroyers but also sub-chasing destroyers, submarines, and the flying-boats of the US Naval Air Service, performing vital duties to safeguard shipping.

German U-boats had been reeking havoc on shipping at the western approaches to Ireland.

Captain Michael McCarthy of the Port of Cork said that between 1915-1917 an average of 600,000 tonnes of shipping was being sunk every month by U-boats.

“You have to bear in mind that back then the average ship weighed 5,000 to 10,000 tonnes so that’s an indication of the number of ships being sunk,” he said.

The arrival of the Americans changed that and they were soon making life very difficult for the underwater hunters.

USS Allen with dazzle camouflage at Queenstown harbour. Picture: NHHC

But the story of the Americans in Cork is as much social as military.

The impact of thousands of foreign servicemen on the county was huge, and historians readily admit it was not always positive.

The American “interaction” with Cork women led to violence with local men, which ultimately saw US sailors being banned from Cork City.

It was echoed by the famous Second World War description by the British of the Yanks who had landed there prior to the invasion of Normandy as being “overpaid, oversexed and over here”.

Despite this, dozens of young Cork women wed their American beaus, setting them on a path towards a new life across the Atlantic.

But there was a plus side for Corkmen too as many found employment constructing bases such as those at Aghada and Whiddy, and there were also opportunities for enjoyment, such as the famed 1917 baseball game held by US sailors at the Mardyke.

“The centenary year of 2017 offers Cork an opportunity to explore the central role the county played in American participation in the Great War, and to explore some of the military and social history that had a major impact on Cork, but is today largely forgotten,” a spokesman for the Port of Cork said.

The Port of Cork is leading a steering group which is organising a number of events to highlight the 1917 arrival which will include several commemorations at a number of places around the county associated with the arrival of the Americans.

The steering group includes the Port authority, Cork County Council’s heritage department, UCC historians, Cobh Tourism, Cork Harbour Heritage Alliance — groups from Cobh, Aghada, Midleton, Passage West/Monkstown and Camden Fort — the Irish Naval Service and the US Navy.

The British and German governments have also been invited to have an input into events and it’s expected that they will send officials and ships to the commemoration.

Over the course of the year, a series of events are planned throughout Cork Harbour and Bantry Bay, aimed at commemorating and bringing to life a time between 1917 and 1919 when, rather than Cork people going to America, America will come to Cork.

US Admiral Sims hoisting his flag at Admiralty House, in Cobh (then Queenstown) in 1917.

While the full series of events is still being finalised, some are already written in stone.

The main May 4 event will include the unveiling of a special commemorative plaque at Admiralty House, Cobh. It will be attended by dignataries from the American Navy, Royal Navy and German Navy, as well as their countries’ respective ambassadors.

The Sirius Arts Centre will host a special exhibition entitled, ‘Portraits: Women of Cobh and US Sailors’ Irish Wives 1917-1919’.

It is also set to open on May 4 and is being organised by Damien Shiels, a noted historian who has studied the era intensively.

Meanwhile, Camden Fort Meagher in Crosshaven will be hosting a First World War US Navy weekend.

There will be an exhibition commemorating the US Navy’s stay in Cork Harbour and its role defending the Atlantic shipping routes and a special seminar on the First World War and how if affected in Cork region with lectures by renowned historians, living history displays and music.

University College Cork will host a special conference from July 6 - 8 entitled: ‘We are ready now, Sir’: U-boats, Submarine Warfare, and the US Navy in Ireland, 1917-18.’

There will also be a number of events in Passage West, further events in Cobh, and East Cork, details of which will be announced nearer the time.

The Cork Harbour Festival, which will run from June 3 - 11, will also feature a number of themed events to mark the centenary commemoration.

The Port of Cork and Bantry Bay Port are running a schools’ initiative for 5th class primary school children in Cork and West Cork — themed ‘World War One — The US Navy in Cork Harbour 1917’ and ‘WWI — The US Navy in Bantry Harbour 1917.’

The closing date for submissions to this will be the end of March and all projects will go on display in Cobh during the month of May to tie in with the commemorations.

Conor Nelligan, Cork County Council’s heritage officer, said: “The depth of the county’s heritage can be well equated with the depth of its harbour.

“The strategic position of Cork Harbour and Bere and Whiddy Islands in West Cork, played a most important role in the unfolding of events pertaining to World War One. Given Cork’s strategic role in 1917, it is only fitting that a programme of events be put together throughout Cork Harbour and West Cork to shed light, nationally and internationally, on the story of the US Navy in Co Cork during World War One.”

He added that on arrival in May 1917, more than 10,000 US soldiers came to Cork and that during their time here many buildings they had occupied still survive.

“A World War One ‘Harbour Trail’ is currently being developed by the Cobh Municipal District Council Office and Cork County Council’s Tourism Section in discussion with the Council’s Heritage Unit and indeed with Fáilte Ireland,” he said.

“The programme of events currently being put together will be promoted both at home and abroad, and particularly in the USA, to encourage people to join us in Cork to commemorate the arrival of the US Navy 100 years ago.”

Mr Nelligan said: “Work is well underway in the development of the programme, the full details of which, will be announced in the coming weeks.”

Lusitania’s sinking by U-boat led to US entry into First World War

Germany claimed liner was carrying armaments for use by the Allies and was a legitimate military target having taken out advertisements in US papers warning passengers of the perils of travelling in ships flying the flag of its enemies, writes Sean O’Riordan.

Cunard liner Lusitania, carrying 1,918 passengers and crew, was hit by a torpedo fired from a German U-boat on May 7, 1915.

THE sinking of the Cunard-owned RMS Lusitania had a major input into America entering the First World War.

The Germans claimed the liner was carrying armaments for use by the Allies against them and thus was a legitimate military target, saying the use of a passenger liner was a means to disguise the shipment.

Unfortunately for the civilian men, women, and children on board, German U-boat U-20 was told to attack the liner on Friday, May 7, 1915.

U-20, under the command of Kapitänleutnant Walther Schwieger, had already sunk a number of vessels off the Cork coast before she encountered the Lusitania.

The U-boat had sank the Earl of Lathom, off the Old Head of Kinsale on May 5, and the following day fired a torpedo at Cayo Romano, a British steamer out of Cuba which was flying a neutral flag. It narrowly missed the vessel off the Fastnet Rock, but the U-boat later sent the 6,000-tonne steamer Candidate to the bottom of the ocean.

Schwieger then narrowly failed to sink the 16,000-tonne liner Arabic, because she outpaced him, but scored a direct hit on the British-owned cargo ship, Centurion, also off the Cork coast.

It wasn’t as if the passengers on the Lusitania weren’t forewarned of a possibility of a German submarine attack. On February 4, 1915, the Germans announced that they considered the seas around the Britain and Ireland a war zone and declared that, from February 18, all Allied ships in the area would be sunk without warning.

To further emphasise this threat, they put a notice specific to the Lusitania in American newspapers right next to advertisements about the liner’s passage.

On April 22, the advert told civilians intent on travelling on her that: “In accordance with formal notice given by the Imperial German Government, vessels flying the flag of Great Britain, or any of her allies, are liable to destruction... and that travellers sailing in the war zone on the ships of Great Britain or her allies do so at their own risk.”

After a number of attacks off the Cork coast, Schwieger spotted Lusitania through his periscope and he ordered his crew to fire torpedoes at the liner 11 miles (18km) off the Old Head of Kinsale.

The ship went to the bottom so quickly that her crew were unable to lower all the 48 lifeboats on board. That was more than enough for all crew and passengers, but only six were successfully lowered.

Lusitania sank within minutes, far quicker than the German captain would have expected and he wrote in his log that “an unusually heavy detonation takes place with a very strong explosive cloud. The explosion of the torpedo must have been followed by a second one (boiler or coal or powder?)”

Experts now suggest that the reason the liner broke up and sank so fast was that she was she was carrying more than four million rifle bullets and several tonnes of explosives.

The death toll on the liner was enormous. In total 1,198 passengers and crew died. Her sinking turned international public opinion against the Germans and was responsible for a heightened amount of Irish recruitment into the British Army.

The majority of those lost were British or Canadians citizens. However, 128 were Americans, including famous names such as writer and publisher Elbert Hubbard, theatrical producer Charles Frohman, multi- millionaire businessman Alfred Vanderbilt, and the president of Newport News Shipbuilding, Albert L Hopkins.

Despite the outrage, then US President Woodrow Wilson refused declare war, but the sinking lingered in the American soul and it was only a question of time before the country joined in the supposed “war to end all wars”.

Many of the Lusitania’s victims found floating in the sea were brought to Cobh by local fishermen and are buried at Old Church Graveyard near Cobh town.

The people of the town erected a monument to them at Casement Square. Designed by Jerome O’Connor, it depicts two fishermen who went to the rescue of the ill-fated liner. On top of the monument sits the Angel of Peace.

On May 7, 2015, to mark the 100th anniversary of the sinking of Lusitania and to commemorate its victims, Cunard’s MS Queen Victoria undertook a voyage to Cobh.

Women attacked by locals for ‘fraternising’

Romance wasn’t always plain sailing for US servicemen and the women who went on to be their brides, writes Sean O’Riordan.

At any one time there could have been up to 10,000 Americans based in Co Cork. A heritage project has traced 100 Irishwomen who went on to marry American troops.

While many Irish women ended up marrying American servicemen, it wasn’t all plain sailing in the romance stakes, as many got a battering from locals for fraternising.

Research undertaken by the Midleton Archaeology & Heritage Project has traced 100 Irishwomen who became war brides.

The vast majority came from the Cork area, primarily as this was the Americans’ main base in Ireland, but romances also sprang up in Dublin, Wexford, and Lough Foyle.

After extensive trawling of archives, the Midleton Archaeology & Heritage Project was able to list mini biographies of 100 women, together with a picture of each onto a database.

This was undertaken by Damian Shiels, director of Rubicon Heritage, a leading firm of archaeologists, who estimates that hundreds more women tied the knot with the Americans. He’s also uncovered some less savoury moments which involved attacks on women who were “fraternising”.

“Two of the women among the 100 listed were assaulted in Cork City because they were walking with US sailors. They were attacked by men. The details appeared in a court case,” he said.

He also pointed out a case when a large number of women got the train from the city to go down and meet the sailors in Cobh.

“When they got to Cobh local youths [who had got wind of their arrival] got sticks and stones and beat them back on the train.

“There was a lot of bad blood between the local men and the Americans.”

Things started off well enough when the Americans organised a baseball match between two of their ships’ crews in the Mardyke and invited locals along. But relations deteriorated somewhat afterwards and senior US officers then banned their men from visiting the city.

At any one time there could have been up to 10,000 Americans based in Co Cork. Around 6,000 were to be found in the harbour area where the Americans were based at Cobh/Haulbowline, Passage West, and also on occasion at Fort Camden, Crosshaven. During the war it’s estimated that 100 American ships were either stationed at or passed through Cork.

“The US navy also had large air base at Aghada. It featured hangars, accommodation, training areas, etc. Curtiss H-16 flying boats were shipped from America into Dublin and then assembled in Aghada. A lot of the structures of the air base there still survive,” said Damian.

The US navy also had a fling boat base at Whiddy Island, and a naval base at nearby Bantry and Berehaven from which it mounted constant U-boat surveillance patrols and aided with convoy escorts.

Interestingly, Damien points out that USS Oklahoma, USS Utah, and USS Nevada were regular visitors to Bantry. These three ships where later sunk when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941.

The American presence in Cork was a huge boost to the economy. They employed local contractors while building their bases and were supplied with locally-sourced fuel, food etc. The sailors were also fond of a pint and so pubs in and around the harbour area thrived. They were also regular visitors to the ironically named Holy Ground, an area in Cobh which housed a large number of brothels.

Rubicon Heritage is now turning its attention to collecting letters which were sent home by the American servicemen and describe their experiences in Cork.

Doughboys transited through Cork

The wave of American troops who were stationed in Cork and who transited the area towards the Western Front were known by the nickname The Doughboys.

At the time, many Irish people thought that “dough” was the American slang for money and that they were well paid.

They certainly seemed more flush that a lot of British and Irish soldiers stationed in the region at the time and this led to many tensions, especially when they started consorting with local women.

Fights broke out and the situation became so acute that the American soliders and sailors were actually banned from entering Cork City at one stage.

However, archives show that this didn’t stop them courting and eventually marrying a significant number of Irish women, a lot of who were from Cobh, East Cork and Cork City.

Some historians maintain that the term Doughboys came from the Mexican War of 1846-48, when American infrantrymen were coated in dust when they made long treks through near desert terrain.

Among other theories proffered by historian Paul Dickson the American journalist and lexicographer HL Mencken claimed the “war slang” nickname could be traced to the Continental Army, formed by the Americans in 1775 in the War of Independence against the British.

It was said that they tried to keep their uniforms white by daubing them with clay, but when it rained they turned into “doughy blobs”, supposedly leading to the doughboy moniker.

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