The sinking of the Lusitania is a story that has gripped the imagination of the world over the intervening decades and filled the pages of many books and articles, President Michael D Higgins said in his speech marking the centenary commemorations.
He said from the accounts of the survivors, we have some sense of the almost unthinkable horror that the ill-fated passengers on board faced — a shortage of lifeboats, the injuries suffered from the initial hit and explosion, the desperation as passengers and crew tried to save loved ones, including the pathetic account of parents trying in vain to save their children, the treacherous flotsam and the violence of the rapidly sinking ship, and the dreadful wait for help in an ice-cold sea surrounded by the bodies of the dead.
We come here today to think of those men, women and children, and of what they endured, he said.
“All wars have their forgotten or unsung victims, those whose deaths do not bring forth posthumous medals or tributes.
“However, as we engage in a period of commemoration of World War One, it is important that we not only focus on those who lost their lives on the battlefields and in the trenches, but recall the millions of civilians whose lives were also cut short during that cataclysmic period of world history.
“Some, like the casualties of the Lusitania, were the victims of deliberate acts of war, others died through malnutrition, famine and related disease.
“In whatever way they lost their lives, they were victims of a destructive, and indeed bewildering world war, and their tragic deaths should not be reduced to that of collateral damage but should be honoured and remembered with due respect.”
He said the commemorations also remind us that the First World War was a war with a global reach, one that affected all areas of the European continent and many areas beyond.
“As we recall today the individual stories of the passengers on this ship, we remember that during a four-year period an estimated 17m lives were lost to a war, a war that was the product of political and diplomatic failure, and a war that failed to prevent further conflicts in Europe and other parts of the world, including the Second World War, which followed only a short few years later.
“The importance of recalling the horror of war is that it should press us all to cherish and nurture peace, to defend the role of diplomacy, and seek to have it extended and reformulated to achieve peaceful resolution of conflicts,” the president said.
President Michael D. Higgins in Cobh, Co Cork speaking at the 100th anniversary-sinking of the Lusitania.Video by Dan Linehan. Irish Examiner
Earlier in the day, wreaths were cast at the exact spot in the sea where the Cunard British cruise liner Lusitania sank 100 years ago.
Among those throwing wreaths was Alan Gibson, who lost his great-uncle when Lusitania was torpedoed by a German U-boat off the coast of southern Ireland on May 7, 1915, with the loss of 1,198 lives.
Another who cast a wreath was George Harrison, whose great-grandfather George Little, a crewman on the Lusitania, was among the survivors.
The wreath-casting was part of a ceremony on board modern-day Cunard liner Queen Victoria and came as the ship, on which Mr Harrison serves as a second engineer, paused over the site of the wreck of the Lusitania.
Queen Victoria’s Master, Commodore Christopher Rynd, and Cunard chairman David Dingle also cast wreaths.
President Michael D. Higgins laying a wreath at the Lusitania Memorial Statue was one of the many events that took place to mark the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Lusitania. Video by Dan Linehan. Irish Examiner
Other relatives of those who died or survived threw flowers into the sea and the Queen Victoria’s whistle sounded.
The whistle was blown at 2.10pm — the moment the Liverpool-bound Lusitania was torpedoed — and again at 2.28pm — the time the 31,000-tonne vessel sank.
Among the 1,266 passengers and around 696 crew, there were 129 children, of whom 94 perished as the ship, sailing from New York, sank in just 18 minutes.
Built at the John Brown shipyard on the River Clyde in Scotland, the Lusitania was also carrying 159 Americans, of whom 128 were killed.
The ship’s captain, William Turner, who survived after the ship went down, had received messages on the morning of the disaster that there were German submarines in the area and he altered course.
But a German sub, U-20, captained by Walther Schwieger, spotted the Lusitania 18km off the Old Head of Kinsale in Ireland and fired a torpedo that hit the vessel.
There had been time to send out an SOS and the Courtmacsherry lifeboat launched at 3pm.
By the time they arrived, other rescue craft were on the scene and they were only able to pick up dead bodies.
The Wanderer, a fishing boat from the Isle of Wight, managed to pick up about 200 survivors.
A formal investigation, headed by Wreck Commissioner Lord Mersey, started in Westminster in June 1915.
The Germans were blamed, and Captain Turner cleared, with the action described as having been undertaken “not merely with the intention of sinking the ship, but also with the intention of destroying the lives of the people on board”.
The outrage sparked international fury, with demands that America should immediately come into the war, although it was not until 1917 that the US finally entered the conflict.
One hundred years on, controversy still surrounds the sinking. The Lusitania had been carrying ammunition so could be described as a legitimate target. Also, the Germans had earlier warned that they would attack any Allied ships.
‘I hope I shall never witness such a scene ever again’
The horror of what unfolded 100 years ago could not be better summed up than in a letter written by one of the survivors a few weeks after he was lucky to be plucked from the icy waters off the Old Head of Kinsale.
Thomas Snowden was a 30-year-old third-class passenger. He was British but was living in the United States and working as a foreman at a shoe factory in Lynn, Massachusetts.
The haunting thoughts he transcribed on paper were read out yesterday by Cunard liner chairman David Dingle at one of the many ceremonies in Cobh.
“God forbid I ever pass through such an experience again,” wrote Snowden. “I have not recovered from the shock yet. I have consulted a physician and he said that it will probably be a long time before I can wipe from my memory those terrible hours among the dead and dying men, women, and children.
“Since that day, my dreams have been haunted by the terrible scene enacted before my eyes. Mrs Finch of this city, who was one of the victims of the disaster, has been buried on English soil with hundreds of other persons who lost their lives that day. I saw Mr Finch before I sailed for home and he had recovered all the jewellery worn by his wife at the time of the accident.
“When the shock came aboard the Lusitania, women and children began to scream. The men were cool and collected. Lifeboats were lowered and women and children were loaded onto them.
“‘Be British, boys, be British,’ was the cry that rang up and down the decks. Each man straightened his shoulders and there seemed to be a mutual understanding that we should all be men to the last. Just before the ship sank, I jumped overboard.
“I saw men and women doing the same thing all about me. Some women had on life preservers and others did not have any. After drifting some distance away from the ship, I turned and looked at it. About this time, there came a terrible explosion, and I saw the funnels falling. Soon the ship disappeared from view.
“As far as I could see, there were men, women, and children floating in the water. Some were dead and some were living. The women were screaming for help. Some men were badly mangled.
“I saw a young man with whom I had become well acquainted on the trip go floating by me. He looked up at me and exclaimed ‘God, help me, Tommy.’ His appeal went straight to my heart. I hope I shall never witness such a scene again.”
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