Emotional journey from horror to heroism

A gathering of a small number of the total 764 people who survived the sinking of the Lusitania;  Picture: Irish Examiner Archives, Ref. 44

All the horror, heroism and heartbreak of the Lusitania’s sinking started to unfold on the dreary quays of Queenstown some six hours after the liner was torpedoed, writes Ray Ryan

The boats that had rushed to the aid of the stricken ship began to arrive back in solemn intervals with dead bodies and distraught survivors. It was a dreadful procession on a dark waterfront that was barely illuminated with the glow of quayside gas lights

Ever since the harbour was emptied of boats on their way to the scene of the tragedy earlier that afternoon, Queenstown was getting ready for the aftermath.

Hospitals, doctors, hotels, lodging house owners, nurses, bankers, first aid personnel, shopkeepers, harbour workers, the RIC, Royal Navy and British Army — in fact every service provider available — had prepared for the grim times that lay ahead.

But nothing could have prepared them for what they would experience that May weekend when Queenstown became the focus of the world and a place of unimaginable grief and suffering like it had never endured before.

Find more content related to the sinking of RMS Lusitania in our special report

American consul Wesley Frost, the son of a professor of Greek from Ohio, had earlier watched from his office above O’Reilly’s grocery shop and bar near the town hall as the vessels left and now he witnessed the flotilla’s return.

Emotional journey from horror to heroism

Survivors pictured in Cobh shortly after the disaster. Ref. 44

The diplomat’s official report, written much later, caught in retrospect the emotion of a town that had seen many sad farewells over the years as millions of Irish men and women emigrated on the big passenger liners that called to the port, including Lusitania itself.

“Ship after ship would come out of the darkness and sometimes two or three could be just discerned awaiting their turns in the cloudly night to discharge bruised and shuddering women, crippled and half clothed men and a few wide-eyed little children.

“Women caught at our sleeves and begged desperately for word of their husbands, and men with choking efforts of matter of factness, moved ceaselessly from group to group seeking a lost daughter, sister or even bride. Piles of corpses, like cordwood, began to appear among the paint kegs and coils of rope on the shadowy old wharves. Every voice in the mixed assemblage was pitched in unconscious undertones, broken now and then by painful coughing fits of suppressed hysteria.”

As quickly as possible, gangways were run aboard and those survivors who were able to do so rapidly left the ship and gathered on the quay where the effect of the terrible tragedy could be clearly seen. Dusk had fallen when the first ship arrived. The passengers were lightly clothed. Some men wore only their shirt and trousers. Many were still saturated from the sea water. Ships butchers were recognised by their blue overalls and stewards from the bedraggled remains of their once smart uniforms.

The dead were laid out in three temporary morgues at the Cunard Quay, the Town Hall and O’Leary’s Hall to await identification over the following days.

Hotels, boarding houses and private dwellings provided rooms for the survivors, looks of shock frozen on their faces. Many were famished and hungry. They were given medical care and comforted with hot meals, tumblers of whiskey and kindness that was genuine and heartfelt

Some were covered with tunics, blankets, rugs and uniforms provided by sympathetic British Navy and military personnel and the crews of the rescue boats. Many were brought ashore on stretchers.

Some were helped by sailors. Others walked between lines of soldiers. All looked miserable. Some still wore their lifebelts. Many had been in the water for hours, clinging to rafts, small boats and pieces of wreckage.

Onlookng men doffed their caps in respect and tearful women bowed their heads in prayer as body after body was taken away on stretchers, individual sailors and policemen saluting as the bearers passed. Drapers and outfitter provided survivors with clothes and footwear at the request of Cunard, who had opened special distress accounts.

It was a remarkable outpouring of compassion by the townspeople for strangers caught up in the horror of a war and the perils of travelling the ocean at a time of hostility. But there was little sleep that night for passengers who should have been preparing for their happy arrival in Liverpool the following morning on the Lusitania.

Some of them roamed the streets of Queenstown frantically asking anybody they met for information about family and friends who had been on the ship and were now missing. In one morgue, two children, six or seven years of age, were locked in one another’s arms.

Weeping friends from distant places passed from corpse to corpse in the hope of gazing on the faces of those feared lost. Some were so shocked that tufts of their hair would later fall out. Many would never fully recover from the experience.

The ritual continued as a new day broke. It was easy to pick out those who had lost loved ones. They were constantly asking questions of officials and going in and out of the Cunard offices. There were pathetic scenes at the temporary morgues.

Women had to be helped by friends. They went through the rows of the dead, expecting to see some dear one but in the great majority of instances, they were unable to identity anyone belonging to them among the corpses.

There was, however, the occasional shaft of relief and joy as was the case with the brothers John, 21, and Leslie Norton, 18, able seamen on Lusitania who were separated when they jumped into the sea as the ship sank. Each sent a telegram to their father on arrival in Queenstown to say they were safe and looking for the other.

Leslie was the first crew member to spot the torpedo and shout a warning. He was later honoured for gallantry in saving lives at sea and became a master mariner. But that Saturday morning in Queenstown, he prepared himself for the unhappy task of looking for his brother in the morgues.

As he raised up a sheet off a corpse, a hand on the other side did the same. He looked up and gazed into his brother’s face. Amid all the gloom, it was an uplifting moment and the delighted siblings decided that their astonishing reunion, when all had seemed lost in despair, called for a glass or two of Guinness.

Pat O’Neill, a boiler foreman at Haulbowline Naval Base, never forgot the happenings in Queenstown that terrible weekend. Fifty years later he recalled seeing a young woman with the bodies of her two young children strapped to her dead body with a life belt. “She lay there with her long tresses hanging down her back. She and her children had been taken dead from the sea,” he said.

The search for missing children was so desperate that some parents placed notices in shop windows and in the advertising columns of The Cork Examiner, underlining the intolerable human tragedy and suffering involved. One of the notices pleaded in vain for any information about Alisa Booth Jones, a blue-eyed eight year old girl with light golden hair and a nice complexion, and a five year old black haired thin faced boy, Percival Booth Jones, her brother.

Another sought details of Betty Bretherton, a 15-months old from Santa Monica in California, who was travelling with her mother Norah and brother Paul, both of whom survived.

There was no sign of little Betty, who was described in her mother’s newspaper notice as having fair curly hair with a fat and rosy complection. She was dressed in a white woollen jersey and leggings and was trying to walk and talk.

Shortly after the advertisement was published, her body was washed ashore and she was laid to rest at the Ursuline Convent in Blackrock, Cork. “Suffer little children to come unto Me,” was inscribed on her headstone.

As the sea continued to give up its dead along the south and west coasts, plans went ahead for the funerals. But the number of bodies were so great undertakers ran out of coffins and had to send to Dublin and Kildare for more which were sent down by train.

Bertie Black, an apprentice plumber from Mallow, who had been working on a job in Monkstown, was sent over to Queenstown by his employers to help encase in lead the oak coffins of those Americans whose bodies had been identified and which had to be taken back home for burial.

The Cunard Company’s offices were besieged with inquiries from around the world. Survivors also tried to telegraph family and friends. It was like the aftermath of the Titanic sinking in New York three years earlier. Some of the outgoing messages were brief and to the point. One read: “I’m safe, but May gone.”

Cunard officials and the RIC began compiling lists of the dead and survivors. It was a slow and painstaking task.

Some of the dead bodies were photographed in the hope they might be identified later.

The majority of the passengers who lost their lives were never recovered.

The day of the funerals was again warm and sunny. Nearly all the survivors had departed. It was left to Queenstown to bury the dead with dignity and respect.

Bishop Robert Browne of Cloyne, whose nephew Fr Frank Browne, had taken iconic photographs of the first leg of Titanic’s maiden voyage, presided at Requiem Mass in a packed St Colman’s Cathedral, overlooking the harbour. Archdeacon Daunt conducted a Service in the Protestant Church. Other burials took place in Kinsale.

Corpses were taken to the graveyard a mile and a half outside Queenstown from noon onwards. The sad journeys took three hours to complete. The plain coffins were borne on lorries, horse drawn carts and all sorts of conveyances, each draped with the Union Jack flag. There were a few hearses. The coffins of identified Americans being taken home were covered with their country’s flag, the Stars and Stripes

Queenstown closed down. Business people shuttered their windows and residents pulled their window blinds as marks of respect. Flags flew at half mast from buildings and from boats in the harbour.

Crowds lined the streets, sadness etched on their faces. Many prayed silently as the church bells rang out.

Troops had dug three communal graves, mirroring the enormity of the tragedy. One of them contained 65 coffins and 67 bodies — two babies had been interred with their mothers. There was one pathetic incident when the lid of a coffin in the tomb was opened to assist a distracted relative seeking the bodies of his departed relatives.

People congregated on every vantage point for the 3pm public funeral procession, headed by mounted police, the band of the Dublin Fusiliers, playing Chopin’s Funeral March, and the Royal Navy. Detachments of the Connaught Rangers and the Royal Dublin Fusiliers lined the route and presented arms as the cortege passed.

People standing on ditches near the cemetery could hear the sound of the muffled drums and the brass music of the band getting louder as the cortege neared.

Soldiers from the Royal Garrison Artillery shouldered the coffins into the cemetery for the religious service and burial, the white soutanes of the officiating clergy standing out against the black attire of mourners and civil leaders.

Soldiers fired a volley of shots in salute over the graves and buglers sounded the Last Post. A choir sang Abide with Me. The sun was shining and there was a gentle southerly breeze. The harbour below was calm.

Nature’s cloak of peace embraced the victims of a war that would claim millions of more lives before it would finally end more than three years later.

Find more content related to the sinking of RMS Lusitania in our special report

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Wesley O’ Regan is the General Manager of Popscene in Voodoo Rooms, Cork city. Popscene opened last November and is Cork’s only themed bar that is dedicated to celebrating the best of the 80s and 90s. https://www.facebook.com/PopsceneCork/You've Been Served: Wesley O'Regan, Popscene

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