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The sinking of the RMS Lusitania


‘MURDER BY SAVAGES DRUNK WITH BLOOD’ – A British newspaper headline


Saturday, 1 May 1915. Scheduled to sail at 10 a.m., Lusitania’s departure from New York was delayed because of the requisitioning that morning of the Anchor Line steamer Cameronia and the subsequent transfer of passengers to Lusitania. Finally sailing over two hours late, Lusitania slowly backed out of Pier 54, turned her bow downstream, and began her 202nd crossing. The morning of 7 May dawned foggy, but around 11 a.m., the weather cleared into a lovely spring afternoon. What no one on board knew was that, in the six days since Lusitania sailed from New York, twenty-two ships had been sunk by German submarines.

At 1.20 p.m. Kapitänleutnant Walther Schwieger, commander of the U-20, sighted the fast-approaching Lusitania about 13 miles away. As the liner drew nearer, Schwieger attempted in vain to get his submerged U-boat into position for a clean shot but soon realised that it was impossible because of the direction Lusitania was sailing. At 1.40 p.m., just as he was about to give up hope, Lusitania made a turn to starboard and would steam almost directly in front of the bow of the U-20. Schwieger couldn’t believe his luck. Just before 2.10 p.m., Schwieger fired a single torpedo and watched as the deadly missile found its mark.

Mortally wounded, Lusitania had less than eighteen minutes to live.

No author can recount the terrifying experiences of the nearly 2,000 people on board Lusitania the day she sank better than those who were fortunate to live through the tragedy. With that in mind, the following account from a survivor of the disaster should give the reader an idea of the horrors of that terrible May afternoon which changed the lives of so many innocent people forever. 

A letter to relatives by Chrissie Aitken (Originally published in The Nicola Valley News)

I have just got sat down to write so as long as I’m in the mood I will write a few lines. This is about all I am able to do, as my left hand is out of action. I got it hurt on some wreckage and as it wasn’t attended to for three days, dirt has got in and I fear it was poisoned. My knee is the same. But I have got off a lot better than some my life being spared.

Well, the cables you would get all right and would relieve your mind so far. Poor father there is no fear about him, as I identified his body before I left Queenstown but Jarvie and Jarrie I don’t know. I fear they have had a similar fate, for as far as I know none of them had life belts. It happened about lunchtime. The girl who slept above me was waiting outside on me so I hurried my lunch, leaving the three sitting at theirs. We (the girl and I) went to our cabins and were just going to pack our grips to put them on deck as they were expecting to get in that night. We were standing laughing at something when the crash came. Instinct seems to tell us what it was. The boat gave a decided list to the right, and as best we could we made for the deck. Being in the first class, (this happened as the 2nd was all filled) we had to pass some boilers, smoke, steam, and so it were gushing here, and we had to run through them.

When we got on the deck, everybody was making for the stairs for the next deck, four, by this time, the first deck was enveloped in the water. The crash was awful. I must say I kept very calm. This girl friend who was with me got very excited, and in trying to calm her I forgot my own excitement. We managed to get on deck and made for the lifeboats. I’ve been remembered I had no life-belt, and turning back I went to the saloon to get one for my girlfriend and one for myself. On reaching the saloon a steward turned me back and told me to go to my own cabin if I wanted a life belt. When I returned from the saloon my girlfriend had disappeared. I could not see her in any of the boats so I don’t know where she could have gone.

I was standing wondering, when a little fellow, one of the crew came up to me and took off his own belt and fix it around me. How I wish now I have got his name and address, but thank God I noticed him in the crowd at Queenstown, so I know he was saved. His self-sacrificing bravery, I am sure, saved me from a watery grave.

At the saddest times you can’t help laughing; I did this and a steward turned round and said: ‘Thank God there’s one smiling face.’

Something has gone wrong with a lifeboat and men were pulling a rope to bring it nearer the ship. It was hard work, and I grabbed the rope to help. I was doing this when someone pulled me by the shoulder and told me to get into a life boat. There was about 4 feet to jump. When the boat was full it was lowered. By this time the Lusitania was nearly under water. The little boat I was in having been lowered the men were doing there [sic] best to push away, but it seemed the fast sinking Lusitania was drawing us under. Hearing the remark of a steward that our boat was being swamped, I immediately jumped out. As I left the life boat the big boat sank; and I was carried down and down. It seemed ages before I came up. My bills brought me up, but I was severely knocked about among the wreckage.

When I got my head above the water the Lusitania was nowhere to be seen. Seagulls in hundreds were hovering around, but nothing but a few life boats and wreckage was to be seen. I heard someone close by say ‘there’s a woman,’ and I saw three men on and upturned boat. They tried to get me, and I tried to get to them. Eventually they managed to pull me on to the boat, and we sat huddled together to keep each other warm, till another boat came along. After eight while another came along we got in and a half-dozen of us sailed around, picking people up till we had forty in our boat. I was next afraid maybe we would capsize with so many but we didn’t. It was a sight I’ll never forget, passing people who are crying for help, and not able to help or save them. We were in this boat for a long time while till we were picked up by a minesweeper.

The Marconi operator had sent out the ‘S.O.S.’ and I think about nine vessels came to our rescue, but it seemed ages before they came. When I got on board it was about half-past five, being after two when the Lusitania was struck. Standing on this mine sweeper were a big bunch of fellows - eight men - I went up and stood beside them. They were all smoking cigarettes and I had too. Half in the hopes to warm me and half-expecting them to make me sick, as I imagined I had swallowed an awful lot of sea water.

There is an idea that the Germans used those poisonous gases, as next morning when I awoke and I felt as though I were going to be choked and through the day I have always an inclination to cough, and I have got an awful cold. I have only got a slight touch of it, but something makes me think that lots died from the supposed gases.  When looking over the dead bodies nearly all had froth oozing out of their nose, ears, and mouth. Many had as large as your fist at their mouth just like a peice [sic] of white cotton wool, I think they had been choked. Father, I think has died of shock more than anything his heart being weak.

When we got to Queenstown the whole population had turned out. We were taken to a hotel. We had to get a change of clothes. I got a change of clothes but that was all. Next day we left for Kingston near Dublin. We sailed from there to Holyhead, and from there we went to Crewe. From Crewe we changed to the Glasgow train and then again I changed at Carstairs to the Edinburgh train and had to wait an hour and a quarter there for the Davidsons Mains train. I was tickled to death to get in the train on Sunday.

Of course I am the talk of Davidsons Mains. About a dozen reporters have been out. I told my experiences to the first (The Scotsman) but the rest I didn't see.

If you like you can let the ‘News’ and ‘Herald’ see this letter so that all my friends can see that I have got here safely and save me writing it over again. I am about all in writing this letter and feel as though I could not be bothered lifting a pen again. I had written four letters on the Lusitania, big letters too, of all my journey right to Friday and when we were in sight of land I had closed them, and I don’t feel like writing them again.

I feel so tired and sick today, and I had such a rotten night. The night I was landed I slept a good sleep. I knew nothing till I awakened. All my money and Father's and Jarvie’s went down, all my lovely clothes too. I hadn’t a cent to blow my fingers on.

Little did I think when I read Mr. Langley’s personal experience of the sinking of the Empress of Ireland that I, myself, would have a similar one to tell.  

By Eric Sauder

The Sinking of the Lusitania - an animated historical record

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