Thursday, May 7, 2015

The Death of the Lusitania - May 7, 1915

Track of the Lusitania - William Lionel Wyllie
May 7, 1915 was a beautiful, warm spring day along the southern coast of Ireland.  The skies were clear and blue. The seas were calm.  Standing on Old Kinsale Head, near Cork, one could observe a large passenger liner sailing eastward along the horizon.  Nearly 800 feet long and crowned with four large funnels, the British liner Lusitania was easy to recognize.  A dozen miles offshore that afternoon, it departed New York City six days earlier and was on the final leg of its voyage to Liverpool.  Only 250 miles to go through a war zone in which Germany had declared unrestricted submarine warfare and where it had recently sunk a number of hostile and neutral merchant ships.  Passenger liners were considered off limits . . . until that day.

At approximately 2:10pm local time, a torpedo fired from a German U-boat struck the Lusitania on its forward starboard side and almost immediately it began to list heavily, going down by the head.   Less than 20 minutes later it disappeared beneath the waves, the smoke from its funnels drifting away as squadrons of gulls circled the spot where it went down.  The seas were littered with flotsam and bodies.  Of its 1,959 passengers and crew, 1,198 perished that afternoon.  Some 800 victims were never found.   Many of the bodies recovered were buried in a mass grave in Queenstown  while others continue to washed up along the Irish coast in the coming weeks.

There are special times when a person chances upon a place one had no idea existed until it is suddenly discovered.  How is it I never knew such places existed?  And afterwards I wonder how I am ever going to forget them.  Some of these moments might be more significant than others; some stick in your memory better than others.  Yet one can never forget them entirely.  I could make it my life’s work to write about all of them. 

The fact that today marks the centenary of the sinking of the Lusitania perhaps explains how one of these obscure memories rose to the surface; one of these sudden discoveries made over three decades ago, in May 1981, when my wife and I were making a circuitous bicycle ramble along the coast of Ireland.  We had begun our journey in Shannon, traveling first along the southwestern coastline to the Dingle Peninsula and the Ring of Kerry.  Soon we found ourselves in Cork in order to visit the nearby Blarney Castle.  I was oblivious to the discovery awaiting me.

It was a beautiful spring day when we decided to bike down from Cork to the village of Kinsale. A distance of ten miles or so.  During our visit to that village we chanced upon the medieval Saint Multose Churchyard, and given our affinity for old graveyards, we wandered among the crowded stones dating from the 16th to 19th centuries and encircled by an old stone wall.  The old Norman church dates from the late 12th century, possibly the site of an earlier 6th century monastery.  A place of history.  It was here in 1649 that Prince Rupert, whose fleet was anchored in the Kinsale harbor, proclaimed Charles II the new King of England after his uncle was executed in London by Oliver Cromwell. 

History returned to this old church in 1915 after bodies from the Lusitania - some later identified and others not - washed ashore nearby and were buried in the churchyard.  I had not expected to find these graves having not realized that the ship had gone down off the nearby coast 65 years earlier.  As we walked around the town afterwards we came across more references to the sinking and the role the town played in the recovery of survivors and victims and the subsequent inquest on the bodies recovered which was held in the town's courthouse.

The following day, as we continued eastward along the coast toward Waterford, we passed through Cobh (known as Queenstown in 1915), and saw the Lusitania memorial in Casement Square, and the mass graves containing almost 200 of the victims, many of them unidentified.  I was reminded of this day almost 31 years later, when I visited the Fairview Cemetery, in Halifax, Nova Scotia.  It was another one of those moments of unexpected discovery.  Toward the rear of the cemetery, on a hillside overlooking a large rail yard, is a plot where 121 victims of the April 1912 sinking of the RMS Titanic are interred under rows of gray memorial stones (29 other victims are buried elsewhere in Halifax).  Many of these victims were also never identified yet they are not forgotten there among those who shared their fate.  I was totally unaware of Halifax’s association with the Titanic disaster until that day.  A special day.  A special connection with the past.

I think of the Lusitania victims again today . . . one hundred years later.  We must never forget what happened on that fateful day so long ago.  To forget the past is to necessarily forgive what happened there.  To forget means the victims died in vain.  Let us never forget.

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