Lost at sea

Tales my grandfather would have told me. A sailor's life 1910-1941

A sailor’s life – 25. Monkbarns and Lusitania, May 1915

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The sinking of the Lusitania, reported in the New York Times

The sinking of the Lusitania, reported in the New York Times

It was spring 1915. Europe was at war and the German Kaizer had struck back against the British blockade of German ports by announcing unrestricted submarine warfare: no warning would be issued, said Berlin. U-boats would sink any merchant vessel of any nationality seen to be approaching any British port. As the sailing ship Monkbarns rejoined the steamer tracks across the north Atlantic after a long, hard passage round the Horn from northern Chile, the whole sea around the British Isles was a war zone. But the men and boys aboard Monkbarns didn’t know that. They were more concerned about the dwinding provisions aboard.

From saloon to fo’c’sle, they were hungry. The salt pork and beef in the casks had not travelled well. Eventually even the water was brackish. Leif Asklund described the last rations as mouldy biscuits and pickles and some “slobs” of fat from the meat barrel. As day slipped into day, they ran up flags, signalling to the first ship they saw. But the distant funnels scattered over the horizon, fearing a trap.

Eventually a Scottish steamer stopped and Monkbarns lowered a lifeboat to row across. Young Asklund was one of the oarsmen and recorded his delight at the couple of bags of potatoes they were allowed to buy. As well as other stores, the Scottish captain gave each of the rowers a cigar – a huge treat for men who hadn’t seen any “baccy” for many weeks. He also sent over some newspapers, which was how they learned of the German U-boats preying on merchant vessels off the Irish coast.

By April, 128 days out from Caleta Buena, when Monkbarns finally picked up the pilot outside Queenstown (nowadays Cobh, County Cork), the war had claimed more than 100 merchant ships – sunk or captured, including a British cargo freighter bound for the US to pick up food aid for Belgium.

Harpalyce had been torpedoed despite her white flag and the words Belgian Relief painted in huge letters on her hull. Fifteen men including the master died, and American public opinion — previously mixed about the British tactic of starving Germany into submission — was shocked.

Queenstown harbour was closed off with nets at night but open by day and the Monkbarns fo’c’sle hands were able to buy fresh eggs from a bumboat while they were at anchor; food which, Asklund claimed, the master and mates sometimes had in port but “we others” never got. He also claimed to have seen a periscope near the ship one foggy day, a story my grandfather backed up, but again the old windbag was unmolested.

In Queenstown, Monkbarns received orders to continue across the Irish Sea to Garston, near Liverpool, but because of the U-boat attacks she had to wait three weeks for an armed escort. On May 7th 1915, the old windjammer was barely out of Queenstown harbour and still under tow by the Dutch steam tug Zwarte See when it picked up a distress call from the passenger liner Lusitania, five miles away. The apprentice boys on Monkbarns watched the ships steam out of Queenstown past them to pick up the survivors, fully expecting that they might be next, according to their young Swedish crony in the fo’csle. They were, after all, carrying nitrates needed for the war effort.

Lusitania, bound for Liverpool from New York, had been torpedoed without warning and sank in eighteen minutes. More than eleven hundred lives were lost, including a hundred and twenty-eight Americans and nearly a hundred children.  The US president was outraged. But neutral America was still not quite ready to enter the war. Germany apologised.

Questions were raised about why such a fast ship, capable of travelling at 26 knots, should fall prey to a much slower U-boat. Why the master was not zig-zagging, and why warnings of three other attacks in the same area in the previous two days were ignored. Two explosions had been heard, and Germany claimed the second was a secret cargo of munitions exploding in the hold. Britain said it was coal dust igniting in the empty bunkers. There were rumours of German spies among the dead.

Germany's warning the US, 1915

Germany’s warning to the US, 1915

Two weeks previously a warning issued by the German embassy in Washington had run beside Cunard’s advertisements in several US newspapers. “NOTICE!” it read. “
Travellers intending to embark on the Atlantic voyage are reminded that a state of war exists between Germany and her allies and Great Britain and her allies; that the zone of war includes the waters adjacent to the British Isles; 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 in those waters and that travellers sailing in the war zone on ships of Great Britain or her allies do so at their own risk.”

It was widely dismissed. Why, if it was safe enough for the millionaire Vanderbilts, with their connections … (Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, aged 37, and his valet were among the lost – last seen tying a life jacket to a woman with a baby.)

In the trenches of northern France allied troops were choking on a new deadly green gas. They had no masks, just instructions to “breathe through damp cloth”. British casualties in the war were tens of thousands and mounting.

On arrival in Liverpool, Bertie Sivell went home to his parents. They had not seen him for two years.

Read on: End of indentures
Previously: Monkbarns and the Battle of Coronel


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  1. […] Coming next: Monkbarns and Lusitania […]

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