Wednesday 18 January 2017

People of Queenstown respond to the tragedy

Disaster brought out the best in the citizens of Cobh and other towns and villages who brought lifeboats and trawlers to rescue survivors and then to bury the victims, writes Fergus Cassidy

Published 25/04/2015 | 02:00

The Queenstown funerals of several people who died on the Lusitania.
The Queenstown funerals of several people who died on the Lusitania.
Soldiers dig the graves in an old churchyard in Queenstown for the victims of the Lusitania disaster.
Servicemen attend the funeral in Cobh, County Cork of the victims of the Lusitania disaster
People line the streets of Queenstown for the funerals of some of the Lusitania deceased.
Otto Humbert arrives.

It was just another Friday afternoon for those living in Queenstown, but less than 40 miles away a lookout at Courtmacsherry ordered the lifeboat to be launched.

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With no wind in the sails, it took the 12-man crew three hours to row to the wreckage of the Lusitania. Joining them as one of the first boats to reach the site was a fishing boat called Wanderer. Based in the Isle of Man, Wanderer spent the day fishing off the southern Irish coast. It was a worthwhile trip. The boat landed a full catch of mackerel and the skipper prepared the seven-man crew for another run. But on witnessing the sinking of the Lusitania, Wanderer changed course and headed for the wreckage.

They transferred survivors from lifeboats, improvised bandages and passed out woollen blankets from the bunks. Dangerously nearing overload, Wanderer headed for Queenstown with 160 survivors and two full lifeboats in tow.

Other fishing boats began to arrive including The Bluebell, The Daniel O'Connell and Elizabeth. As boats laden with survivors entered Queenstown, they were met by Flying Fish, a paddle steamer which was normally used to ferry passengers to and from visiting liners. With a larger capacity, survivors were transferred to Flying Fish, which plied back and forth until it was no longer necessary.

The United States Consul in Queenstown, Wesley Frost, wrote that the "rough and cordial kindness shown by the seamen of the rescue fleet was much commented upon by the survivors". And that "the impulses toward pity and helpfulness which the disaster universally inspired in Ireland found their first, and very fitting, outward manifestation or expression in the acts of the men of the Queenstown harbor fleet".

As the news of the sinking spread, and with no knowledge of the numbers dead, preparations were made for emergency accommodation. Hotels such as the Royal, the Rob Roy and the Westbourne were asked to make up as many beds as possible. In the Queen's, the largest in Queenstown, Amy Biddulph and other women were asked to arrange for 50 beds. As they were finishing, they were told to prepare 100.

Soldiers dig the graves in an old churchyard in Queenstown for the victims of the Lusitania disaster.
Soldiers dig the graves in an old churchyard in Queenstown for the victims of the Lusitania disaster.

She said she saw survivors "dripping, pale, exhausted, some unconscious, others on stretchers, the children crying for their mothers..." She and her mother cut their clothing, wrapped them in blankets and put them to bed with "hot water jars".

The owner of the Queen's, Otto Humbert, was born in Germany but married an English woman and became naturalised in 1905. Because of his background, a question was asked in the British House of Commons 12 days after the sinking. Joynson-Hicks MP asked the First Lord of the Admiralty "whether he is aware that the proprietor of the Queen's Hotel, Queenstown, overlooking the harbour and the Navy anchorage, is a German and cannot speak English properly; and whether, having regard to the presence of enemy submarines off Queenstown, he will take immediate steps to have this German removed?"

Thomas Macnamara, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Admiralty replied: "A German, naturalised in 1905, has for some years managed the Queen's Hotel, Queenstown. His wife is English. He has been under supervision since the outbreak of war, but up to the present there has been nothing against him. Nevertheless the suggestion contained in the closing part of the question will be considered".

One month later, American newspapers carried the headline 'Otto Humbert Arrives, Becomes Voluntary Exile from Great Britain', and reported: "Mr Humbert, although a naturalized British citizen, is of German birth, and this fact aroused so much criticism from the friends of the Lusitania's survivors, it is said, that he found it almost impossible to remain in Queenstown".

Servicemen attend the funeral in Cobh, County Cork of the victims of the Lusitania disaster
Servicemen attend the funeral in Cobh, County Cork of the victims of the Lusitania disaster

As the numbers of dead rose, temporary morgues were set up in sheds on the Cunard Quay, in the large town hall and a disused ship's chandlery. Oliver Bernard, a survivor, walked through the town during the night. He saw "nude, semi-nude, innocents, trophies of war, merely a number of babies so discoloured that it was difficult to believe that these effigies had ever lived. Mothers, wives and daughters lay in a row all round the shed, in sodden garments..."

On 10 May, the funeral of those who could not be identified took place. Following a special requiem mass in St Colman's Cathedral, the procession was flanked by huge numbers of people and slowly walked out to the Old Church Cemetery two miles away.

It took almost three hours for the cortege with 100 wooden coffins to pass. Shops and offices shuttered, and curtains were drawn in all the houses. Soldiers from the Royal Irish Regiment and Connaught Rangers marched behind followed by a huge crowd of mourners. The Royal Dublin Fusiliers brass band, with muffled drums, played Chopin's Funeral March and the Dead March by Handel.

Three open graves were prepared, marked A, B and C, large pits dug by soldiers. A joint Protestant-Catholic service was held. One woman asked that a coffin be opened. She looked inside, then shook her head and turned away. Buglers played The Last Post, and a volley of shots was fired. At the close of the ceremony, Abide With Me was sung.

The site of the graves contains a plaque dedicated to those who lost their lives. The Lusitania Peace Memorial is located in Casement Square, opposite the Cobh Library and Courthouse. The memorial was designed by Irish-American sculptor Jerome O'Connor and took 11 years to complete. Séamus Murphy created the stone carvings. To emphasise the importance of the local fishermen in rescuing the survivors, two of them are depicted in the memorial below the Angel of Peace.

Irish Independent

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