Military history



A LIFE JACKET DID NOT GUARANTEE SURVIVAL. MANY who entered the sea had their jackets on incorrectly and found themselves struggling to keep their heads out of the water. The struggle did not last long, and soon survivors who did manage to outfit themselves properly found themselves swimming among bodies upended in poses their owners would have found humiliating. Able-bodied seaman E. S. Heighway wrote, with a degree of exaggeration, “I saw myself hundreds of men & women dead with life belts on in the water after the ship had gone.”

For children—those who did not drown outright—the killer was hypothermia. Fifty-five degrees was not nearly as cold as the water confronted by passengers of the Titanic, but it was cold enough to lower the core temperatures of people large and small to dangerous levels. A drop in the body’s internal temperature of just 3 or 4 degrees, from the norm of 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit to 95, was enough to kill over time. Passengers in the water found that their lower bodies went numb within minutes, despite the warm sun above. Those who wore coats under their life jackets were better off than those who had stripped down, for coats and other warm clothing, even though wet, provided insulation for the heart. Thin people, old people, women, and children, and especially infants, lost body heat the fastest, as did any passenger who had drunk wine or spirits with lunch. With the onset of hypothermia, those in the water began to shiver severely; as the danger rose, the shivering subsided. With a water temperature of 55 degrees, adults could be expected to experience exhaustion and loss of consciousness within one to two hours; after this the skin took on a blue-gray pallor, the body became rigid, and the heart rate slowed to almost imperceptible levels. Death soon followed.

DWIGHT HARRIS swam toward an overturned lifeboat. “The most frightful thing of all was the innumerable dead bodies floating about in the water!,” he wrote. “Men, women and children. I had to push one or two aside to reach the lifeboat!”

On the way he came across a little boy, Percy Richards, calling for his father. “I swam to him and told him not to cry, and to take hold of my collar, which he did. The bravest little chap I ever saw.”

Harris pulled the child with him to the overturned boat and pushed him onto its hull. Nearly exhausted by the effort, Harris climbed on after him. “I could hardly move, my limbs were so cold!—I must have been in the water about one-half to three quarters of an hour.”

He spotted one of the ship’s collapsible lifeboats, manned by two sailors and partially filled with passengers. He called to them. Soon the boat was near enough for Harris and the boy to climb aboard. The sailors picked up a dozen more survivors but had to leave others in the water because the collapsible was on the verge of being swamped. “The cries for help from those in the water were most awful!” Harris wrote.

No ships were in sight.

AS THE LUSITANIA descended, Margaret Mackworth was pulled along with it. The water around her seemed black, and a fear suffused her of being trapped by debris. She became frightened when something snagged her hand, but then she realized it was the life jacket she had been holding for her father. She swallowed seawater.

She surfaced and grabbed one end of a board. At first she imagined it was this alone that kept her afloat, but then remembered that she was wearing a life jacket. “When I came to the surface I found that I formed part of a large, round, floating island composed of people and debris of all sorts, lying so close together that at first there was not very much water noticeable in between. People, boats, hencoops, chairs, rafts, boards and goodness knows what besides, all floating cheek by jowl.”

People prayed and called out for rescue. She clung to her board, despite her life jacket. She saw one of the ship’s lifeboats and tried swimming toward it, but did not want to let go of the board and thus made little progress. She stopped swimming. She grew calm and settled back in her life jacket. She felt “a little dazed and rather stupid and vague” but was not particularly afraid. “When Death is as close as he was then, the sharp agony of fear is not there; the thing is too overwhelming and stunning for that.”

At one point, she thought she might already be dead: “I wondered, looking round on the sun and pale blue sky and calm sea, whether I had reached heaven without knowing it—and devoutly hoped I hadn’t.”

She was very cold. As she drifted, she thought up a way to improve life jackets. Each, she proposed, should include a small bottle of chloroform, “so that one could inhale it and lose consciousness when one wished to.” Soon hypothermia resolved the issue for her.

CHARLES LAURIAT swam to one of the Lusitania’s collapsible rafts, floating nearby. This was the one that Seaman Morton had seen fall from the ship. Morton swam to it also, as did shipbuilder Fred Gauntlett. Morton called it “an oasis in the desert of bodies and people.”

The three men stripped off its cover. Other survivors clambered aboard. The canvas sides and seats were meant to be raised and locked into position, but with so many terrified people now clinging to the raft, the men found the task difficult. “We were picking people out of the water and trying at the same time to raise these seats,” said Gauntlett; “most everybody that came on board flopped on the seats and it was practically impossible to get the thing to work properly. We could not get it up far enough to bring the parts home so that they would stay so.”

They tried to persuade people to let go just briefly so the seats could be raised, “but that was impossible,” Lauriat said. “Never have I heard a more distressing cry of despair than when I tried to tell one of them that that was what we were doing.”

They positioned the survivors on the floor of the raft. To Lauriat’s later regret, he became annoyed with one man who seemed unwilling to move from his seat. Lauriat “rather roughly” told him to get off. The man looked up and said, “I would, old chap; but did you know I have a broken leg and can’t move very fast?”

With a great heave, the men managed to raise the seats and the attached canvas sides, but only partway. They jammed pieces of wood into the mechanism to prop them in place.

The collapsible had no oars within, but the men found five floating nearby. Lauriat used one for steering while Gauntlett, Morton, and two other passengers rowed. Lauriat guided the raft through wreckage and corpses, looking for more survivors. Seagulls by the hundreds wheeled and dove. It was startling to see men and women in the water still wearing the suits and dresses they had worn at lunch. The men picked up Samuel Knox, the Philadelphia shipbuilder who had shared Gauntlett’s table. They came across a woman who appeared to be African. Seaman Morton swam to get her and brought her back to the boat. This was Margaret Gwyer, the woman who had been sucked into a funnel and ejected. Lauriat wrote, “The clothes were almost blown off the poor woman, and there wasn’t a white spot on her except her teeth and the whites of her eyes.” He described her as a “temporary negress.”

She revived quickly and brightened the spirits aboard with her optimism and cheer and “her bright talk,” Lauriat wrote.

The boat was nearly full when Lauriat steered it past a dense jam of floating debris. “I heard a woman’s voice say, in just as natural a tone of voice as you would ask for another slice of bread and butter, ‘Won’t you take me next? You know I can’t swim.’ ” Lauriat looked over and saw a woman’s head protruding from the wreckage, her long hair splayed over the surrounding debris. She was wedged so tightly that she could not raise her arms. Even so, she had a “half smile” on her face, Lauriat recalled, “and was placidly chewing gum.”

The men pulled her in, and set off rowing toward the lighthouse on the Old Head of Kinsale, a dozen miles away.

EVEN THOUGH the sinking had occurred so near the Irish coast, there was still no sign that rescuers were approaching. Those passengers in the water came to terms with their situations in varying ways. Rev. Henry Wood Simpson, of Rossland, British Columbia, put himself in God’s hands, and from time to time repeated one of his favorite phrases, “Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire.” He said later he knew he would survive—“It is too long a story to tell how I knew”—and that this gave him a sense of calm even when at one point he was underwater, asking himself, “What if I don’t come out?”

He did come out. His life jacket held him in a position of comfort, “and I was lying on my back smiling up at the blue sky and the white clouds, and I had not swallowed much sea water either.” For him, these moments in the water were almost enjoyable—aside from the dead woman who for a time floated beside him. “I found it a most comfortable position,” he said, “and lay there for a bit very happily.”

He pulled the woman’s body to an overturned collapsible and maneuvered her onto its hull, then swam toward another collapsible, this one right-side up and occupied by survivors. There were corpses on this raft as well. An engineer from the ship started singing a hymn, “Praise God, from Whom All Blessings Flow,” Simpson recalled, and noted, “We put a good deal of heart into it.” But upon its conclusion no one tried to sing another. “Then we just waited, hoping that they had been able to get out a wireless for help before she went down. It was beautifully calm, fortunately for us, because a very little would have washed us off. We were better off than the people floating on planks in the water or kept up by their lifebelts, or than the people in the water-logged boat [nearby], which kept capsizing.”

A porpoise—Simpson called it “a monster porpoise”—surfaced “and played near us, coming up with its shiny black skin and triangular fin showing for a moment.”

An hour passed, then two hours. The sea remained calm; the afternoon light shifted hue. “It was a beautiful sunset,” Simpson recalled, “and all so calm and peaceful.”

SURVIVORS DRIFTED—in the water, on boats, on pieces of wreckage—for three hours, in hopes that rescuers were on their way. Had the Juno come, the wait would have been far shorter, the chances of survival much higher. But the Admiralty had adopted a harsh calculus, and indeed no one knew whether the submarine was still in the vicinity or not. Some passengers claimed to have seen a periscope after the Lusitania sank, and feared the U-boat might even now be among them. As one survivor wrote, “I was fully expecting the submarine to come up and fire on the Lucy’s boats or wait until the rescue ships came up and then sink them.”

The first sign of rescue was smoke on the horizon, and then came a long, rag-tag armada of torpedo boats and trawlers and small fishing vessels, these more expendable than the large cruiser Juno. Here were the Brock, Bradford, Bluebell, Sarba, Heron, andIndian Empire; the Julia, Flying Fish, Stormcock, and Warrior.

In Queenstown, suspense mounted. None of these ships had wireless, wrote Consul Frost: “No news could be had until they returned.”

ONCE A LIFEBOAT was emptied, the seamen aboard rowed back to look for more survivors, but as evening approached the retrieval of corpses began to outpace the rescue of living souls. The last vessel to arrive was a shore-based lifeboat, the Kezia Gwilt, with a crew of fifteen. Ordinarily the men would have raised sail to make the journey, but there was so little wind that they realized they could cover the distance more quickly if they rowed. And so they did—some 14 miles.

“We did everything we could to reach the place, but it took us at least three and a half hours of hard pulling to get there only in time to pick up dead bodies,” wrote Rev. William Forde, in charge of the lifeboat. There, in that gorgeous dusk, they moved through the wreckage. “It was a harrowing sight to witness,” Forde wrote, “the sea was strewn with bodies floating about, some with lifebelts on, some holding on to pieces of rafts, all dead.”

LAURIAT AND COMPANY rowed their collapsible boat 2 miles until they came upon a small sail-rigged fishing boat, known in these waters as a fishing smack.

As they approached the vessel, Margaret Gwyer, still coated in soot, saw her husband standing at its rail and called to him. His expression, Lauriat wrote, was “perfectly blank.” He had no idea who this blackened young woman could be.

He recognized her only when the collapsible came right under the smack’s rail, and he was able to look directly into her face. He wept.

It was now 6:00 P.M. Lauriat counted the number of survivors that he and his companions had picked up along the way: thirty-two. Fifty other survivors were already on the smack. Before climbing aboard, Lauriat pocketed one of the collapsible’s oarlocks as a souvenir.

An hour later, he and the rest were transferred to a steam side-wheeler, the Flying Fish, which then set out for Queenstown. The survivors crowded into its engine room, for the warmth. Here was Ogden Hammond, the New Jersey real-estate developer. No one had seen his wife. The heat was exquisite, and “and before very long,” reported Arthur Mitchell, the Raleigh Bicycle man, “songs were being sung, indicating not only a spirit of thankfulness but even of gaiety.”

A number of corpses were on board as well: a five-year-old boy named Dean Winston Hodges; two unidentified boys, about two and six years old; and the body of fifteen-year-old Gwendolyn Allan, one of the girls who had helped seaman Morton paint a lifeboat.

DWIGHT HARRIS helped row his collapsible boat toward a distant sailboat. The going was slow and difficult. Another lifeboat got there first and unloaded a cache of survivors and bodies, then came back for Harris and his companions and put them aboard the sailboat as well. Next all were transferred to a minesweeper called the Indian Empire, whose crew spent the next several hours searching for survivors and bodies. When the ship began its return to Queenstown after seven o’clock that evening it carried 170 survivors and numerous dead.

On board, the little boy whom Harris had rescued now found his father, mother, and brother—alive and well. His baby sister, Dora, was lost.

THEODATE POPE awoke to a vision of blazing fire. A small fire, in a stove. She had no recollection of the sinking. She saw a pair of legs in trousers and then heard a man say, “She’s conscious.” Despite the warmth from the stove, tremors rattled her body.

She was in the captain’s cabin of a ship named Julia. Another survivor aboard, Belle Naish, later told Theodate how she came to be there. Crew members had pulled Theodate aboard using boat hooks. Presuming her to be dead, they had left her on deck among other recovered bodies. Naish and Theodate had become friends during the voyage, and when Naish saw Theodate lying there she touched her body and sensed a trace of life. Naish called for help. Two men began trying to revive Theodate. One used a carving knife from the ship’s kitchen to cut off her sodden layers of clothing. The men worked on her for two hours until confident they had revived her—though she remained unconscious. A lurid bruise surrounded her right eye.

There was no sign of Theodate’s companion, Edwin Friend, or of her maid, Emily Robinson.

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