Small Wonders: Enlist!

Jan 22, 2018

Anti-German propaganda poster referencing the sinking of the passenger liner Lusitania by a German U-Boat, resulting in numerous non-combatent civilian casualties including women and children.
Credit Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD) Library

It was a highly fashionable method of getting across the Atlantic, a cruise ship bigger and faster than any other. A cruise ship with its own electrical system. elevators, and lavishly advertised passage space, especially for those hosted in first-class passage.

And it was May, May 7 to be exact, and while early May can sometimes feel alarmingly like late February, it so happened this this May 7 was mild, as was the sea. People were out of their cabins that day, out and about, anticipating arrival in England after a delightful voyage from New York.

Some saw it approach. Most did not. Those who did, felt it—the torpedo that hit far beneath the deck. In a moment, the whole ship stuttered, and then--almost an echo--another hit the bowels of the ship, causing a second explosion far bigger.

Credit Wikimedia Commons

Soon, they were sinking. Some passengers remember quite surprising sobriety among the passengers, very little panic. Mr. Charles E Lauriat, Jr., a bookseller from Boston, was not only an experienced swimmer, but knew something ships very well. Lauriat recognized very quickly the Lusitania was in grave danger.

For a while, he stopped throngs of passengers who, in their haste, had put on their lifejackets incorrectly. Then, when the pitch of the ocean liner got steep, when the sinking crept closer and closer and closer, he ran back to his stateroom to get what he could, telling himself, live or die, he’d rather have hold of what was important.

He tried to help at lifeboats already full of women and children, but even crew members were unable to cut through thick ropes holding the life rafts in place. Mr. Lauriat took to the sea. It took just eighteen minutes for that big ocean liner to disappear.

The water was calm but cold. Blessedly, he found an inflatable lifeboat, swam over, and pulled himself aboard, then pulled others up thereafter so the craft was flush with the surface of the sea.

One passenger fished from the Irish sea was a woman he thought to be African-American. When she got on board, she told him and the others that she’d been separated from her husband, and then, when the ship sank, sucked into one of the four funnels or smokestacks, drawn in by the sea into the basement of the boilers, which then exploded and blew her back out of the funnel, covering her with ash.

When the lifeboat could hold no more, a woman asked to be dragged along through the water. For a long time, she held to an oar extended by someone inside. She made it.

The survivors were not only fortunate, they were blessed to be among the 760 survivors. Almost 1200 people died that night when the Lusitania went down in the Irish Sea at the hands of  Captain Walter Schweiger, whose U-boats had already sunk nine other British vessels. Thereafter, England referred to Capt. Schweiger as “the baby killer.”

Germany had alerted the Allies that they would sink vessels carrying arms to England or Europe. The Lusitania, marketed as a passenger liner in as yet neutral America, wasn’t innocent. In 2008 divers at the wreck found the munitions many had assumed were hidden in the cargo.

Mr. Lauriat, who, in his memoir, sounds like a man of the world, bought passage on the Lusitania because, as he put it, he “did not think any human being with a drop of red blood in his veins, called a man, could issue an order to sink a passenger steamer.”

But Lauriat ends his brief memoir of that terrible tragedy with a sight he claims was “one of the most affecting scenes of all.” When his swollen life raft edged up alongside a fishing boat, that ashen woman saw her husband, waved frantically to get his attention, but failed. “He stood at the rail with a perfectly blank expression in his face and refused to recognize his own wife,” Lauriat wrote. “Not until we were directly alongside and he could lean over and look the woman squarely in the face did he realize that his wife had been given back to him.”

Almost 2000 were not so blessed.

It would be a couple years before the United States would enter World War I, but the sinking of the Lusitania was something no American forgot. 

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