“Only my training from boyhood up, in the water and under it, gave me the courage to jump.”
ON MAY 7, 1915, the German U-boat U-20 fired a torpedo into the side of the passenger liner RMS Lusitania as it passed 11 miles to the south of the Old Head of Kinsale in Ireland en route to Liverpool, England from New York. Of the 1,962 passengers and crew, 1,191 lost their lives, many of them women and children.
One of the passengers was Charles E. Lauriat, Jr., a 40-year-old rare book dealer from Boston who traveled regularly to London for business. When the German embassy placed a warning notice in several U.S. newspapers warning travellers that any ships of Great Britain and her allies would be considered fair targets, Lauriat, like many others, dismissed the notion that a civilian vessel would actually be attacked.
The Lusitania’s Last Voyage, Lauriat’s memoir of his fateful journey, recreates the torpedo attack—describing the listing ship as it filled with water and people scrambled for lifeboats, too often finding them inaccessible or unusable—and details the rescue that came too late for most of his fellow passengers. Here is his account of the sinking.
Where I stood on the deck the shock of the impact was not severe; it was a heavy, rather muffled sound, but the good ship trembled for a moment under the force of the blow; a second explosion quickly followed, but I do not think it was a second torpedo, for the sound was quite different; it was more likely a boiler in the engine room.
As I turned to look in the direction of the explosion I saw a shower of coal and steam and some débris hurled into the air between the second and third funnels, and then heard the fall of gratings and other wreckage that had been blown up by the explosion.
Remember that I was standing well for’ard on the port side, and consequently looked back at the scene of the explosion, at an angle across to the starboard side; therefore, although the débris showed between the second and third funnels, I think the blow was delivered practically in line with the fourth funnel.
I looked immediately at my watch and it was exactly eight minutes past 9 a.m. Boston time, which means eight minutes past two Greenwich time.
I turned to the Hubbards and suggested that they go to their stateroom to get their life jackets. Their cabin was on Deck B, on the port side, at the foot of the main companion-way, and they had ample time to go there and get back to the deck; but Mr. Hubbard stayed by the rail affectionately holding his arm around his wife’s waist and both seemed unable to act.
I went straight down to my stateroom, which, as you will remember, was the most for’ard one on Deck B on the starboard side. The boat had taken a list to starboard, but it was not acute, and so I had no difficulty in making my way to and from my cabin. I tied on a life belt, took the others in the room and my small leather case containing my business papers, and went up on deck to the port side. I went back to the spot where I had left the Hubbards, but they had gone, and I never saw them again.
I found those who needed the life belts, put them on, tied them properly, and then went aft along the port side of the ship, for I was confident that all hands would naturally rush to the starboard side and so there would be more opportunity to help along the port side. I turned and walked for’ard toward the bridge, and Captain Turner and Captain Anderson were both calling in stentorian tones not to lower away the boats, ordering all passengers and sailors to get out of them, saying that there was no danger and that the ship would float. A woman passenger beside me called out to Captain Turner in a perfectly clear and calm voice, “Captain, what do you wish us to do?” “Stay right where you are, Madam, she’s all right.” Then the woman asked him, “Where do you get your information?”—and he replied in rather a severe and commanding voice, “From the engine room, Madam.” She and I turned and walked quietly aft and tried to reassure the passengers we met.
As I looked around to see to whom I could be of the greatest help it seemed to me that about everyone who passed me wearing a life belt had it on incorrectly. In their hurry they put them on every way except the right way: one man had his arm through one armhole and his head through the other; others had them on around the waist and upside down; but very few had them on correctly. I stopped these people and spoke to them in a calm voice and persuaded them to let me help them on with the belts, for they certainly stood no show in the water rigged as they were. At first they thought I was trying to take their jackets from them, but on reassuring them they let me straighten them out.
I had been watching carefully the list of the steamer, and by now I was confident that she wouldn’t float and that the end was coming fast. I remembered one or two personal things in my stateroom which I very much wanted, and I figured that I had time to go down and get them. If I didn’t come through the final plunge, I wanted to feel I had them with me, and if I did get through, I was just as sure I wanted them, so there didn’t seem anything to do but to get them, which I did.
There was a companion-way for’ard of the main staircase, about half-way between it and my stateroom, so I went along the port passage inside of deck A, down that companion-way, and along the starboard passage to my stateroom. It was not until I walked along this passage that I realized how acute was the list of the ship. My stateroom was an inside one without a porthole, and consequently could be lighted only by electricity. I pressed the switch, but the light had gone, so I put my hand on a box of matches; for each night when I retired I placed a box in a particular place, just in case I needed it. With the aid of these matches I found the little article for which I was looking, opened my travelling bag, and took out some papers which included my passport and other envelopes that could easily be slipped into my inside pocket.
I had kept my drafts on my person, for I figured that there was no use in giving them to the purser, except as a precaution against theft, and that was negligible. If what had happened was to happen, I knew there would be no time to reclaim them from the purser.
I made my way back along the passage, walking in the angle formed by the floor and the side walls of the staterooms rather than the floor, and went back up the for’ard companion-way, the same that I came down. Going along the passage (on Deck B) I looked down some of the cross passages that lead to the staterooms, and at the bottom of the ones I passed I saw that the portholes were open and that the water could not have been more than a few feet from them. Here let me state that I consider it most extraordinary that the portholes on the lower decks should not have been closed and sealed as we steamed through the war zone. At luncheon the portholes in the dining-saloon on Deck D were open, and so I doubt not that all the others on that deck were open. I mean those in the staterooms. I cannot speak with certainty in regard to the port-holes on Deck E. I believe that the first list the ship took brought her down to these open ports on the starboard side and that she sank much more quickly from filling through them.
On my return to the deck I felt that the steamer must make her final plunge any moment now, and as there was nothing more that could be done on the port side—for there was no discipline or order with which to do it—I passed through to the starboard side. Men were striving to lower the boats and were putting women and children into them, but it seemed to me that it only added horror to the whole situation to put people into a boat that you knew never would be cleared and which would go down with the steamer; better leave them on the deck to let them take their chance at a piece of wreckage.
True, there was no panic, in the sense that anyone crowded or pushed his way to the lifeboats, but there was infinite confusion, and there seemed no one to take command of any one boat.
As I came out on the starboard side, I saw, a little aft of the main entrance, a lifeboat well filled with people, principally women and children, that no one had attempted to clear from the davits. The steamer was rapidly sinking, and I realized that the boat must be cleared at once if the people were to be saved.
I climbed into the stern of the boat, which was floating flush with the rail of deck B, so far had the steamer settled, and helped clear the fall. We freed our end and swing the ropes clear, but we couldn’t make anyone for’ard understand what to do or how to do it.
I remember looking for’ard and seeing someone, I think it was a steward, bravely cutting away at the thick ropes with a pocket knife. How I wish he had had an axe! What would I have given for one real sailor man for’ard; we could have saved that boatload of people. I started to go for’ard, but it was impossible to climb through that boatload of people, mixed up as they were with oars, boat hooks, kegs of water, rope ladders, sails, and God knows what—everything that seemed to hinder progress to getting for’ard. The steamer was all the time rapidly settling, and to look at the tremendous smokestack hanging out over us only added to the terror of the people in the boat. I certainly did not blame them, for it was a harrowing sight, even to one as familiar with the ocean as I am. However, I should have gone for’ard and made the try, except that the stern end of the boat was raised by a small swell of the ocean and I was impressed by the nearness of the davit by getting a blow in the back which nearly knocked me overboard.
Then I admit that I saw the hopelessness of ever cleaning the for’ard davit in time to get the boat away, so I stepped out and made a try for it by swimming. I spoke to several and urged them to come; but truly they were petrified, and only my training from boyhood up, in the water and under it, gave me the courage to jump. I swam about 100 feet away from the ship and then turned around to see if anyone was following to whom I could lend a hand, and found several who needed encouragement. Also I wanted to see when the final plunge of the steamer came, that I might be the more ready to fight against the vortex and tell the others. The Lusitania did not go down anything like head first: she had, rather, settled along her whole water line. This convinces me that practically all the ports must have been open, even those as far down as Deck E. The stern did not rise to anything like a perpendicular, nor did it rise so high that I could see a single one of the propellers or even the end of her rudder. Not one of her funnels fell.
The last I saw of the lifeboat out of which I jumped was that she was being pulled down, bow first, as the tackle had not been freed and the stern of the boat was rising high in the air. While the people were thrown out, they were not so violently thrown as those from some of the lifeboats that were dropped when half lowered into the water.
There was very little vortex; there was rather a shooting out from the ship instead of a sucking in, after she sank; this I am told was partly caused by the water rushing into her funnels and being blown out again by explosions made by the mixing of the cold water of the sea with the steam of the boilers. I saw an interesting statement in one of the papers, purporting to have come from Captain Turner, in which he stated that the small amount of suction was probably due to the fact that the bow of the boat was already resting on the bottom when the stern went down. This seems quite feasible, as she sank in about 60 fathoms (360 feet) of water and she was 755 feet long.
The sea was wonderfully smooth, and it seemed to me that if one could keep clear of the wreck and pick up a lifeboat, that it could be manned and that we could go back and get many survivors. I was able to work this out quite as I planned.
As I waited for the final plunge something caught me on the top of my head and slipped down to my shoulders, pressing me under the water; I couldn’t imagine what it was, but on turning to see I found that it was one of the aerials of the wireless that stretched from topmast to topmast.
The present style of life belt, or rather jacket, is not the old-fashioned kind filled with hard cork, but a larger and more bulky affair filled with fibre, and when you have it on you look and feel like a padded football player, especially around the shoulders. When I shook this wire off my head, it caught me around the shoulders on the soft pad, and I couldn’t shake it off. It took me down under the water and turned me upside down.
Excerpted with permission from Lusitania’s Last Voyage: Being a Narrative of the Torpedoing and Sinking of the RMS Lusitania by a German Submarine off the Irish Coast May 7, 1915 by Charles E. Lauriat, Jr. (Skyhorse Publishing, 2016).