The Sunderland folk who survived and died in worst disaster of World War One

TRAGIC SHIP: The Lusitania.
TRAGIC SHIP: The Lusitania.

THIS month marks the 100th anniversary of one of the worst disasters of World War One - the sinking RMS Lusitania.

Almost 1,200 people lost their lives when the Cunard ocean liner was torpedoed by a German U-boat off the coast of Ireland. Two Wearsiders were among the survivors, but another drowned.

SHIP SHAPE: The World War One torpedo boat destroyer HMS Opal, which was launched by William Doxford and Sons at Sunderland in September 1915 - five months after the Lusitania was sunk.

SHIP SHAPE: The World War One torpedo boat destroyer HMS Opal, which was launched by William Doxford and Sons at Sunderland in September 1915 - five months after the Lusitania was sunk.

“It was a tragedy which made headlines in Sunderland and around the world. Passengers and sailors of all nationalities perished that fateful day,” said local historian Bill Hawkins.

“In firing on a non-military ship without warning, the Germans breached international laws. Britain condemned the sinking as an act of piracy, and thousands were left in mourning.”

Submarine warfare was intensifying in the Atlantic as Lusitania left New York for Liverpool on May 1, 1915. Indeed, Germany had just declared the seas around the UK a war zone.

But despite the Imperial German Embassy placing warning notices in 50 US newspapers, urging people not to put their lives at risk by sailing on Lusitania, the voyage went ahead.

“All went well until May 7, as the liner was running parallel to the south coast of Ireland. She was just about 11 miles off the Old Head of Kinsale when she crossed in front of U-boat Number 20,” said Bill.

“The commanding officer of the U-20 gave the order to fire one torpedo, which struck the ship on the starboard bow. Seconds later, an explosion erupted within Lusitania’s hull.”

As the 1906-built ship started to founder, so the crew scrambled to launch the lifeboats. The scene was one of “total chaos”, however, as Pallion woman Edith Robinson later revealed.

“I was with my husband on the deck and the boat immediately began to list. There was a rush for the lifebelts and my husband said “Follow me” and plunged into the sea,” she said.

“I did not obey his orders, I just waited for him to reappear on the surface, but he disappeared altogether and I never saw him again. Then I looked round and the sight was terrifying. The vessel had almost entirely disappeared.”

Edith had been returning home to Britain with her husband Thomas, a carpenter, after finding the work situation in Canada “slack”. They wanted a fresh start - but found tragedy instead.

As the funnels of Lusitania disappeared beneath the waves, Edith was washed into the sea. Luckily, her lifebelt kept her afloat until she found a log to cling on to.

“Eventually a man pulled me on to an upturned boat. There were hundreds of struggling and dead people, and the moaning and groaning and crying and shrieking was something awful,” she said.

“I was scared to death. After the ship disappeared, the submarine came to the surface. It hoisted a flag, but offered no assistance to those struggling for life in the water.”

Edith was finally rescued by a trawler and taken to Dublin, from where she made her way home to Sunderland. Another Wearsider, Ryhope miner George Harrison, also survived.

George made it his mission to recruit more men for the war effort after returning home; speaking out at a meeting in Seaham later that month to help rally support for the military.

Sadly, however, it appears that George - of the Royal Naval Reserve - may have died in enemy action just a few weeks later, on June 4, while serving with the navy’s Hood Battalion.

“Of the 1,962 passengers and crew aboard Lusitania, 1,191 lost their lives in the torpedo attack. As in the sinking of Titanic, most died from drowning or hypothermia,” said Bill.

“Among those to perish were 128 Americans - then a neutral country. This helped shift US public opinion against Germany, but it was another two years before she joined the war.”

l  A guided walk focussing on Sunderland during World War One will be held at 10am on May 26. Meet at West Wear Street car park. Contact 561 4578 to book places.