Local slant to nautical disaster

It was a beautiful afternoon on the South coast of Ireland on May 7, 1915. Just after 2 p.m., a seaman on the ship “saw something moving across the flat waters of the sea, a trail, as clear as if it had been made by “an invisible hand with a piece of chalk on a blackboard” speeding toward the ship’s hull.

It was a torpedo, sent by a lurking German submarine. At the time of the attack the Lusitania, the very embodiment of Britain’s maritime supremacy, was one of the fastest and most luxurious ships afloat. Capable of 25 knots at full power the liner had first class rooms with silk and walnut panelling and gold leaf that “covered every surface”.

Of the 1,962 passengers and crew aboard, 1,191 perished that afternoon, with many of the bodies never found. The Lusitania sank swiftly, just 16 hours’ sailing from its Liverpool destination. The chaos was horrific. Many of its lifeboats were rendered unusable because of the ship’s severe listing; many passengers did not have life jackets, and the sea was soon full of the dead who succumbed to hypothermia.

One of those who perished in the sinking was Mary Jane Lindsay Walker who was born in Rodger’s Close, Kirriemuir and I am indebted to her family for revealing her personal details.

Mary was born in November 1871 at the Buffalo Inn where her father was the publican. By 1891 she was an 18-year-old general domestic servant to William Ewart and family at Sandyford Farm just outside the town and in 1901 she was a 28-year-old laundry maid living at Moss-side of Ballinshoe.

In 1902 she emigrated to the USA and is recorded in the 1910 US Federal Census as being 38 and living in Manhattan, New York. Her childhood friend Marjory McIntosh, who lived at Padanaram, followed her to the USA in 1903. Marjory McIntosh returned to Scotland in 1905 and 1910. It seems likely that that Mary Jane also returned with her.

Mary died while returning to Scotland in 1915 when the liner Lusitania was sunk by the German U-boat U-20 off the coast of Ireland. This is recorded on the family gravestone in Kirriemuir Cemetery: “Mary Jane Walker perished in Lusitania 7th May 1915 aged 40 years”. Mary must have relocated from New York to San Francisco sometime between and 1915 as that was her place of residence given in the passenger list.

Poor Mary is not listed amongst the bodies identified by the authorities in Ireland; there is, however, a number of “unidentified females” listed by age estimated by the authorities that would be akin to Mary. These individuals are buried in unmarked mass graves in Cobh in Ireland.

It was known that the Lusitania was at risk from attack by the German navy as adverts had been placed in a US newspapers to warn prospective passengers that the ship might be targeted. Germany had declared the waters around Britain a war zone and “vessels flying the flag of Great Britain are liable to destruction” and ships passing through war zones “do so at their own risk.”

Marjory said a deciding factor in Mary taking the risk was that multi-millionaire Alfred Vanderbilt, who had business interests in Germany, received a specific warning by telegram which he had dismissed as a hoax and was still going to travel.

The ship’s captain, William Turner, stayed on board until the ship disappeared under the water but was later able to swim to safety. For the rest of his life “he told stories of the sea, but not the one most people wanted to hear.”

And what of German U-20 captain Walther Schwieger? His friends described him as a man who “couldn’t kill a fly” — but he seemed to have had no qualms about firing at a ship filled with civilians. Despite his ruthlessness he wrote later that “the scene was too horrible to watch and he gave orders to dive to 20 metres and away”.

The disaster killed 123 Americans, and began a shift in U.S. attitude toward involvement in the First World War but it would still be another two years before President Woodrow Wilson finally declared war on Germany.

Would the passengers on board have been talking about the possibility of attack? We will never know, but it certainly brought the horrors of war directly to the door to the good folks in Kirrie and Forfar.

Yours aye,