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PICTURES: Survivors of the Lusitania remember 'murder by savages'

In just 18 short minutes, the boat sank and 1,198 people lost their lives. We hear from two people who lived.

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ONE HUNDRED YEARS ago today, the magnificent Lusitania sank 11 miles off the Old Head of Kinsale in Cork.

On 7 May 1915, six days after leaving New York, the vessel was attacked and struck by a torpedo fired by a German submarine U-20.

In just 18 short minutes, the boat sank and 1,198 people lost their lives. While described as ‘murder by savages’ by the British Press, a German newspaper said it was “with joyful pride we contemplate this latest deed of our navy”.

In a new book, The Unseen Lusitania, historian Eric Sauder uses previously unseen images and information to bring the opulent ship back to life.

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The only way to cross the Atlantic, its rooms were filled with people from all walks of life. Sauder says that no author can recount the terrifying experiences of that fateful day as well as the 760 survivors.

He sets the scene of the 7 May:

“The morning of 7 May dawned foggy, but around 11am, the weather cleared into a lovely spring afternoon. What no one on board knew was that, in the six days since Lusitania sailed from New York, 22 ships had been sunk by German submarines.

At 1.20pm, Kapitanleutnant Walther Schwieger, commander of the U-20, sighted the fast-approaching Lusitania about 13 miles away. As the liner drew nearer, Schwieger attempted in vain to get his submerged U-boat into position for a clean shot but soon realised that it was impossible because of the direction Lusitania was sailing.

“At 1.40pm, just as he was about to give up hope, Lusitania made a turn to starboard and would steam almost directly in front of the bow of the U-20. Schwieger couldn’t believe his luck. Just before 2.10pm, Schwieger fired a single torpedo and watched as the deadly missile found its mark.

Mortally wounded, Lusitania had less than 18 minutes to live.

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Chrissie Aitken, a survivor, wrote a letter to relatives that was published in the Nicola Valley News and republished in Sauder’s new book.

She wrote:

“We were standing laughing at something when the crash came. Instinct seems to tell us what it was…

“I must say I kept very calm. This girl friend who was with me got very excited, and in trying to calm her I forgot my own excitement. We managed to get on deck and made for the lifeboats. I remembered I had no lifebelt, and turning back I went to the saloon to get one for my girlfriend and one for myself.

On reaching the saloon, a steward turned me back and told me to go to my own cabin if I wanted a life belt. When I returned from the saloon my girl friend had disappeared. I could not see her in any of the boats so I don’t know where she could have gone.

“I was standing wondering, when a little fellow, one of the crew came up to me and took off his own belt and fix it around me. How I wish now I have got his name and address, but thank God I noticed him in the crowd at Queenstown, so I know he was saved. His self-sacrificing bravery, I am sure, saved me from a watery grave.”

Aitken eventually made it into a lifeboat but her father and brothers were not so lucky.

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In a second survivor’s account, Phoebe Amory recalls the “agonising screams of the mothers and the children and the scenes of parting between husbands and wives”.

After crashing out of a lifeboat, she says that “on every hand were floating bodies, their upturned faces showing white and ghastly”.

“I was so close to the Lusitania I could have reached out and touched her, but her motions at this time caused waves that carried me some distance away. All this time I was floating on my back, and try as I would I could not turn over. This fact alarmed me greatly, since I believe that my life best was on wrong, and later proved to be correct. At times, the waves would wash over my face and fill my mouth with water, and I called upon God to save me.”

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Amory was saved by a passing lifeboat that was already full. The men inside pulled her along with a hook so that her body was inside the boat and her legs were in the sea.

“But we were not yet out of danger,” she continues. “And when someone started the cry of submarine, we all looked in the direction to which he pointed, and there, sure enough, was what we all took to be a submarine, but which proved to be but huge fish sporting in the waves. However, we had been given a scare, and the men rowed like mad.

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The Unseen Lusitania: The Ship in Rare Illustrations, £25, ISBN: 9780752497051, available from The History Press.

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First published 4 May

More: It’s 100 years since the ‘biggest human tragedy’ ever off the Irish coast

DailyEdge.ie: Is Titanic a true story? Er, yes.

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