The Cunard liner Lusitania set sail from New York to Liverpool on May 1, 1915.
Aboard were around 2,000 passengers and crew and a cargo that included a legitimate consignment of rifle cartridges and shrapnel shell cases.
Notwithstanding significant U-boat activity off southern Ireland and a warning from the Imperial German Embassy in Washington that passengers on the Lusitania sailed ‘at their own risk’, no-one expected the Germans to attack an unarmed liner.
Among the passengers was 49-year-old Tom King, a woollen manufacturer and a native of Shepley. He had emigrated to America in the mid-1880s and was returning to visit his family.
Also aboard was former Kirkburton curate, 32-year-old Rev Herbert L Gwyer, right, who was returning to England after three years as a missionary based at Saskatoon, Canada. With him was his Canadian bride, Margaret. The couple had married on 15 April.
At 2.10pm on May 7, six days into the voyage, the Lusitania was eleven miles off the Old Head of Kinsale, Ireland.
Herbert and Margaret were in the dining room with a couple of passengers they had befriended, Archie Donald and Lorna Pavey. Suddenly there was a muffled thud and a shudder through the ship which lurched to starboard. Herbert recalled: “I shall never forget the crash of all the crockery from the tables.”
Everyone knew they had been torpedoed. The Lusitania had crossed the path of submarine U-20. The missile unleashed by Kapitänleutnant Schwieger had struck the liner’s starboard bow underneath the wheelhouse.
A second explosion in the hull followed. Smoke and cinders rose from the starboard side and water flowed in through numerous open portholes, causing the ship to list quickly. They didn’t have much time.
In the dining room the lights went out. Amid the stumbling and screaming, Herbert suggested to Archie that they should ‘quieten the people.’ Locating the door, they shouted, as convincingly as they could, that everything would be all right and that there was “no need to panic.” Calmed, the passengers in that area made their way up to the open deck. Herbert and Margaret discussed retrieving their lifebelts from their cabin, but feared becoming trapped on the flooding lower decks.
Among the last to leave the dining room, Herbert and Margaret teetered along the sloping deck on the starboard side.
They could see that a good number of the Lusitania’s 48 lifeboats had overturned on hitting the sea or remained stubbornly tethered to the ship. The deck was rapidly approaching sea level when Herbert located the last of the six lifeboats that had successfully launched. Six feet four inches tall and powerful, he helped Margaret, three other women and a baby aboard before jumping aboard himself, the last of the lifeboat’s 80 or so passengers. Hundreds were now in the sea, the majority drowning or slowly perishing from hypothermia.
At that moment the Lusitania heaved and toppled. Looking up, Margaret saw one of the funnels plummeting towards them and jumped back towards the deck just as Herbert began to row away. A broken Marconi radio wire attached to a funnel whipped towards them, but the ship’s purser, William Harkness grabbed and diverted it.
As the wire grazed the end of the lifeboat, the funnel crashed down on one side of them and the main mast on the other, ‘smothering’ them with water.
Grabbing an oar, Herbert rowed furiously, helping to power the lifeboat beyond the undertow as the Lusitania disappeared beneath the waves. It was just 18 minutes since the torpedo strike.
Only then did Herbert realise that Margaret was not aboard. Emmie Hill from Peterborough recalled: “We continued to keep our heads. In less than five minutes from the ship’s disappearance beneath the waves, the water was like a sea of glass and nothing was to be seen, only chairs, trunks and other loose articles from the ship. When we got a little way off we saw the German submarine come to the surface and the crew hoisted their flag, staying a short time above the water to witness the awful scenes of which they were the cause.”
Another survivor, Willie Inch, had admiration for the way the “persons in this boat” worked together, some rowing, while others “rendered great service by reviving those who were picked up half dead.” Four hours later they were rescued up by the trawler Flying Fish. The enormity of the events had struck Herbert and he sobbed quietly and prayed for Margaret. What had happened to her?
Seconds after Margaret jumped back to the Lusitania, its deck reached sea level and began to slip beneath the surface. Margaret swam away, but after only a few yards in the cold, foaming water she and two men were sucked backwards — straight down one of the funnels. Margaret briefly lost consciousness. When she came to, she was floating in pitch blackness, except for a pool of light somewhere ahead. Suddenly there was an explosion behind her. A boiler had burst. The force expelled the sea water from the funnel, shooting Margaret and the two men back into open water.
She splash-landed close to a flimsy, collapsible lifeboat which had been commandeered by Massachusetts bookseller, Charles Lauriat and Leslie Morton. Margaret was covered in oil and soot.
Five hours later, aboard the Flying Fish, Margaret, still coated in oil and soot, found Herbert, who was overjoyed when he realised who she was. She still had her sense of humour.
The Gwyers were among the survivors. Tom King was one of around 1,200 who died. There wasn’t time for all to escape.
It was the biggest single maritime disaster of the war and bodies were washed up on the Irish coast for weeks afterwards. The Rev Gwyer went on to become the chaplain of the Huddersfield War Hospital at Royds Hall and in 1936 became the Second Bishop of George in South Africa.
In July 1915 the enquiry found flaws in the Lusitania’s emergency procedures but concluded that the U-20 was ‘acting under the directions of the German government’, no warning had been given, ‘… it was a murderous attack’.