News from 1917: The Sinking of Laurentic I


Mark Baber

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[MAB Note: "[L]ast Thursday," as used in this article, means 25 January 1917.]

The New York Times, 29 January 1917

Laurentic, British Auxiliary Cruiser, Sunk By Mine or Torpedo; Probably 180 Men Lost

LONDON, Jan. 28---The British auxiliary cruiser Laurentic, of 14,892 tons gross, has been sunk by a submarine or as a result of striking a mine, according to an official statement issued tonight by the British Admiralty. Twelve officers and 109 men were saved. The Admiralty statement adds that the vessel went down off the Irish Coast last Thursday.

The commander of the Laurentic, Captain Reginald Norton, is among the survivors. He was appointed about six months ago to the command of this steamer, which was commissioned for patrol service in November, 1914.
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The auxiliary cruiser Laurentic carried a naval reserve crew of 300 officers and men, including fourteen engineers and ten deck officers, and was commanded by a naval Captain. The dispatch would indicate that at least 180 of these were lost. Chief Engineer Hurst and his staff were White Star employes, as also were two of the deck officers, it was said. The Laurentic was armed with six 6-inch guns and several quickfirers, and had a speed of seventeen knots.

During a two years' cruise in the Indian Ocean and Pacific on patrol duty the auxiliary cruiser Laurentic halted the American mail steamship China and took off thirty-eight Austrian and German subjects who were on their way from Shanghai to San Francisco. The United States Government protested on the ground that it was an exact parallel of the famous Trent affair and asked for their release. When the British Government declined to act, a second note was sent and the men were released.

The Laurentic was one of the most popular ships in the White Star-Dominion service from Liverpool to Montreal and Quebec before the war. She was built at Harland & Wolff's yard in Belfast in 1908, and was the first passenger liner to be equipped with twin reciprocating engines and a low pressure turbine in the centre to drive the third propeller. The Laurentic was 550 feet 4 inches long and 41 feet 2 inches depth of hold, and had accommodation for 150 first, 430 second, and 650 third-class passengers, and six holds insulated for carrying frozen beef.

The White Star officials in New York had not received any notification of the sinking of the Laurentic until informed of it last night by THE NEW YORK TIMES.

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Mark Baber

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The New York Times, 31 January 1917

260 LOST ON THE LAURENTIC
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Later News Increases Death Roll in Sinking of Auxiliary
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LONDON, Jan. 31---About 260 men were lost in the sinking of the auxiliary cruiser Laurentic, many of them having been killed by the explosion of the mine which sent the former White Star liner to the bottom Thursday, says a dispatch to the Press Association from Belfast.

The dispatch says the Laurentic struck the mine off the north coast of Ireland and sank in about ten minutes. A big hole was blown in the side of the ship.

Several boats were quickly launched, and, filled with scores of men, were engulfed in the vortex of the sinking steamer. For a time the sea was dotted with struggling men, some of whom were taken into other boats and saved. The remainder could not be rescued. A half gale was blowing, and the weather was intensely cold. Most of the rescued men were only half clad, and all of them, especially those wounded by the explosion, suffered greatly for hours.
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A previous dispatch from London stated that the British Admiralty announced the loss of the Laurentic and the saving of 12 officers and 109 men. As the ship carried a naval reserve complement of 300, the message indicated that the number of lives lost was about 180.

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Mark Baber

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The New York Times, 1 February 1917

LOSS ON LAURENTIC IS NOW PUT AT 350
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Captain of Vessel Tells Story of Wreck at Coroner's Inquest---Only 120 Were Saved
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MANY DIED IN LIFEBOATS
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Admiralty Explains That Cold Weather and Rough Sea Prevented Them from Reaching Shore
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LONDON, Jan. 31---There was ample time to save all on board the British auxiliary cruiser Laurentic, which was sunk by a mine off the north coast of Ireland last Thursday, says an official statement issued today contradicting reports to the contrary. The fatalities were due to severe weather preventing some in the boats reaching shore. The statement adds:

"A statement appeared in some of the morning papers," says the official announcement, "to the effect that there was not sufficient time to save all who had escaped being killed by the explosion, and that the ship Laurentic went down carrying with her more than 200 men.

"This is wholly incorrect. There was ample time to save everybody, and the ship was very carefully searched above and below and all hands were put into boats. Those who were lost were lost owing to the cold and the severity of the weather preventing them from reaching shore."

Captain R. A. Norton, who was in command of the Laurentic, told the story of the loss of the ship at the Coroner's inquest today over the bodies of seventy-four men of the crew, held at an unnamed city. He said:

"The vessel left port at 5 o'clock on the afternoon of Jan. 25 carrying a complement of 470. At 5:55 I was on the bridge when a violent explosion occurred abreast the foremast on the port side, followed twenty seconds later by a similar explosion abreast the engine room on the port side. Nothing was seen in the water prior to the explosion. The ship was steaming at full speed ahead. No lights were showing.

"I ordered full speed astern, fired a rocket, gave the order to turn out the boats, and tried to send a wireless call for help, but found that the second explosion had stopped the dynamo."

The Coroner asked how many survivors there were.

"One hundred and twenty," Captain Norton replied. "To the best of my knowledge, all the men got safely into the boats. The best of order prevailed after the explosion. The officers and men lived up to the best traditions of the navy.

"At about forty-five minutes after the explosion, prior to leaving the ship, I went around the vessel below with an electric torch and satisfied myself that there were no more men in the ship. The vessel was then very low in the water. When at last I entered a waiting lifeboat bumping dangerously alongside, the ship was sinking, but owing to the darkness and rough weather, we did not actually see her sink."

"Were there any people killed aboard?" asked the Coroner.

"Possibly some were killed in the engine room, but I have been unable to ascertain that, owing to the fact that no survivors are left of the men on watch. I know that all the men got up from the stokehold. The deaths were all due to exposure, owing to the coldness of the night. My own boat was almost full of water when we were picked up by a trawler the next morning, but all the men in the boat survived. Another boat, picked up at 3 o'clock in the afternoon, contained five survivors and fifteen frozen bodies. They had been exposed to the bitter cold for over twenty hours."

In reply to questions, Captain Norton said that trawlers arrived within two hours after his signals had been given. No one was asleep on the boat, he added, and there was plenty of time, but some men did not wait to don proper attire.

"Naturally I was the last to leave the ship," said the Captain in reply to another question.

Medical evidence showed that death was due in every case to shock and exposure. It was testified that one boat, picked up twenty hours after the explosion, contained seventeen frozen bodies.

The jury returned a verdict that the deceased came to their death as a result of shock and exposure, and expressed sympathy and sorrow "for the loss of such gallant lives in the service of their King and country," and admiration of the conduct of the Captain and officers.
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The loss of 350 lives on the Laurentic, revealed by the testimony of Captain Norton, is considerably heavier than was at first supposed. The Laurentic was believed to have had a complement of about 300, and the official report of her sinking last week said that 121 men were saved.

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Jason D. Tiller

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Interesting articles there Mark, especially the last one. Reflecting on the eighty eighth anniversary, I am reminded of when I visited the memorial to the disaster in Lough Swilly, Ireland two and a half years ago.

After seeing photos of it in the Titanic Commutator from a few years previously, it was quite something to finally visit it in person. I'll post a couple of photos that I took of it, as soon as I locate them.
 

Mark Baber

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Thanks, Jason. There's more to come one of these days...a series of articles about the salvage of the gold that Laurentic was carrying when she sank. More than 3200 bars, worth over £5 million, was salvaged after the war.

Meanwhile, here's Laurentic in better times:

94097.jpg
 
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Jason D. Tiller

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You're welcome, Mark. I should point out though that the memorial is actually in a small churchyard of Fahon, not far from Buncrana, County Donegal. My source for that is the Titanic Commutator Volume 22, Number 1 that was published in mid '98.

Since first reading about her and the disaster in the Commutator, I've been very attached to her, so visiting the memorial made it all the more special.

It would be very interesting to read any other information on the salvage of the gold, which I find quite fascinating.

Thanks very much for posting that postcard! I've never seen that one before, what a terrific image of her leaving Liverpool. I'm on a hunt for a postcard of her, but I haven't seen one pop up on ebay just yet.
 

Mark Baber

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Not surprisingly, given her relatively short commercial career of a little over five years and the fact that she served on a secondary route, there aren't as many different cards of Laurentic as there are of other White Star liners. I only have three, and Jeff Newman has three others on Great Ships. She's not impossibly hard to find, but she's not nearly as easy to find as some of her fleet mates.
 

Jason D. Tiller

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I figured that was the reason for not seeing too many postcards of Laurentic, but thanks for confirming that Mark. When I do find one of her, it will definitely be a prize!
 

Jason D. Tiller

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94805.jpg


It reads as follows:

This Cross is Erected in the Faith of the Resurrection and in Honoured Memory of the Officers and Men of H.M.S. LAURENTIC.

(Capt R.A. Norton, R.N.)
Lost off this coast January 25, 1917.
Underneath rest the bodies of those commemorated here. For these and their comrades who thus gave their lives for their country, they who raise this memorial give thanks to God.

Officers:

Engineer Lieutenant J. Carlisle R.N.R.
Engineer Lieutenant C.H. Daymond R.N.R.
Engineer Lieutenant J.W. Cibbins R.N.R.
Engineer Sub-Lieutenant P. Caton R.N.R.
 
Dear Mark Baber, I think the book about the Laurentic you mentioned was a book called "We own Laurentic", by Jack Scoltock and Ray Cossum (the wreck owner). It is not that good. It goes into some detail about the Crippen episode, and mention's very, very little about her war service, and then a bit about the salvage, and a GREAT deal about how Ray Cossum used to be an English Channel swimmer! I actually assisted with some of the photographs in the book. Jack Scoltock is an author of children's book's, and should stick to doing just that! Via the internet, I had an "argument" with him.....I told him that the Laurentic was a wargrave, so why are diver's being aloud to go down to the wreck and take "bit's" off her. He DENIED that she was a war grave ! I told him that I had conclusive documentary evidence that men had died in her Engine Room at the time of the second mine explosion ! He refused to beleive this ! The guy is an idiot!

I am currently writing a book about "Big L", and have been researching her short commercial life, war time service, and subsequent salvage since March, 1999, and I am convinced that I already have 100 times more information which is in Scoltock's book's. I have about £2000 worth of medal's to the crew; at least 50 images of crew (some poor-other's extremely good); documentation; artifacts from crew members; and photo's of the ship both in her peace time roll, and also as an Armed Merchant Cruiser.

Looking forward to hearing from you.
 
Further to Peter Threlfell's comments about me.
Dear Jack,

I tried to send my apology for my remarks to E.T., but for some reason the message could not be sent. So, and I hope you do not mind, I am sending the apology direct to you.

I sincerely and humbly apologise for the remarks which I put in E.T. They were totally un-called for. I have recently returned from an operational tour in Iraq with my regiment, and on my return have had quite a few up's and down's..........(an extremely poor excuse for slagging off a fellow researcher and writer). When I got back I re-started work on my Laurentic work, and started re-reading through all my material, and took everything you said totally out of context, and I do genuinely regret what I said. I am very sorry.

I know that you will not now beleive me, but I am a genuine bloke, and I am still persueing anything and everything to do with the Laurentic. I have somewhere in the region of 50 (individual) images of officer's and crew; diaries; documents dealing with her war time service; £2000 worth of medal's to crew-members both lost and survivor's; and contact's in U.K., Ireland, Canada, Newfoundland, U.S.A., and Australia, all in connection with official documentation or relatives of those that served on board the Laurentic.

As hippocritical and as two faced as it may sound, I do sincerely wish you all the best with your next venture into the story of the Laurentic, and if I can be of any help, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Once again, many apologiese for my outspoken remarks.

Yours sincerely

Peter Threlfall

P.S. Did you know there was an ex-pat Welshman living in Canada, called Gerry Keegan, who is also researching the Laurentic ?
Send instant messages to your online friends http://uk.messenger.yahoo.com
 

Mark Baber

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It would be interesting to know what the British government thinks of this. It was, after all, its gold and Laurentic was on AMC duty when she sank.
 
>>It would be interesting to know what the British government thinks of this.<<

If they find any, you can be sure they'll be hearing from them. I doubt they will. If what the article states is true, the wreck is in a very collapsed state.
 
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