World War I Dr Beaumont's Memoir

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Mark Baber

The New York Times, 5 January 1919

Braving the Submarine for 52 Months
White Star Ship's Officer Tells of Trying Vainly to Tow the Stricken the
Stricken Audacious to Port
How Pershing, in a Jaunty Straw Hat, Set Out for France
Surgeon, White Star Line

On that closing day of July, 1914, when the big Olympic left Cherbourg
with her saloons full of American passengers returning home, I wonder
how few of them ever dreamed that in four days' time the Marconi would
flash to us the momentous message, "England declares war against
Germany." The news was bewildering, but perhaps the least surprised
were the officers of the ship, for I verily believe that a rupture with
Germany was anticipated more by the sailors than by the landsmen of

Anyhow, the British Admiralty were not long in setting their machine
into motion, for three days after the arrival in New York it was decided
that the Olympic should carry no passengers back to England, but should
proceed alone at full speed, and darkened, to avoid the German cruisers
Karlsruhe and Dresden, which were known to be roaming somewhere on the

Southampton, our home port, being now closed for war purposes, we made
for Liverpool by what route I knew not, but certainly a tortuous one.
Nearing Ireland a big four-funneled ship appeared abeam on the horizon,
evidently heading across our bow if she could. Excitement was great,
for she might have been an armed enemy cruiser, but she turned out to be
the Cunarder Aquitania, already painted black and full of guns. Curious
it was to see the two leviathan ships stopped upon the calm sea in the
setting sunlight, one flag signaling to the other what course to follow
nearing the land.

The following trip from Liverpool we were crowded out with hundreds of
Americans who had fled from the Continent on the declaration of war, and
were thankful to be on board, for bodily they were tired out, mentally
annoyed and worried, their baggage mostly lost, stolen, or strayed, and
with American money, which was good, but for which English gold (already
called in) could not be obtained. The third class, too, was full of
rich people glad enough to be there or in the stokehold working a
passage out, anything to be heading west.

The third return from New York was one not likely to be forgotten by any
on board, for we arrived off the north coast of Ireland just in time to
rescue the crew of the battleship Audacious, which had been hit a few
hours before. After taking off the crew in our ship's boats three
attempts were made to fix steel hawsers and tow the battleship out of
danger, but a heavy sea was running, and the hawsers parted each time,
to the sorrow of all who, for six hours, kept up the work. The loss of
the Audacious was long withheld for reasons of which the British
Admiralty alone were qualified to judge.

To me personally the sequel proved peculiarly interesting, for on my
return to New York on the Baltic a fortnight later I was besieged for
particulars of the whole affair. Having been ordered by no less a
personage than Admiral Jellicoe himself on board the Iron Duke that I
was not to divulge anything to any one---not even to my own company---I
obeyed to the letter. When I informed the press of New York that if any
one on board my ship had given out the news that he had given out the
news that he had seen the battleship go down he was not telling the
truth, I simply stated the facts of the case, for the Audacious did not
go down till some hours after we had left her and had anchored in Lough
Swilly for safety.

During my first night in New York there were six telephone calls for me
to speak to night editors on the matter; but I was "out of town." Early
next morning, realizing that things might be getting "warm" for me, I
cleared out of the ship and located myself in hotel right in the centre
of the press brethren, where, for three days, I was unobserved by any of
them; a circumstance that convinced me that if ever I wished to evade
the police of London I would take my morning walks right outside
Scotland Yard. Anyhow, any reputation for truthfulness I ever had in
New York vanished there and then, and one editor, a good friend of mine,
was facetious enough to christen me the most "Audacious Liar" who had
ever entered the port; a title which has stuck to me ever since.

Perhaps I should record that when the Olympic did get safely into Lough
Swilly my troubles were not at an end, for between that harbor and
Liverpool, which I was making for in a great hurry to join the Baltic, I
was arrested twice on the quaint charge of leaving the ship before
"pratique" had been granted her, and, taking my baggage with me, thereby
trying to evade the customs. I had great difficulty in persuading them
that I had been taken out of the ship by Admiralty orders, that there
had been no customs men around, that I really was the man I said I was,
and that my intentions were as honorable as my movements had been open
and above board.

The next few voyages on the Baltic were uneventful, so far as any danger
was experienced. The passenger list rapidly dwindled, and motor trucks
and cars now occupied all the deck space, while the holds were crammed
full of munitions and food stores, so that it was evident that a war in
earnest was on, and that it was going to last some time. In the Spring
of 1915 the Baltic collided with another ship while coming out of dock,
and was laid off for some weeks.

Transferred to the Cymric we left the Mersey just ahead of several other
ships, and off Holyhead steered over to the Irish coast, while the
Falaba, keeping mid-channel, was torpedoed in our sight. Nor were we
able to go to her assistance, for a North Sea incident had already
proved that to do so was to become an easier prey to the submarines,
which had now become much more audacious than ever, and were operating
closer inshore. Perhaps during two voyages on the Cymric I had more
anxious moments than on any other ship for the reason that we were
crowded up with women and children, mostly Canadians, going over to be
nearer their soldier men---a mistake in policy which later on was
rectified. With her decks crowded with motor trucks and other large war
machines, and all the helpless women and babies around, I often dreaded
to think what would happen if we got hit. Later on the faithful old
ship did meet her doom, fortunately with but little loss of life and
with glory to herself, for she remained afloat for many hours, and
seemed unwilling to give up the unequal fight.

The next voyages were on the Megantic to Montreal and back with a full
complement of Canadian lads, splendid men, hale, hearty, merry and
bright, daredevil, difficult to curb and terribly keen to get at the
Huns, traits which may have lost them a bit in the early stages of the
game, but which, once they had steadied down, made them a terror to
Fritz and brought many laurels to their flag.

On this ship we had two escapes, once near Queenstown, when the torpedo
went astern of us; again when the torpedo actually shot past us on the
same course as ourselves and, going twice our speed, spent itself ahead
of us. Here, as on other occasions, zigzagging saved us from disaster.
Rejoining the Baltic we made several trips without incident, but they
were strenuous enough when S O S messages from other ships warned us to
change our courses, so that sometimes we went away north of Ireland as
far as Islay, or east close to the Welsh coast, sometimes turned right
around from north to south, and otherwise had to steal runs to the home

Once we were held in a lough in the north of Ireland for two days till
the patrols chased off two U-boats which were known to be lurking
outside; one morning we were nearly on top of one of our mine fields and
barely backed out in time; once we passed close to two empty lifeboats,
and again to a torpedoed cargo boat which was being towed to port.

Toward the close of 1915 I went back to the Olympic, which was now a
trooper, and we sailed for Gallipoli with 5,500 of all ranks. From her
interior it was not easy to recognize the floating palace hotel of peace
days, her fine dining salon and the Ritz restaurant being changed into
long rows of tables, the lounge into an armory, the reception rooms into
dress rooms, the swimming pool and racquet courts into blanket stores,
everything painted black and grim instead of bright colored and gay.
During the voyage ease, soon after rescuing three boatloads of
Frenchmen, whose ship had been sunk, we fired thrice at a submarine and
swerved off to dodge it. For me, as indeed for any one else, one visit
to Gallipoli would have been enough. The harbor was interesting enough,
for it was crammed with all manner of craft from battleships to tiny
motor launches, among which the Olympic stood out like a giant among
manikins. But the island and the mainland were bleak and forbidding,
masses of barren rock, sand and mud on every side, no vegetation,
lizards creeping around everywhere, few houses, but miles of tents and
hospitals full of every fever flesh is heir to. At night, twenty miles
off, we could see the reflection in the sky of big gun flashes from the
Turkish lines.

Altogether, an awful place, and fit only for the Turk and any of the
same breed.

My next move was to the Britannic when that great 50,000-ton ship left
Belfast on her maiden voyage for Mudros fitted up as a hospital ship.
What a fine vessel---the very latest word in everything new and the
triumph of all that the science and art of modern shipbuilding could
accomplish. The two large operating rooms, each with anaesthetic and
instrument room attached; the X-ray rooms, dental chambers,
dispensaries, research laboratories, lecture rooms, lofty and spacious
wards to accommodate 4,000 sick and wounded; quarters for sixty doctors
and 300 nurses, besides 800 of a ship's crew, galleys, staterooms, &c.,
all combined to make her a wonderful institution unsurpassed by any even
on land.

So many gangways had she that at Mudros five small hospital ships fed
her at one time with patients, of whom 3,500 were received on board in
one day. On her fourth return from the Mediterranean I contracted
paratyphoid fever, so remained on shore when she sailed again, alas! for
the last time; for one morning in brilliant sunshine, when the Aegean
Sea was like glass, the treacherous torpedo found its billet and damaged
her so badly that in one hour nothing was left of the great and
beautiful samaritan ship, except wrecked survivors to bemoan her loss,
their own fate and the death of several shipmates killed during the
catastrophe. What a tragedy! What an everlasting disgrace to the
already besmirched name of the Huns, who knew her name and profession
and everything about her!

The next flag under which I sailed was the American one, making a voyage
on the Philadelphia, of which I have a lively recollection, for on her I
was seasick for the first time in eighteen years' continuous service.
America not having yet entered the war, she presumably was immune from
attack, but great precautions were taken, and I take it that in 1916 the
Hun was far from trusted even by the neutrals.

In the Summer of 1916 I went back once to the Baltic, which had been
running staidly all the time, returning to England laden with war stores
and food and generally doing good work.

From April 1917, embarkation at New York began to be brisk. Down the
bay beyond Quarantine there came alongside one morning a peaceful
looking river boat, and first up the gangway strolled a handsome tall
man in a gray Summer suit and jaunty straw hat, as if he were just going
up the Hudson for an outing. Thus without pomp or ceremony did General
John J. Pershing join up, accompanied by a general staff of over 100
picked men, pioneers of the millions more of American men who were
training hard for the great adventure.

Long before we got to the other side General Pershing seemed to me to
bear a strong resemblance to our own beloved Kitchener, who crossed with
me on the Oceanic, another of my old ships laid to rest. Both were
tall, soldierly to a degree in their bearing, said very little, but
looked volumes and as if ready to act decisively at a moment's notice.

At a concert held on board, Captain Finch was anxious that an address of
welcome should be given General Pershing, but being modest and shy, like
all Atlantic skippers, he backed out of the ceremony. So on me devolved
the honor, and I was proud to call on all Britishers present to rise up
and give three hearty cheers for the great soldier, which they did with
acclamation. Pershing was more generous in his reply than Kitchener,
for he gave us three pithy sentences, whereas the hero of Khartum, on a
similar occasion, spared us three words. From each of the two big men I
got autographs, but again they were silent during the process, so I know
not to this day whether they were pleased.

The Baltic has often been called a charmed ship, and as she has had five
escapes during the last two years, she has earned the reputation. The
first occurred 350 miles from Ireland when a torpedo shot across our
bow. No submarine was seen; but three hours later we rescued six men,
the crew of a small Norwegian sailing vessel, whom the Hun turned adrift
in a tiny open boat without any provisions.

Presumably for this great naval victory, as for the sinking of the
Lusitania, the U-boat commander got decorations and Berlin went wild
with joy.

Next morning, when ten miles off Fastnet, I was on deck and saw a
torpedo come bouncing along at forty knots' speed, throwing up the spray
on all sides. I counted the seconds and waited for the impact, but it
was not to be, for we happened to be on the right limb of the zigzag and
were heading toward the projectile, which whizzed past and missed up by
six feet---a close shave, indeed!

On the third occasion, in the dusk of the evening, near Holyhead, a
submarine popped up and was quickly fired at by a patrol boat, followed
by an American destroyer, which really seemed to jump out of the water
in its haste to drop a couple of depth bomb charges over the spot. The
concussion was so great that, though 600 yards distant, and heavy laden,
the ship shook so violently that the bridge officers reckoned for the
moment that we had been hit. All hands were at once piped to stations,
and in less than five minutes were standing by their boats, including
170 American nurses, who filed quickly from the dinner table with the
utmost coolness.

The fourth escape was known as the Tuscania night, when that fine ship
was hit off the north of Ireland. At the time we were immediately ahead
of her in the convoy, and as we were the bigger mark it is reasonable to
think the torpedo was meant for us.

The last occasion was not so far from Liverpool itself, when a periscope
showed up almost in the middle of a convoy, and was promptly fired at by
three ships, without any damage to any one.

The majority of commanders and bridge officers on whom devolved the
heavy strain of constant vigilance by day and night have come through
the ordeal wonderfully well. Most of them have turned gray and look
older, if they do not feel it. Some declare they became more peevish
and irritable, which would be natural enough for any one scenting danger
at every mile of the road; in fact, it would be strange if their nerves
had not suffered in some or other way. The engine department have stuck
to their hidden posts down below with that coolness and courage which
has always distinguished them, and the Mercantile Marine must be proud
of hundreds of the "black-faced" men who have proved heroes during the
various disasters. Not the least remarkable fact is that hundreds of
members of crews who have been torpedoed once, twice, three, four, and
even five times have, after a brief holiday, gone back smiling to sign
on in another ships and carry on the great game. Pursers and chief
stewards and other members of victualing department, being, as it were,
noncombatants, are not supposed to walk off with many Victoria Crosses.
Nevertheless, they have done their bit nobly if silently, and by their
characteristic cheerfulness have fully played their rí´le in inspiring
confidence into passengers and others. Surgeons, like myself, who are
trained to the sight of blood, can claim no credit for being cool in an
emergency. For sheer physical endurance I think I would give the palm
to Captain Finch of all my skippers. The shock he had at the sinking of
the Arabic was enough to undo most men, for he is unusually stout and
heavy, and was immersed in the water for some forty minutes before being
dragged into a boat. Voyage after voyage I have known him spend ten
days and nights without ever taking off his clothes, sitting up or lying
down and having snatches of sleep, waking up refreshed enough to carry
on; keeping cheery all the time, enjoying his cigar, and ready to crack
a joke at any time.

Later on, during the development of the war, when subs began to operate
further afield and even right across the Atlantic, the convoy system was
well conceived and carried out, and certainly was a relief to those on
board. Formerly one felt lonely on the wide ocean, and it was
consoling, on the lines of "misery likes company," to look around and
see friendly ships. How eagerly, when three or four hundred miles from
shore, did we scan the horizon for the first glimpse of our friends, the
destroyers, British and American, the "mosquito fleet," as we called it,
who took up their positions among and around us and guarded us into
port! There can be no doubt that the depth bomb charges used by these
businesslike boats did more than anything else to keep the submarines
below. Certain it is that a sub was less willing to attack a convoy
armed and guarded than a single ship. Personally, I was always glad to
see the destroyers, because I dreaded much less the circumstances of the
ship being hit and sunk than the horrible thought of getting into the
boats and being shelled by the barbarians, who were always cowardly
enough to do the dirty trick when they could, and gloat over it, too.

The British sailor had never yet avoided a fair fight, but the outrages
at sea committed by the Hun will rankle in his bosom for many a year to

I have already referred to speeding, zigzagging, running in convoy, and
Marconi help as a means of protecting ships en route. A later
development was the "camouflaging" of ships, repainting them all sorts
of colors at all angle. By this means not only was the appearance of
the ship altered, but---and what was more important---it afforded
misleading reflections on the mirror of the submarines. Nor must I
forget the darkening of the ships and running without masthead or side
lights. Apparently this has not increased the dangers of navigation,
for the figures would seem to show a decrease in the number of
collisions. The disadvantages were that it interfered with ventilation
indoors and made locomotion on deck more uncomfortable, but these were
of less import when compared with safety. To lessen the risk of
hitting mines, mine catchers have been fitted on to ships, and have been
most useful.

Early in the war the passenger list began to dwindle, and as the
passports on both sides of the Atlantic became more and more difficult
to obtain, none were allowed to travel unless their credentials were
assured and their business urgent and important.

Nonetheless, cheery optimism has been the keynote all along, fear or
"funk" being almost unknown. This applies particularly to the women;
who have proved themselves as plucky in the face of danger as they have
turned out practical in manual war work. One case only of a woman
becoming panic-stricken have I met the whole time, and that lady was so
weak that she ought never to have started the voyage, and she was very
glad when we landed her at Halifax. Two ladies once sat for three days
and nights inside the companion wearing their lifebelts, looking grim
and determined and never saying a word. Another case, I presume, of the
exception proving the rule. Of the old-time business men who had
crossed the Atlantic several times each year, no one kept up his record
more gallantly than E. H. Van Ingen, Esq., of New York. Such a contempt
had the grand old veteran for the Hun and his submarines or any other
instrument of torture he cared to introduce that, on one occasion, in
the danger zone, when it was suggested he give up his favorite corner
seat near the side of the ship and move to the center of the salon for
safety, he declined flatly, and retorted: "No, Sir, there is not a Hun
living for whom I would give up my seat." Bravo, Commodore! I take off
my hat every time to you. Men like yourself, with indomitable spirit,
have done so much to prop up the timid and weary-hearted who were apt to
fall out of the track in the fierce long-distance race. You love the
life on board ship---may you long be spared to enjoy it.

Mention has been made of General Pershing's crossing with us. Since
then the Baltic has carried over some 40,000 troops, including officers
and nurses. Pershing's army, like Kitchener's, was drawn from all ranks
of the civilians who have clearly shown what remarkable a transformation
a few months' training and discipline can accomplish, especially when
the original material is made up of intelligent men and women who are
keen on duty. Enthusiasm is the keynote which has throughout marked
their deportment on board, and whether at work or play Pershing's
Crusaders entered into everything with whole heart and soul---"pep" as
it is called in New York. Of work there was always plenty; military
drill, gymnasium exercises, emergency boat drills, inspections of
quarters and kit, outpost and sentry duties, bugle calls galore,
lectures, French tuition classes and faithful attendance at the mess
tale. Of play, too, there was a wise admixture: all kinds of deck
sports, boxing and wrestling matches, afternoon tea dances, concerts,
card games, and perhaps here and there a daylight flirtation, if I dare
mention it. Moonlight romances were far from popular; in fact, no one
had any use for the "pale silvery moon" so much lauded in song, for the
Queen of the Night was always bad for us and good for the submarine

The business, as well as the social, relationships between the U. S. A.
officers and the personnel of the ship were at all times most cordial
and satisfactory, and my recollections of the various medical officers
with whom I had to deal well be of the most pleasing kind. During my
official visits to Medical Headquarters at Hoboken I was always received
with courtesy and kindness, and it was a privilege and pleasure to be
associated with them. Co-operation has been the watchword from first to
last. Allies we were in thought, word, and deed right from the
embarkation at Pier 60, New York, to the arrival at the landing stage in

And now they are coming back from "over there," where they have fought
the good fight, have done their bit well and helped to win. Bon voyage,
and safe return to all of them who are still on duty in Germany and

Hello Mark,

Brilliant piece of text there, thanks for that.
Seems he had a few more exciting moments during the war apart from the event with the Audacious!

This does make me wondering again a bit about his presence on Britannic's final voyage. He tells he couldn't make the voyage after the 4th, but Britannic sank on her 6th voyage. But the piece he tells about the sinking is quite small, so I assume he wasn't present at the time.


Mark Baber

thanks for that

Quite welcome.

the piece he tells about the sinking is quite small, so I assume he wasn't present at the time

That's how I read it, too. Some of our Britannic experts can no doubt confirm that. Anyone?
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