‘There before me was a crowd of men who had come through a terrible ordeal’

The majestic Laurentic in operation during its heyday.
The majestic Laurentic in operation during its heyday.
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We delve into the Derry Journal archives from January 1917 to look at how the sinking of the Laurentic 100 years ago today was reported following the tragedy.

The night the Laurentic sank on January 25, 1917 was a major disaster on many fronts for the Allied Forces during the war.

The first mention of theLaurentic disaster in the Derry Journal back in January 1917.

The first mention of theLaurentic disaster in the Derry Journal back in January 1917.

So much so in fact that attempts were made to create a media blackout around the tragedy which was to claim 354 lives - most of the entire passenger list.

While such a major loss of life a propaganda coup for Germany and its allies, who had planted the mines which the ship struck, the Laurentic was also undertaking a secret mission to buy munitions, and had 43 tonnes of gold bars on board for the purpose - gold they desperately needed to recover and a mission they desperately needed to keep quiet to prevent others trying to reach it first.

The first mention of the Laurentic tragedy was carried in the Derry Journal’s Monday edition of January 29 under the heading ‘Irish Coast Disaster’.

The Journal had received an “official telegram” the night before from the Secretary of the admiralty confirming that the Laurentic was “sunk off the Irish coast by a German submarine or mine on January 25. Twelve officers and 109 men have been saved”.

The survivors of the Laurentic gathered at the Guildhall.

The survivors of the Laurentic gathered at the Guildhall.

The dispatch then gives a lengthy list of all those who survived and had been brought ashore into Donegal.

Later that week, the Journal reported how the White Star Liner Laurentic, which had been taken over by the Admiralty, had departed from Inishowen on a fine but intensely cold” Thursday evening

“Within an hour and a half, or thereabouts, the liner struck a mine and sank in three-quarters of an hour. Of the crew of about 475 something like 125 have been saved.

Many of those lost were killed by the explosion. Perfect order prevailed throughout, the crew responding to the officer’s orders with precision and loyalty.”

The report states that at first an attempt was made to beach the ship, and rockets were fired up into the night sky in a plea for help. These were seen by the men in the lighthouse and “within a few minutes a number of mine sweepers were speeding to the scene.”

Lifeboats had been manned and the survivors in pitch dark flares were lit so they could be located. They were eventually brought into the trawlers, the men in one boat having been “seven hours in the perishing cold” before being rescued.

Appeals were made for warm clothing, and the Mayor Anderson of Derry at the time orchestrated collections of second-hand clothing from local people and donations from local clothing shops.

Around 100 hot water bottles were sent to bakeries for hot water, while local people also donated thermos flasks.

The Mayor is quoted in the article as stating that on arriving at the camp in Donegal, believed to have been at a hotel in Buncrana or at Dunree Fort: “There before me was a crowd of men who had come through a terrible ordeal, in which unhappily, the bulk of their shipmates had gone down.”

The Mayor related how one of the survivors, a 17-year-old played ‘Pack up Your Troubles and Your Old Kitbag, and Smile, Smile, mile’ on the piano as others joined in the chorus.

The report relates that the “bodies of a large number of the victims have been brought to land”.

A further report dispatched from Belfast to the Journal stated that a gaping hole was torn in the side of the Laurentic after it struck the mine, and the boat sank rapidly from the front.

A further report states that a certain Lord de Blaquiere was informed that his only surviving son had perished on board, his other son having died in battle in 1915, and thus leaving the grieving gentleman without an heir.

A Derry victim of the Laurentic disaster is named in the Journal at the time as Lieutenant Andrew Steele, aged 24, the son of Mr and Mrs Andrew Steele of 29 Ivy Terrace.

Many of those brought ashore were buried in Fahan and Cockhill and Buncrana, with a cross-community service featuring Catholic and Protestant clergy officiating together. The paper also reports at the time that within days questions were being asked as to why the government was remaining so tight-lipped over the dead and about the tragedy in general.

There were also questions being raised as to what precautions were taken comparisons to the sinking of the Lusitania off the coast of Cork back in May 1915.