So we come to the turning point in the lives of my large extended family in Montreal. From now on, all the adventure of World War 1 has gone and only duty and resilience is left.
Today we will cover just the last day.
Until the 6th, everyone had done their best to put the idea of there being any real risk out of their heads. I would imagine that the young, Gwen, Anna and Robert Holt would have given it no thought at all. But on the night of the 6th, Mike Pappadopoulos, whose wife had been very social throughout the trip, had a panic attack and hid in one of the life boats. Alfred Vanderbilt and Frederick Orr Lewis talked him down. But he was still very shaken. (From a letter from Mrs P in the Mike Poirier Collection)
The 7th was the last day. If all went well they would be in Liverpool on the high tide that night. Captain Turner had slowed a bit because of the fog that morning but also because he wanted to catch the tide and so not wait outside the port as a sitting target.
The night before had been the ball and the passengers might have been feeling a bit shaky after a long night. The staff were hard at work packing. This included many of the crew, who were in the baggage hold getting the trunks ready for unloading.
Orr-Lewis usually had slept in until 11am every morning. But, that morning, he got up earlier. It is likely that Slingsby, his valet, would have wanted to start on the packing.
By late morning it was a lovely day. The fog had lifted and the sun shone. The water was calm but was still cold. Land could be seen on the port side.
Photo Credits: Eric Sauder
The group all met for lunch some time after 12 noon. As usual, they all sat at the same table. Lady Allan, Mrs Stephens, Frederick Orr Lewis, Dorothy Braithwaite and the young, Gwen, Anna and Robert Holt. Emily and Annie, Lady Allan's maids were at their table one floor up. But Slingsby was not there. He was busy until about 2pm. So was Mr Frohman's valet. Again, I have to think that they were packing.
After lunch, the Allan party left the dining room and went to the lounge. Coffee would have been served. The adults and the girls were all talking. Robert, aged 15, how I can relate, was buried in a book.
At 2.10pm, the torpedo struck.
Here the story gets confused. First of all, in a crisis, few of us see everything. Secondly, the mind plays tricks. Thirdly we all want to put ourselves in the hero's role. Lastly we all want to see what we want. All these factors now come into play in our narrative.
Orr-Lewis in his long account, (in the Mike Poirier collection), claims to have seen the Torpedo and gathered the group outside on the boat deck on the port side. But George Slingsby, who was just reaching his table by the window on the torpedo side, claims, in his daughter's book, that it was he who saw the torpedo and that it was he that rushed into the lounge which is on the same deck and gathered the family.
Who do I believe? Logic suggests that the person in motion, who would be looking out of the window, has the edge here. If you are in a group, your attention is inward.
In a sudden crisis there is always that moment of freezing. My bet is that everyone in the lounge would have frozen. Slingsby running in shouting that this was a torpedo makes sense for how the room unfreezes. As a boy, at school, there was a fire. It was in the night and many of us could smell smoke. But we did nothing. Then the door of the dorm opened and another boy rushed in crying out "Fire, Fire!" We still froze. That is until he opened the window, we were on the ground floor, and jumped out. Then we did the same.
That is what I am talking about. It is highly likely that Slingsby unfroze the lounge.
More confusion in the story follows. Orr-Lewis, in his account, takes command. Nina Slingsby's daughter makes George Slingsby the central figure. He is the one who is getting life belts for everyone and inspiring the girls with hope.
We can never know what was the reality.
One thing that both accounts are settled on is that they are all in a group but that, somehow, Dorothy Braithwaite is separated.
Aunt Marguerite still did not have a lifebelt. Slingsby, who could not swim, gave her his.
There was no time.
The ship will have sunk by 2.28pm, 18 minutes after the torpedo strikes. At first, the ship immediately lists to starboard. The boats on the port side cannot be used. As the list increases, the gap between the boats and the side of the ship on the starboard side grew very wide. In this very difficult situation there was a lot of bungling on lowering the boats. Many of the crew who would have done this job are already dead. They were in the baggage hold that caught the full blast. As a result, several boats dumped their occupants.
There was no time to think.
The ship was lurching about and sinking fast. Orr -Lewis took Gwen by the hand. Aunt Marguerite took Anna by the hand. Mrs Stephens held John in her arms. The maids crowded around. Aunt Marguerite said to them all that they would die together. The decision was to jump.
Robert Holt climbed down the side on his own.
Then utter chaos, as they all fall into the water. The water is about 55F. Not cold enough to kill you immediately as in the North Atlantic in mid winter but it would be a huge shock and it would kill you in time.
Funnels, masts, wire, wooden object are churning in the water with the people. One woman gets sucked into a funnel and then is blown out. She is covered in soot and has turned black. All sorts of debris is falling on people and bumping them hard.
As a result, Aunt M has a broken collar bone and a fractured left hip as she is banged about in the maelstrom. In the churn, she lets go of Anna. Orr-Lewis is also churned about under water. He too lets go of Gwen.
They live. The girls die.
Surely they punish themselves for the rest of their lives? Having been very close friends, Aunt M and Frederick Orr-Lewis are never close again. I suspect there is a deep unspoken blame and guilt that both feel. Orr-Lewis dies young in 1921. He never fully recovers.
Now the account becomes confused again. Many claim to have saved my Aunt. The Hero part of a crisis. Several people claim to have pulled her last into a boat. After all she was a person of note. Here I go back to Orr-Lewis and give his story more credence.
She is badly injured and would have lasted very little time in the water. I don't know who pulled her into the boat but it must have happened early not late as some say. .
Orr-Lewis finds a boat early. Aunt M is already in it. So are her two maids Emily and Annie.
He gets into that boat and sees Robert Holt swimming strongly and gets him into the boat too.
There are about 59 people on board according to his account. Some are sitting. Many, including him, are standing. There is a lot of water in the boat and it is very precarious. But if you are not in a boat or out of the water in some way, your chances are very slim.
Then he sees "George". Even though he cannot swim, George Slingsby swims on that day. Orr Lewis directs him to another boat and George gets on board.
The begins the long wait where every minute people in the water die of the cold and of their injuries. This painting reveals the horror of that time.
Queenstown, now Cobh, is in sight but it is still miles away and the people in Queenstown also have to unfreeze and react.
Where is Dorothy? Harold Boulton finds her.
He has Mrs Lassiter on a box and is holding on to the box while treading water along side. He is with her husband. Dorothy floats by. Bouton says that she dies holding his hand. I am sure she did. But he and Mr Lassiter had to make a terrible call. They had themselves chosen to stay in the water and so give Mrs Lassiter the best chance. There was room only for one on the box and that spot was taken. The best that Harold could do was to hold poor Dorothy's hand.
This is what we do isn't it? When he is rescued he downs 6 whiskies which he claims saved his life. (Link)
And what of the others in the Allan party? Where are they?
Emily and Annie are in the same lifeboat as Lady Allan. But no one knows about Mrs Stephens, John and Elise and Caroline. They will all have to wait until they are rescued. Even then it will not be clear for two days.
Where are Gwen and Anna? They swim well and are young and tough. Robert Holt had made it. Surely they must be among the saved?
Meanwhile, in the lifeboat, just as Orr-Lewis is driven by guilt away from his friend, my Aunt, so a new friendship is being born.
In the same boat, Rita Jolivet is next to Aunt Marguerite who is unconscious for most of the time. They had seen each other on the trip but Lady Allan must have seemed very grand and so unapproachable to the starlet whose main focus had been on Mr Frohman the impresario. They spend hours together in the lifeboat and on the journey back to Queenstown.
That night in Queenstown, in the Hotel, Rita stays all night looking after Marguerite. This unlikely pair become friends for life. Later in the 1920's, Aunt M introduces Rita to an exceptionally wealthy relation, Uncle Jimmie Allan, whom she marries! Coincidentally Rita's first name is also Marguerite. She is one of three in our story.
After about three hours rescue starts to arrive and the survivors are taken back to Queenstown. They land here. The Queenstown Hotel, now the Commodore, is in the centre of the picture.
Here is the front as it would have looked then. Aunt M and Rita ended up in a room at the Queenstown Hotel for the night.
The question being for both women, what had happened to the people they cared about? Rita's brother in law, George Vernon, was on board. Mr Frohman was her ticket to stardom. Had he survived? What about Gwen and Anna? What about Mrs Stephens and Baby John and Elise and Caroline her maid and nurse?
But all of that is for our next post.
How did they now feel? My friends who have been in combat tell me of this strange feeling. When they have been in a very bad situation where they have lost close friends, the grief comes later. The first feeling is the sense of the miracle that you have yourself survived. You are relieved. You have lived!
What else might they feel? I think unsafe.
When I have been on a large ship, it seems inconceivable that it could sink. For those on the Lusitania and before on the Titanic, this sense of invulnerability must have been common. No wonder many chose to stay on board. But when all of this sense of security is smashed, what does this also do for your world view? For don't we all think that our lives are safe? What happens to you when you lose this trust?
This is one of the themes that we will delve into in the next 4 years.
And what happens to survivors when they see that it is only they who have lived and those that they love are gone? There is no guilt like this.
And finally, how much heartbreak can our hearts stand? How many people can you lose before your heart turns to stone?
These terrible questions will animate our story from now on.
It is the pain that burns on 100 years later and that scars and wounds today. But some people find the courage to live on. Maybe they do so in the hope that one day, they will be reunited.
And so I close with Harry Lauder's great song that he wrote after the death his own son. The song that expresses all the longing and hope for those that mourn.