The 100th anniversary of one of the worst disasters of the First World War holds poignant memories for one Wearside woman.
Almost 1,200 people died when ocean liner RMS Lusitania was torpedoed by a German U-boat off the coast of Ireland on May 7, 1915 – a tragedy which made headlines worldwide.
“My great-uncle, Thomas Robinson, was among those to perish,” said shop supervisor Glynis Ayers.
“The family story is that he was returning from Canada to fight for his country.
“But his wife, Edith Alice, survived. Aunt Alice, as we called her, later re-married, moved to Leicestershire and had a daughter – but I remember her visiting the family in Sunderland when I was a young girl.”
Germany had just declared the UK seas a warzone as Lusitania left New York for Liverpool on May 1, 1915 – a voyage the Imperial German Embassy urged passe-ngers to boycott.
“I was told my great-grandad James was left so upset after hearing two of his sons were now dead that he went out and smashed the windows of a local German butcher’s shop.”Glynis Ayers, great-niece of a victim of the Lusitania disaster
All went well until May 7, as the liner was running parallel to the south coast of Ireland.
She was 11 miles off the Old Head of Kinsale when she crossed in front of U-20 – which fired one deadly shot.
The torpedo struck Lusitania on the starboard bow. Seconds later, an explosion erupted in her hull. As the ship started to founder, so the crew scrambled to launch the lifeboats.
“I was with my husband on the deck and the boat began to list. There was a rush for the lifebelts and my husband said “Follow me” and plunged into the sea,” Alice later recalled.
“I did not obey his orders, I just waited for him to reappear – but I never saw him again. Then I looked round and the sight was terrifying. The vessel had almost entirely disappeared.”
As the funnels of Lusitania vanished beneath the waves, Alice was washed into the sea. She found a log to cling on to and, later that day, was pulled onto an upturned boat.
“There were hundreds of struggling people; the moaning was something awful,” she said. “After the ship disappeared, the submarine came to the surface, but offered no assistance.”
Alice was finally rescued by a trawler. After being taken to Dublin, she made her way home to Sunderland – where news of the tragedy had already reached the Robinson family.
“I’ve always known about our Lusitania link, as the story passed down the family. I can still remember Aunt Alice now – tall, with white hair and glasses,” said Glynis, of Hylton Road.
“She and Thomas, a carpenter by trade, had moved to Canada to start a new life. But, when war broke out, Thomas wanted to return to the UK to fight for his King and Country.
“He never got his chance to fight, due to the attack on Lusitania. I still remember that, as kids, we used to look at Aunt Alice in wonder, knowing that she had survived the tragedy.”
Alice, the daughter of a ship’s riveter, was born in Leicestershire in 1886, but moved to Kimberley Street, Sunderland, as a child. After leaving school, she became a dressmaker.
Her husband-to-be Thomas, son of marine engine brass fitter James and his wife Margaret, was born a year later and grew up in the Millfield area – later becoming a carpenter.
The majority of Thomas’s five brothers worked in the shipyards during the conflict, including Glynis’s grandfather George – who had just turned 16 when war was declared.
But fourth brother John Telford Robinson – a house painter by trade – joined the Yorkshire Hussars and was killed in action on the first day of the Battle of the Somme on July 1, 1916.
“I was told my great-grandad James was left so upset after hearing two of his sons were now dead that he went out and smashed the windows of a local German butcher’s shop,” said Glynis.
l Another Wearsider, miner George Harrison of Ryhope’s Thompson Terrace, also survived the Lusitania disaster. He made it his mission to recruit more men for the war effort after returning home – speaking out at public meetings in Seaham.
Of the 1,962 passengers and crew aboard Lusitania, 1,191 lost their lives in the torpedo attack. As in the sinking of Titanic, most died from drowning or hypothermia.
Among those to perish were 128 Americans – then a neutral country. This helped shift US public opinion against Germany, but it was another two years before she joined the war.