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“Those monstrous funnels coming down on us”

8 May 2017 by Ellie

Portrait of Lusitania survivor Winifred Hull

This photograph of Winifred Hull was taken in Liverpool, just three weeks after the sinking. Courtesy of Geoff Pawling.

Geoff Pawling, who spoke at this year’s Lusitania commemoration, describes a remarkable letter written by his grandmother and the emotional impact on one family of the sinking:

“Our home was haunted by the Lusitania. My grandmother Winifred Hull, travelling alone to visit her parents in Wallasey, was fortunate.  She survived the torpedoing of the great transatlantic liner on 7th May 1915. Yet the terrible scenes she witnessed stayed with her for the rest of her life and cast their shadows over the childhood of her daughter, Ruth. Ruth, in turn, passed on to me and to her other two sons that legacy of memory: another family story, but this one, in its scale and horror, unlike any of the others.

The inheritance was not just word-of-mouth. It began with a letter. At her parents’ house, four days after the sinking of the Lusitania, Winifred started to write, for her husband in Canada, a detailed account of what had happened to her. She describes the air of happiness among the passengers on the morning of the 7th with the ship so close to arrival at Liverpool, the terrifying shock of the torpedo ripping its way through the hull, the noise of thousands of dishes smashing in the second-class dining room as the ship listed violently, and how, after almost giving up hope of being saved, she managed to get into one of the last lifeboats. The Lusitania was so low in the water that she was able to walk across a bridge of oars. She then describes the desperate attempts to steer the over-crowded, half-swamped boat away from the rapidly sinking liner. Then came the worst moment of the whole ordeal:

“Before we were clear, I looked up and oh the awful sensation that ran through me when I saw those monstrous funnels coming down on us. Then I gave up all hope. How could we escape destruction? I closed my eyes and bent my head that they shouldn’t strike on my face, and a little Scotch girl in front of me tried to clamber out of the boat. When I opened my eyes the funnels were just disappearing under the water. They had slid away from us but we were all as far as I know saturated with water, which was no doubt thrown up by the ship as she went under, and indescribably filthy with soot and cinders from the funnels.”

Extract from Winifred Hull's letter

The first few lines of Winifred’s letter. Courtesy of Geoff Pawling.

As the lifeboat pulled away the sunlit waters were strewn with “wreckage of all descriptions with which were mingled human beings.” She reflects that each day passing since that dreadful event has brought fresh to her memory some terrible sight that had been temporarily eclipsed. Eventually, a trawler came to the rescue but she still did not feel safe. The sense of being hunted down by the submarine would not leave her.

The letter details the unstinting help given when they were landed at Queenstown (now Cobh) in Ireland, the Swanton family, with whom she and a group of other survivors stayed, showing the utmost generosity and kindness. But she also records the horror she felt searching through the makeshift morgues for the relatives of two passengers she had befriended: Allan Beattie, who had lost his mother, and Mrs. Baxter, whose husband and young son were both missing.

Nor was the journey home a comforting experience.  Again she was filled with fear that a submarine would be waiting, knowing that survivors of the Lusitania would be on the ferry. The attitude of her own countrymen disturbed her too: “every station at which we stopped was crowded with people who gazed upon us as if we were beings of another world.”

The letter ends by describing her current state of mind:

“For myself I cannot grasp anything fully. I feel the need of rest, but cannot take it. I dread going to bed. It means the horrors of it all to go through again. I no sooner lie down than a nervous trembling seizes me.”

Her husband himself crossed the Atlantic to accompany her back to Canada.  When there was a submarine alert one night on the return voyage, the couple refused to get up. She preferred to die rather than face again the kind of experience she had been through. It was a false alarm. In Canada, and later when the family returned to England, the letter was carefully stored in a box along with the German Lusitania medal brought back from the war by one of her brothers or brothers-in-law. It showed the figure of Death, a skeleton, handing the passengers their tickets.

During my mother’s childhood Winifred suffered flashbacks which imprinted vivid images of the experience on her daughter’s mind. In one act of frightening symbolism, Winifred’s distress was directly visited on her child. The girl’s favourite doll was suddenly snatched away from her and she never saw it again. Winifred had discovered it was made in Germany.

group photo by the Lusitania propeller on Liverpool's waterfront

Ian Murphy, deputy director, Merseyside Maritime Museum, Geoff Pawling and Eleanor Moffat, curator of maritime community history, at the 2017 Lusitania commemoration

In our turn, my brothers and I became aware of the dismay any mention of the Lusitania could cause our mother. Yet, of course, she was the one who had told us all about it. It was simply that every so often she would feel compelled to describe again her mother’s terrible ordeal. Sometimes the letter would be produced and that ghoulish iron medal would be passed from hand to hand.

Thus the shock waves delivered by U-boat 20 travel down the generations.”

  1. Tony Mitton says:

    It’s a very vivid and moving account of this well-known incident. But it carries much more impact than an impersonal historical account, coming, as it does, from a survivor, in the first person. We now have the term PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) to cover such repercussions. The account is a strong reminder of the impact of war on ordinary people’s lives, and the lasting effects on those people. A plea for peaceful solutions wherever possible, if ever there was one.

    • Ellie Moffat says:

      Hello Tony,
      Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us. It really is an extremely emotive piece and is indeed a stark reminder of the effects of war.

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