With a sea faring history going back hundreds of years, Cobh in County Cork is an unassuming port that continues to be visited by some of the largest ocean liners in the world today. A picturesque town with strong regal connections, it is hard to imagine that Cobh is synonymous with two of the biggest passenger liner tragedies of all time, just three years apart – RMS Titanic and RMS Lusitania.
7th May 2015 marks the one hundred year anniversary of the sinking of RMS Lusitania. As Cobh is making itself ready to remember the dead of this First World War tragedy, what part did the former Queenstown play in the disaster and why do some of the victims of the sinking refuse to leave?
CONSTRUCTION AND USE OF THE LUSITANIA
Built in Scotland, the Lusitania was largely funded by the Admiralty, as Europe was in a state of unrest and conflict was believed imminent. By contributing to the cost and overseeing the construction, the Navy would be able to call on the 787 ft liner in the event of war, while in the meantime she was one of Cunard’s front running cruise vessels setting records for speed.
The Lusitania made 201 successful transatlantic voyages as a passenger ship since 1907. Once war broke out, the cruiser was also used to ship weapons to Britain with travellers knowing little or anything about the additional military cargo stored a few decks beneath their feet.
The Cunard liner was painted camouflage grey as war approached but continued to be used as a passenger vessel.
THE FATEFUL CROSSING
On 1st May 1915, RMS Lusitania set sail from New York for Liverpool on her 202nd voyage with 1962 passengers and crew on board.
By now the cruise ship had been transformed to her initial glory from the camouflage grey, however she was not bearing flags in marked out war zones, contravening Cruiser Rules dictated by the First World War. These rules were set to safeguard passengers in the event of capture or attack and prevent any misidentification by the enemy.
The ship set sail from Pier 54 in New York despite the following statement from the German Embassy being printed in dozens of American newspapers:
Travellers intending to embark on the Atlantic voyage are reminded that a state of war exists between Germany and her allies and Great Britain and her allies; that the zone of war includes the waters adjacent to the British Isles; that, in accordance with formal notice given by the Imperial German Government, vessels flying the flag of Great Britain, or any of her allies, are liable to destruction in those waters and that travellers sailing in the war zone on the ships of Great Britain or her allies do so at their own risk.
Imperial German Embassy
Washington, D.C., April 22, 1915.”
Although the ship’s manifest openly documented munitions in the cargo hold, the extent of undocumented firepower has never been fully disclosed and undoubtedly contributed to the Lusitania’s demise.
KINSALE AND THE TORPEDO
As RMS Lusitania approached the south coast of Ireland, a German U Boat crossed her path and due to the nature of her cargo, prior warnings and without the relevant flags, the captain of the U-20 give an order to fire.
The Lusitania sustained a direct hit which in turn caused further explosions within the hull, most likely due to the extent of ammunition and artillery on board.
Due to the lack of lifeboats being launched, poor execution of evacuation and the way in which she tilted and descended, the Lusitania sank to the bottom of the sea, 11 miles from Kinsale, County Cork in just twenty minutes.
The sinking of the Lusitania, both in speed and manner was eerily reminiscent of RMS Titanic, just 3 years earlier. Despite rescue efforts from localised fishing vessels, 1201 souls were lost.
Some of the deceased were brought to Kinsale by rescue boats and interred at St Multose Church, while it was also in Kinsale that the local Coroner launched an official enquiry the following day.
The majority of the bodies however, were either brought to or washed up in Cobh, (Queenstown as it was known at the time) along with the few survivors. In the Old Church Cemetery on the outskirts of Cobh, almost 200 of the victims of the tragedy are buried in mass and individual graves. Of course many more were never recovered at all.
In a sickening coincidence, Ireland’s first custom built hotel, The Commodore opened for business in 1854 and its focus was to attract the many passengers embarking on voyages including the Titanic and Lusitania. At the time of the sinking of the Lusitania by a German U Boat, the hotel was under German ownership.
Otto Humbert and his family were forced to hide in the cellars as a crowd gathered and demanded the hotel be burned to the ground. The hotel itself was then converted into a hospital and makeshift morgue for the victims.
GHOSTS AND HAUNTINGS OF RMS LUSITANIA
While locals feel there must be some residual energy left from the fear and torment of the poor passengers within Cobh and particularly The Commodore Hotel, the haunting most reported is one witnessed on more than one occasion from a diverse section of the community including the White Witch of Cobh and a Graves Inspector.
This supernatural event is none other than the chilling sound of a mass funeral procession for the victims of the Lusitania which had taken place on 10th May 1915. The White Witch herself claims to have ‘seen’ it, however most accounts refer to many low murmuring voices and the sound of footsteps approaching the cemetery wall. Some have in fact assumed a current funeral was approaching and have looked up to see nothing but an empty road.
With so much maritime tragedy at its heart, it is little wonder that as the broken bodies of the victims of the RMS Lusitania lay in Cobh, the despairing spirits also remain.
More tales of Haunted Cobh can be found here! 5 Haunted Places to Visit in Cobh