The sinking of the steamship RMS Lusitania on May 7, 1915, caused one of the greatest civilian outrages of the war and the Ashbourne Telegraph was able to bring its readers a first-hand account.
Within days of the incident, which cost 1,198 lives, a reporter from the paper interviewed Mrs Dora Wolfenden, who had been travelling on the ill-fated liner with her husband Charles, en route for Ashbourne.
The article explained the local connection; Mrs Wolfenden was, through a previous marriage, the mother of Arnold Roberts who married the daughter of Ashbourne painter and decorator John Barker.
“They left New York, she says, on Saturday May 1st at 12.30, and up to the time of the submarine attack they had a good voyage. On Friday afternoon between 2 and 2.30 when about 8 miles from the coast of Ireland she was on the deck when she heard a loud explosion and the alarm was at once raised that the vessel had been torpedoed.”
The report says crew gave orders to keep calm and board the lifeboats when, almost immediately, there was a second explosion and the ship began to heel over.
Mrs Wolfenden told the paper’s reporter that her husband, who had been below deck at the time of the attack, came to her but as the ship listed they were thrown across the deck.
“Her husband succeeded in getting her into the very last boat that was launching from the vessel. She called to him to come, but he replied that there were some more women yet to see to and commenced assisting the loading of another boat. But at that instant the Lusitania sank – she went down quite steadily – and that was the last Mrs Wolfenden saw of her husband, of whom she has received no tiding since.”
She told the paper that one of the funnels emptied its ‘black smoky contents’ all over those in her lifeboat and a wire rope on the ship touched her head as it sank.
“Another boat just behind them met with a sadder fate, for it was caught by another wire rope and capsized and all its occupants immersed.”
They managed to rescue eight people from the water, but one man died with his head in her lap. The reporter’s words chillingly capture the tragedy: “It was an appalling sight, she adds, to see the long line of poor drowning creatures in the water screaming for help, some calling ‘save me’ and ‘fetch me’.
“She actually saw the German submarine which rose from the waters for a few minutes to allow the murderers which commanded it to view their dastardly work and then it disappeared below again.”
Yet another Ashbourne Territorial’s death in action was reported on the same page. Private Harold Harthill of Mayfield. The report stated that Harthill had been among nine members of the 6th Battalion Sherwood Foresters killed when a shell exploded amongst them in their trench. Another Mayfield man, Private R Kettle was wounded in the incident on May 5, just two days before publication. It was recorded that the flag at Simpson Bros mill, where Harthill had worked, was hoisted half-mast on the news.
Better news had reached the home of Mr and Mrs J Kernahan of North Leys, whose son Paul, serving as a gunner in the Royal Field Artillery. Nothing had been heard of him for two months, but a letter this week reported he was well, and was with the French artillery in the trenches.
Gunner Kernahan was among the first soldiers to have a letter home published in the paper, and this latest one was remarkable for its content. Here was a man who had witnessed fighting at first hand, yet he was able to take joy from birdsong.
“One morning, a lark rose from no-man’s land (the space intervening the rival trenches) and soared into the sky singing its beautiful song.”
He told his parents the bird had reminded him of the happy country life in Ashbourne.
Gunner Kernahan had been in the trenches eight months and had seen some of the fiercest of fighting, including at Neuve Chappelle, but had come through ‘without a scratch’.
In yet another letter home Private William Fearn wrote to tell his sister that he was in trenches just 250 yards from the Germans: “At times we have to put on respirators over our mouths in case the Germans use that deadly gas. So you see it is not all sunshine being near to them.”
He tells her he and his comrades are always singing the ditty:
“In my little wet home in the trench, Where I am continually drenched, There’s a dead cow lays by, with its hoofs in the sky and it kicks up a terrible stench.”
A meeting of Ashbourne Urban Council recorded members’ condolences to the family of John Gladstone Woodyatt, son of one of the council members, whose death in battle had been recorded the previous week’s Telegraph.
Mr THB Bamford was reported to have said it was with regret that he had in the past week seen many ‘eligible men’ crowding into the town to witness a circus performance, many of whom did not realise that the future of England was ‘trembling in the balance’. He continued to say that Councillor Woodyatt, a former soldier, could congratulate himself that there were no slackers in his family.
Elsewhere in the paper is a report of the memorial service to Woodyatt, who died from a rifle bullet while acting as a signaller in Belgium.
A letter to the paper from Richard Holland, Commander of the Ashbourne Home Guard appealed for further recruits.
“I am told the reason more men have not come forward is partially because there is an impression that the Home Guards will never be of any use and partly – and this applies particularly to men of fighting age – because they think it is a trap to force men to enlist.”
He sets out the procedure in detail, namely that men of fighting age would be expected to give reasons for not enlisting and if this was accepted by the battalion committee he would join the Home Guard. If his reasons were not considered genuine he would either have to enlist or resign from the Guard.
“The idea that a man can be marched off against his will is, under these circumstances, absurd.”
Lord John Sanger’s circus had been in town and a moment of levity was recorded in the columns of the paper: “The first of four huge elephants, which were part of the procession, whilst passing Mr H.T. Spencer’s shop in St, John-street espied some loaves on a wooden tray, outside the shop. The bread was covered over with a white cloth, and the elephant on thrusting out its trunk to help itself to a dainty morsel found it could not lift one of the laves without taking the cloth too. That it actually did and after swallowing the loaf it retained the cloth in its trunk as though uncertain what to do with it, but eventually after sauntering along up the Market Place it decided that the cloth should go the same way as the loaf and accordingly curled up its trunk stuffed the cloth in its mouth and swallowed it.”
- My fellow researcher and De Montfort University colleague John Dilley is conducting a similar real-time project with the Market Harborough Advertiser. Check out his Newspapers and the Great Warblog