1 February 2017: The Lusitania: The Last Letter

At Wye Historical Society's February meeting an audience of around 50 heard member Dr Michael Wain speak on "The Lusitania: The Last Letter". Dr Wain began by talking about his collection of historical memorabilia, which includes the only surviving letter written on board the RMS Lusitania's final voyage. He then gave a history of the Lusitania. Built in Clydebank and launched in 1906, it was the world's largest passenger ship and briefly held the Blue Riband for the fastest ship across the Atlantic in 1907. It was sumptuous inside with stained glass windows and a grand dome in the Louis XVI-style dining room. It also had two electric lifts.

In 1915 there was an increasing threat from German submarines but efforts were taken to avoid neutral ships. However, before her final sailing a warning notice from the Imperial German Embassy was posted in newspapers next to the Cunard advertisement for the voyage. This alarmed passengers and the mood on board was subdued. On her final voyage from New York to Liverpool she travelled at only 18 knots instead of the usual 25 because of wartime economy measures. This speed was lowered even more around a sandbar on the Irish Coast. It was here that the German U-boat U20 fired a torpedo at 2.10pm on the 7th May 1915. The Germans believed that she was a legitimate target as she was secretly carrying munitions from the US to the UK. Out of the 1,962 passengers and crew on board 1,198 perished. The ship's rapid list made launching the lifeboats difficult and only six were able to do so successfully. After a second internal explosion, the ship sank in only eighteen minutes. The rescue response was slow even though it was only eleven miles off the coast of Ireland and a Naval vessel was told to turn back for fear of another attack.

After the sinking it was thought the USA would join the war - a number of propaganda posters aimed at the USA were produced, one of which Dr Wain has in his collection - but this took until 1917. There was an official enquiry into the sinking but certain documents remain secret leading to a number of unanswered questions. Why was there no boat to escort her through these waters as promised? Why wasn't the captain ordered to zig zag through the area? In the 1930s the Navy depth-charged the wreck - were they trying to cover up evidence of the secret munitions on board?

The letter in Dr Wain's possession was used in the enquiry as it proved the lifeboats were "swung out ready". The author, Miss Nellie Houston (31) from Liverpool, described life on board in seven pages, and it reads like a diary account of the voyage. She mentions the famous people she shared the voyage with such as the multi-millionaire businessman Alfred Vanderbilt. The unfinished letter was found water stained in her handbag but unfortunately Miss Houston did not survive.

As well as bringing a facsimile of the letter to the meeting Dr Wain also brought a selection of his other collections and told us about the history of several pieces. These included a snuff box presented by the Duke of Wellington in 1818, Hitler's silver cigarette case, and a set of seven medals commemorating the moon landings.

Ellie Morris