My feature telling the story of my Dad’s cousin George Mitchell of the Indian Army who was killed in action on 1 February 1917 ‘at relief of Kut’ in modern-day Iraq was published in Londonderry Sentinel of 15 October 2014.
This is the story of another of my Dad’s cousins, Walter Dawson Mitchell who drowned when the Lusitania was torpedoed by German submarine U-20, 100 years ago, on 7 May 1915.
Our common ancestors were George Mitchell and his wife Margaret Jane Patton. George Mitchell, my great-grandfather, was a school teacher and Clerk of Petty Sessions at Colehill, Newtowncunningham, County Donegal in second half of 19th century.
Tracing Walter’s family story in historical records is also of interest owing to inconsistency in use of first names. He was born as George Patton Mitchell in Lisburn in 1888, son of Reverend George Patton Mitchell, Rector of Drumbo Parish, County Down and Elizabeth D Pounden.
In the 1901 census Walter, age 13, is recorded as George P Mitchell and in the 1911 census, age 23, as Walter D Mitchell.
Indeed this search also confirms that researchers should always be aware of the possibility of errors in any transcription of records whether they be online or in a book.
In searching the index to the 1911 census, at www.census.nationalarchives.ie, Walter D Mitchell is ‘disguised’ as he was transcribed as Walker D Mitchell.
In 1912, when he married his childhood sweetheart, Jeanette Moore, his name is registered as Walter D G P Mitchell.
In other words Walter’s full name was Walter Dawson George Patton Mitchell. In adulthood he was simply known as Walter Mitchell.
According to the Lusitania resource website, at www.rmslusitania.info, Walter Mitchell, mill manager with Island Spinning Company in Lisburn was offered a job as assistant manager of Marshall Mills in Kearny, New Jersey in December of 1912.
Walter and his new wife Jeanette sailed, first class, from Londonderry on 28 December 1912 on the Anchor Line ship, California, bound for New York.
I was able to view and print this passenger manifest by accessing Ancestry Library Edition in Derry Central Library.
By 1912 Londonderry was the major emigration port to North America for those who resided in the northern half of Ireland; Queenstown (Cobh) for the southern half. From 1861 right through to 1939 ocean-going liners called at Moville, in the deeper waters of Lough Foyle, some 18 miles downstream from Londonderry, to pick up emigrants who were ferried from Derry in paddle tenders.
In 1912, the Anchor Line Shipping Company employed four ships, Cameronia, California, Caledonia and Columbia on its ‘American Express Passenger Service’ from Londonderry to New York.
The rooms inside the Anchor Line’s prestigious headquarters, built 1905-7, at 12-16 St Vincent Place, Glasgow were designed by Glasgow architect James Miller with the opulence of an ocean liner as James Miller also designed interiors for RMS Lusitania.
The Lusitania Resource website continues the story: ‘Walter and Jeanette lived with Mrs. R.M. Crozier of 177 Broad Street, Newark, New Jersey and, in August 1914, their son Walter was born. In the spring of 1915, the Mitchells decided to return to Ireland to visit their parents in Lisburn.
Also travelling with the Mitchells would be Jeanette’s brother, John Moore, who had been living in Connecticut since 1911 and planned to enlist for the war effort once he reached Ireland.
Walter, Jeanette, their ten-month-old son, and John booked their passage on Lusitania. Walter and Walter, Junior, were both lost in the Lusitania disaster, but Jeanette and John were saved.’
RMS Lusitania, launched by the Cunard Line in 1906, was briefly the world’s biggest ship.
Lusitania and her sister ship Mauretania were fitted with revolutionary new turbine engines, able to maintain a speed of 25 knots.
Equipped with lifts, wireless telegraph and electric light, they provided 50% more passenger space than any other ship, and the first class decks were noted for their sumptuous furnishings.
The Lusitania set sail from Cunard’s Pier 54 in New York on 1 May 1915, with 1,959 passengers and crew, destined for Liverpool, via Cobh.
Everyone knew that submarines were becoming an increasing threat to shipping in the Atlantic in the nine months since Britain had declared war on Germany. Germany had declared the waters around the United Kingdom a war zone and that vessels flying the flag of Great Britain were ‘liable to destruction’.
There was widespread use of civilian ships in the war effort (carrying munitions, troops).
The Lusitania was designed as a both a civilian passenger liner and as a ‘merchant cruiser’ in time of war.
Relying on the civilian merchant fleet in time of war was an important feature of strategic defence policy by both Great Britain and Germany prior to WWI. Lusitania was, therefore, designed as an asset in both peace time and in time of war.
On the afternoon of 7 May, Lusitania was torpedoed by a German U-Boat, 11 miles off the southern coast of Ireland and inside the declared ‘zone of war’.
Survivors remember seeing a ‘dead wake’, a straight line as the torpedo sped towards the ship’s hull.
The torpedo, when it struck, blew a hole ‘the size of a small house’ below the waterline. A second internal explosion sent her to the bottom in 18 minutes, causing the deaths of 1,195 passengers and crew.
In firing on a non-military ship without warning, the Germans had breached the international laws known as the Cruiser Rules.
Although the Germans had reasons for treating Lusitania as a naval vessel, including that the ship was carrying war munitions and that the British had also been breaching the Cruiser Rules, the sinking caused a storm of protest in the United States, as 123 Americans were among the dead.
However, the sinking of Lusitania didn’t bring USA into the war; it was two year later, in 1917, before the US declared war.
The Lusitania Resource website states: ‘On 7 May, The Mitchells and John had just finished lunch, and Jeanette went to the cabin to see the baby when they felt “a great crash, which shook the ship.”
Taking the baby, the Mitchells and John followed the rest of the passengers to the upper decks to find out what had happened.
As the ship was listing to starboard, only the starboard side boats were being lowered properly and lifebelts were being handed out.
John did not take a lifebelt, but he managed to get into a lifeboat which overturned while lowering.
Walter, Jeanette, and their baby all struggled in the water, with Walter holding the baby.
Jeanette saw her husband slip into unconsciousness, his last words to her being, “I can’t hold on any more Nettie.”
She knew her husband had died when his skin turned dark and he had froth on his mouth.
Jeanette herself was barely alive when men pulled her out of the water and onto a minesweeper (perhaps the Indian Empire, which John was also on board).
Walter and the baby were also brought on board, and attempts were made to resuscitate the husband and wife on ship and on shore.
The baby was lost, and Walter did not revive, either.
John saw Jeanette and Walter lying among the corpses on the harbour steps of Queenstown (Cobh).
He thought he saw Jeanette’s eyelids move and realised she was alive. He managed to resuscitate her.
All three Mitchells had been listed on Sunday, 9 May’s list of missing and probable dead, which was erroneous in light of Jeanette’s survival.
On Saturday evening [8 May], Reverend Mitchell received a wire stating that Jeanette and John were safe, but his son and grandchild had been lost.
Another telegram stated that Jeanette and John would arrive in Lisburn by the midnight train from Dublin. Reverend Mitchell and Mr. Moore (Jeanette and John’s father) received them at the Lisburn train station.
They were still in shock and grief-stricken and were unable to give any account of what had happened to them.’