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The Sinking of the Cunard Line R.M.S. Laconia (I) - Part I: Background Information

Excerpt from the book by Floyd Gibbons, "And They Thought We Wouldn't Fight", © 1918 George H. Doran Company, New York. Edited by the Gjenvick-Gjønvik Archives for clarity.

The Cunard Line R.M.S. Laconia, launched in 1912 was a beautiful ship that became a fatality of the first world war. This is a first-hand account by Chicago Tribune reporter Floyd Gibbons, who later bacame a war correspondent.

The Sinking of the Laconia

BETWEEN America and the firing line, there are three thousand miles of submarine infested water. Every American soldier, before encountering the dangers of the battlefront, must first overcome the dangers of the deep.

Geographically, America is almost four thousand miles from the war zone, but in fact, every American soldier bound for France entered the war zone one hour out of New York harbor. Germany made an Ally out of the dark depths of the Atlantic.

That three-thousand-mile passage represented greater possibilities for the destruction of the United States overseas forces than any strategical operation that Germany’s able military leaders could direct in the field.

Germany made use of those three thousand miles of water, just as she developed the use of barbed wire entanglements along the front. Infantry advancing across No Man’s Land were held helpless before the enemy’s fire by barbed wire entanglements. Germany, with her submarine policy of ruthlessness, changed the Atlantic Ocean into another No Man’s Land across which every American soldier had to pass at the mercy of the enemy before he could arrive at the actual battlefront.

This was the peril of the troop ship. This was the tremendous advantage, which the enemy held over our armies even before they reached the field. This was the unprecedented condition which the United States and Allied navies had to cope with in the great undertaking of transporting our forces overseas.

Any one who has crossed the ocean, even in the normal times before shark-like Kultur skulked beneath the water, has experienced the feeling of human helplessness that comes in mid-ocean when one considers the comparative frailty of such man-made devices as even the most modem turbine liners, with the enormous power of the wilderness of water over which one sails.

In such times one realizes that safety rests, first upon the kindliness of the elements; secondly, upon the skill and watchfulness of those directing the voyage, and thirdly, upon the dependability of such human-made things as engines, propellers, steel plates, bolts and rivets.

But add to the possibilities of a failure or a misalliance of any or all of the above functions, the greater danger of a diabolical human, yet inhuman, interference, directed against the seafarer with the purpose and intention of his destruction. This last represents the greatest odds against those who go to sea during the years of the Great War.

A sinking at sea is a nightmare. I have been through one. I have been on a ship torpedoed in mid-ocean. I have stood on the slanting decks of a doomed liner; I have listened to the lowering of the life-boats, heard the hiss of escaping steam and the roar of ascending rockets as they tore lurid rents in the black sky and cast their red glare o’er the roaring sea.

I have spent a night in an open boat on the tossing swells. I have been through, in reality, the mad dream of drifting and darkness and bailing and pulling on the oars and straining aching eyes toward an empty, meaningless horizon in search of help. I shall try to tell you how it feels.

I had been assigned by The Chicago Tribune to go to London as their correspondent. Almost the same day I received that assignment, the "Imperial" Government of Germany had invoked its ruthless submarine policy. They had drawn a blockade zone about the waters of the British Isles and the coasts of France, and announced to the world that its U-boats would sink without warning any ship, of any kind, under any flag, that tried to sail the waters that Germany declared prohibitory.

In consideration of my personal safety and, possibly, of my future usefulness, the Tribune was desirous of arranging for me a safe passage across the Atlantic. Such an opportunity presented itself in the ordered return of the disgraced and discredited German Ambassador to the United States, Count von Bernstorff.

Under the rules of International courtesy, a ship had been provided for the use of von Bernstorff and his diplomatic staff. That ship was to sail under absolute guarantees of safe conduct from all of the nations at war with Germany and, of course, it would have been safe from attack by German submarines. That ship was the Frederick VIII. At considerable expense, the Tribune managed to obtain for me a cabin passage on that ship.

I can’t say that I was over-impressed with the prospect of travel in such company. I disliked the thought that I, an American citizen, with rights as such to sail the sea, should have to resort to subterfuge and scheming to enjoy those rights. There arose in me a feeling of challenge against Germany’s order, which forbade American ships to sail the ocean. I cancelled my sailing on the Frederick VIII.

Documents and Information on the R.M.S. Laconia (I) Available at the Archives

 

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