Still Remembering

Reprinted from The Packet, January 25, 2018
by Don McNeill

Don McNeill pointing out Luke Smith on the Panel of the Fallen at the Laurentic Exhibition in the Tower Museum in Derry, Northern Ireland.

On January 25, 1917, HMS Laurentic struck two German mines and sank off the Irish coast of County Donegal with the loss of 354 men. For the past eleven years the Ulster Canada Initiative have been hosting an annual wreath laying ceremony to commemorate the lives of this men lost onboard.

This was initiated originally in 2006 when Newfoundland native, Don McNeill now living in Donegal, through research discovered that of the men who died on the HMS Laurentic while en route to Halifax, Nova Scotia, 22 were from Newfoundland.

The Celtic Cross headstone at the mass grave for 69 men from the Laurentic, with wreaths.

As a Newfoundlander living in Ireland he felt that something should be done to remember these lost souls. From that first year, where eight people got together, chipped in and bought a wreath to lay at the grave where 69 of the men lie, the commemoration has grown significantly both locally and Internationally.

The Centenary Commemoration saw the Irish Naval Service facilitate a visit to the wreck site onboard the L.E. Samuel Beckett for family members of those lost and those, fewer in number who were saved. The Centenary also saw the creation of a project to establish a fitting and permanent memorial to the tragedy. The Legacy Project has launched a ‘GoFundMe’ campaign to help make this a reality. (GoFundMe.com/Laurentic) Through the website, (laurenticmemorial.com) The Legacy Project looks at the men (Naval Reservists, Armed Forces personnel, Merchant Seamen, former crewmen of the White Star Line) who died in the sinking.

Ulster Canada Initiative chairman Don McNeill reading out the Newfoundland Roll of Honour.

The official figure from The Admiralty for the number of fatalities is 349 (some unofficial sources say 354). Of these, 69 are buried in St Mura’s cemetery, Fahan and two are buried in Cockhill cemetery, Buncrana, county Donegal, near the site of the tragedy. A few were brought by their families to be buried near their homes.

Sadly, many of the men have no graves, as they were never found. They are commemorated on WW1 war memorials: on the Beaumont-Hamel (Newfoundland) memorial, The Somme, France; Chatham Naval memorial, Kent, England; Plymouth Naval Memorial, Devon and Portsmouth Naval Memorial, Hampshire, England, as well as a number of local WW1 memorials. No single memorial brings together all of the men who lost their lives on The Laurentic.

This project attempts to expand on the few details provided on the existing memorials to give a better understanding of the lives of those who died. By drawing together information from a variety of sources – from newspaper archives, military service records, census returns, and where possible personal family archives and oral history – to build portraits, however fragmentary, of the civilian lives of these men. These portraits vary in depth but can perhaps still teach us something of this generation of men and how this event affected their loved ones.

The gathering held to mark the Centenary brought together family members from England, Scotland Ireland and Newfoundland and their stories are told in a newly commissioned documentary film, “Wine Dark Sea: Letters from The Laurentic” (The documentary can be found on the website, https://laurenticmemorial.com/wine-dark-sea-documentary/). Through interviews, photographs and family correspondence including contributions from Newfoundlanders Gerald Yetman (Bay Roberts) and Baxter Smith (Southwest Arm) who each lost relatives in the sinking, the men are still remembered more than a century later.