Random’s story of two survivors from the loss of Laurentic

Reprinted from The Packet, November 16, 2017
by Lester Green


The Laurentic in Halifax Harbour, Nova Scotia, Canada

A coroner’s inquest into the loss of the Laurentic was reported in St. John’s Daily Star on February 1st, 1917, just days after the vessel sank in a fierce winter storm off the coast of Lough Swilly, Ireland. Captain Norton said: “We left port, on the afternoon of Jan 25th, carrying a compliment of 970 passengers. I was on the bridge, when a violent explosion occurred abreast of the foremast on the port side. It was followed twenty seconds later by a similar explosion abreast of the engine room on port side…..”  Later this number was corrected to 354 lost and 109 survivors.

Shortly after leaving Liverpool, the RMS Laurentic received a telegraph message requesting that it was to dock at the nearest port to deliver sailors that boarded the ship from Chatham naval base where there was an outbreak of a contagious fever. The ship was off Lough Swilly, Ireland’s naval base. It altered course and proceed to the port.

Survivors being treated to a dinner at the Derry Guildhall in 1917. Among the survivors Abraham Avery and Edward John Green. (Photo courtesy Irish Times, February 1, 2017).

The ship discharged five sailors, all from the Newfoundland Naval Reserve, which in all likelihood, saved their lives. The listed sailors were A. Avery, S Ford, A. Maidment, W. Pike and C. Somerton.

One of these sailors was our own, Seaman Abraham Avery of Northern Bight. He was the son of James and Elizabeth Avery and was born at Long Beach in 1890. He had purchased  a ticket at Liverpool for  transportation aboard RMS Laurentic on January 25, 1917 after receiving orders to report to the HMS Briton at St. John’s, Nl. He was going home, hoping to receive furlough to see his wife, Phoebe, and their two young children Annie Gladys and William James.

A reenactment of the dinner served to families of the survivors of the HMS Laurentic at the Derry’s Guildhall 100 years later. (Photo credit: Staff photographer of Derry City and Strabane District Council.)

However, he found himself staring into the darkness of Lough Swilly after hearing not one but two explosion that confirmed the sinking of a ship. At that time individuals were not aware of what happened but within hours news arrived of the disaster. Abraham was informed that Laurentic had been struck by a torpedo or had hit a minefield.

We can only imagine the thoughts that raced through his mind. His life had been spared but he knew that others like his friends  Eldred Gosse of Long Beach, Luke Smith of Gooseberry Cove, and Edward John Green of St. Jones Without may not have been so lucky. All he could do was wait for news of the survivors.

Onboard Edward John Green heard the explosion and described that “it came from underneath the boat and great waves swept in on the stricken men and broke on the foundering liner with a mournful roar.” He managed to get into one of the lifeboats.

It was an extremely, bitterly cold night and during the inquest Captain Norton described the situation that the men found. He said: “The survivors suffered much in the open boats, due to exposure, owing to the coldness of the night…”

Rescuers described finding lifeboats with men frozen, some in an upright position with their hands stuck to the oars. Most of the passengers that got into life boats died that night as they faced exposure to the cold raw winds blowing sleet and snow in temperatures that dipped to -13 degrees. One of the greatest marine disasters of the Great War claimed 354 lives.

Edward John lived through that horrific night in the lifeboat tossing and turning in the foaming waves, not knowing if the next breaker would toss him into the cold Atlantic. His mind was tortured by the sounds of dying men and the hopelessness of the dark, gloomy night.

He had to focus. Focus on surviving and returning home to see his wife. He married Martha Jane on December 1, 1913 in a ceremony at St. Jones Without. She was daughter of George and Mary Jane Pitcher. Martha had already lost one husband, Nehemiah Downey, and John was determined that he wasn’t going to surrender to death and make her a widow again. His rescuers came and he was taken the safety of the warmth onshore.

The survivors, including Edward John and Abraham, were treated kindly by the people of County of Donegal and County of Derry. The survivors were given a meal, along with a shilling and a packet of cigarettes at Derry’s Guildhall where a photograph was taken to record the occasion for future generation. This scene was re-enacted on January 25, 2017 at the same hall to honour those that survived, along with those that did not get the chance to go home.

Edward John Green and his wife Martha Jane Pitcher. (Photo courtesy of their grand daughter, Linda Peddle.)

The St. John’s Daily Star printed the headline “Sailors Given Good Reception” on March 7, 1917. They did not feel like heroes but rather lucky people whose lives had been spared during that terrible night. The survivors were treated to a reception at the railway station at St. John’s. Afterwards they were carried by horse sleigh to the Government House where they were met by his Excellency and Lady Davidson. His Excellency mentioned how those that lost their lives would have their names handed down to future generation as the personification of all that was brave, loyal, and true.

Edward John and Abraham never forgot that tragic day and always remembered their falling comrades Seaman Luke Smith and Seaman Eldred Gosse. They returned to their respective homes and raised their families, seldom speaking of this event.

Edward John moved his family to Heart’s Content in the late 1920s and passed away on November 3, 1963. He is buried at Heart’s Content.

Abraham returned to Hillview and raised several children. He died on November 9, 1969 and is buried at Hillview.