Tragic Loss of HMS Laurentic

Reprinted from Downhome Magazine, November 201
by Lester Green

The sinking of the Titanic off the coast of Newfoundland in 1912 is a well-known story to those who live in Atlantic Canada. However, most have never heard of the sinking of another White Star Liner, HMS Laurentic. It is an intriguing First World War story intertwined with a secret cargo of gold. The ship, a passenger liner pressed into service as a Canadian troop carrier when war broke out, struck two enemy mines below the murky surface of Lough Swilly, Ireland. Hundreds were killed, including 22 sailors from Newfoundland and Labrador.

The ship left Liverpool, England, on January 23, 1917, with 475 passengers, mostly sailors and crew returning home to Canada. Unknown to most onboard, the ship was also carrying a cargo of gold valued at £5,000,000 destined to pay for munitions that were urgently needed if the British were going to turn the tide and win the war in Europe.

Seaman Abraham Avery (Photo courtesy Peggy Ball)

The Newfoundland Royal Naval Reservists were returning home to spend time with their families after serving overseas. Four of the sailors were from the Southwest Arm region of Trinity Bay. They were all experienced sailors, having been trained on HMS Calypso years before the war began. All were married and had left their wives in charge of everything on the home front while they fought for King and country. One had left behind his wife and two infant children; another, a young pregnant bride.

HMS Laurentic was instructed not to change course after departing Liverpool, but just hours into its voyage, it received a telegraph message to alter course and head to the nearest naval base. The message explained that onboard were several men suspected of having a contagious disease. The ship headed to Lough Swilly, Ireland, and put into the naval dock to remove the five men. Seaman Abraham Avery of Long Beach, NL, was one of the five. The ship then prepared to weigh anchor and continue its journey to Halifax, Nova Scotia. On the night of January 25, 1917, the ship steamed into freezing gale force winds that whipped the falling snow into a frenzy, reducing visibility to near zero.

Seaman Luke Smith (Photo courtesy Baxter Smith)

The ship struck the first mine, blowing a hole in its side. She veered heavily to the right, causing her to hit a second mine. A number of passengers were instantly killed by the explosions. The groaning sounds of water pouring into the ship signaled to survivors aboard that the ship was doomed to the depths below and they scrambled to get into the lifeboats, where the fate of many more was sealed by the frigid temperatures.

Seaman Eldred Gosse, of Long Beach, and Seaman Luke Smith of Gooseberry Cove were among those claimed by the sea. Eldred left behind his bride, Elizabeth Jane Butt of Queen’s Cove. Luke’s wife, Isabella Spurrell, had given birth months after he went overseas. His daughter, Viola May, would never sit in her father’s arms or feel the security of his warm embrace.

Seaman Edward John Green (Photo courtesy Pauline Peddle)

Onboard, Seaman Edward John Green, of St. Jones Without, heard the explosion and described that “it came from the ‘unterzee boat’ and the 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 that followed the tragedy, Captain Norton described the situation that the men found themselves in. “The survivors suffered much in the open boats, due to exposure, owing to the coldness of the night…” Men would be found dead but sitting upright, their hands still gripping the wooden oars, bodies of sailors lying all around them.

Edward John lived through that horrific night in the lifeboat, tossing in the foaming waves, not knowing if the next breaker would dump him into the cold Atlantic. His mind was tortured by the groaning sounds of dying men and the hopelessness of the gloomy night. He had to focus on surviving and returning home to his wife. He had married the widow Martha Jane, daughter of George and Mary Jane Pitcher, on December 1, 1913, in St. Jones Without. Martha had already lost one husband and he wasn’t going to surrender to death and make her a widow again.

Survivors’ dinner at Derry’s Guildhall, January 1917. (Photo courtesy Don McNeil)

In his book Courage at Sea, historian Robert C. Parsons quotes Edward John, who was the only conscious sailor in his lifeboat when he was rescued by a British trawler: “During the 15 hours adrift, my lifeboat capsized three times and 15 bodies washed away, but the others, 21 in number, was lashed to the thwarts and thus saved for burials after they died. The boat was kept afloat because it contained air tanks.” Although weak and shivering, he returned to the deck to help haul the unconscious men aboard.

The 121 survivors (12 officers plus 109 passengers), including Edward John and Abraham, were treated kindly by the people of County Donegal and County Derry. They were photographed at Derry’s Guildhall, where they were given a meal, a shilling and a packet of cigarettes. This scene was reenacted on January 25, 2017, at the same hall to honour those who survived, along with those who did not get the chance to go home.

Back in Newfoundland and Labrador, the St. John’s Daily Star printed the headline “Sailors Given Good Reception” on March 7, 1917. The article described how the survivors were treated to a reception at the railway station in St. John’s. Afterwards they were carried by horse’s sleigh to Government House, where they were met by Governor Walter Davidson and his wife. His Excellency mentioned how those who lost their lives would have their names handed down to future generations as the personification of all that was brave, loyal and true.

Edward John and Abraham never forgot that tragic day nor their fallen comrades, Seaman Luke Smith and Seaman Eldred Gosse. They returned to their respective homes and raised their families. Edward John moved his family to Heart’s Content in the late 1920s. He passed away on November 3, 1963. Abraham returned to Hillview, raised several children and lived there until his death on November 9, 1969. They are both buried in their hometowns.

As for the gold, the British Navy sent deepwater divers to retrieve the cargo within weeks of the disaster. Over the years all the gold bullions were recovered.

Don McNeill of the Ulster Canada Initiative, County of Donegal, claims that the official figure from The Admiralty in London 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 in Ireland.

The Southwest Arm Historical Society had a wreath placed into the sea on January 25, 2017, where HMS Laurentic slipped below the surface. The wreath laying was part of the Centenary Commemoration that 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.

This November 11 marks 100 years after the end of the Great War. We can only hope that we learn from the tragic loss of life in all world conflicts and the suffering of those who return with physical and emotional scars that remain with them for a lifetime.

Lest we forget.

Tragic Loss of HMS Laurentic – PDF – Downhome Magazine