The torpedoing of the RMS Laconia – one of two vessels of the same name built by Swan Hunters, both of which were lost to enemy action in two separate world wars – would be yet another incident that would bring the United States closer to declaring war on Germany in 1917.
As the pace of submarine attacks on British and neutral shipping gathered pace, with relentless loss of life and the sinking of an unsustainable tonnage of merchant ships, the continuance of the war by Britain on the Allied side was threatened.
Germany’s resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare on February 1 was intended to drive Britain out of the war before the United States might come in. In fact, the indiscriminate sinking of ships would serve only to hasten America’s entry into the war.
RMS Laconia, a Cunard passenger liner, had been requisitioned in 1914 and used as an armed merchant cruiser in the southern oceans until she was returned to purely civilian service in 1916. Her sinking on February 25, 1917, during a voyage from New York to Britain with British and American passengers, would cause outrage in the American press, prompted by the loss of three US citizens, which was reported first-hand by a Chicago journalist and passenger who survived.
Floyd Gibbon’s report said: “Two American citizens, mother and daughter, listed from Chicago, and former residents there, are among the dead.”
Able Seaman Walley, who was transferred to the HMS Laburnum, told Gibbons: “Our boat, No. 8, was smashed in lowering. I was in the bow, Mrs Hoy and her daughter were sitting toward the stern. The boat filled with water rapidly. It was no use trying to bail it out, there was a big hole in the side and it came in too fast.
“The women got weaker and weaker, then a wave came and washed both of them out of the boat. There were lifebelts on their bodies and they floated away, but I believe they were dead before they were washed overboard.”
Gibbons issued a long and detailed report, including the encounter with the U-boat which sank the Laconia – seeking details of the ship’s name, cargo, gross weight and complement of crew and passengers, then leaving them to be rescued some six hours later.
He was forthright in his opinion: “The question being asked of the Americans on all sides is: ‘Is it the casus belli?’”
Acclaimed as one of the outstanding reportorial achievements of the war, it was read from the floor of both houses of Congress.
It would be only six weeks before US President Woodrow Wilson would take America to war, confident that public opinion was now firmly on his side and ‘isolationist’ sentiment sufficiently stayed to allow him to commit to a war he had long-striven to bring to a close.
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The project workroom (Room B9) at Linskill Community Centre, North Shields, is open from 10am to 4pm each weekday for enquiries and for anyone to bring information about relatives lost in the war. The Memorial Garden is open for public visits during the opening hours of the centre, 8am to 5pm daily.