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Knowing the Story Behind you, to Live the Way Ahead

Everyone has a story, some sound like a best selling novel, others seem a little more middle of the road.  But the art of the story is what you learn from it, the moral that stays with you, the changes it makes to you as a person.  

Everyone lives a story, life is the biggest and best book you'll ever write, so you have to write the best one you are able.   Learn from your past but don't be bogged down by it, use it  to make your future the best and biggest it can be.  You can also learn from the stories around you, from the people you love, the chapters of the lives of the people who build your family.  
There are a lot of stories in the chapters lived before I was born  There are so many I'll never know, so many I know pieces of and some like a good mystery I'll never really know the end to, but each one teaches me something about who I am and who I want to be.  

This weekend it seems very apt to tell the story of something that happened on the 7 May 1915. 

My Nan was the type of Nan who kept everything that meant something to her in a small leather purse in her handbag.  When i would stay at weekend I would often play with the things she kept in there and have her tell me the stories behind each thing she kept.  

In a small plastic packet she kept newspaper cuttings and it was one of these that sparks this story.  

On Friday the 7 May 1915, the RMS Lusitania was nearing the end of its 202 crossing from New York to Liverpool.  On board were 1266 passengers and 696 crew, two of the passengers were my Great Great Aunt and Great Great Uncle.  

The Lusitania

My Nan's aunt Edith Alice Robinson (nee Baum) and  my Grandad's Uncle Thomas Henry Robinson were returning home to England from Canada travelling in Second Class.  Alice as my nan called her, had raised my Nan until the age of 11 as she had been born out of wedlock and like so many children was sent away until her mother married and had another child.  

According to records Alice and Thomas had come from Vancouver, B.C. Canada and were travelling second class to Liverpool.  Thomas had been working in Canada but work was slack so they were returning home.  Travelling second class meant they had access to a deckhouse, Library (reserved for the ladies) Smoking room (Reserved for the men) and a Dining Saloon which was similar to that of First Class, just a little plainer.  

I would assume as they boarded the ship in New York they would have seen the warning notices that had been posted by the German Embassy; 

TRAVELLERS intending to embark on the Atlantic voyage are reminded that a state of war exists between Germany and her allies and Great Britain and her allies; that the zone of war includes the waters adjacent to the British Isles; that, in accordance with formal notice given by the Imperial German Government, vessels flying the flag of Great Britain, or any of her allies, are liable to destruction in those waters and that travellers sailing in the war zone on the ships of Great Britain or her allies do so at their own risk.
IMPERIAL GERMAN EMBASSYWashington, D.C., 22 April 1915.  (Wikipedia) 

Whether they were afraid of this threat or not I'll never know but I suppose they wanted to be home so the risk was something they were willing to take.  Maybe no body even thought it was something that could happen, that they were simply threats after all the Lusitania had been provided with advice on how to avoid submarines.  To avoid conflict, the Lusitania was ordered not to fly any flags, and the funnels were painted dark grey to make her harder to spot.  

Alas, none of the provisions made saved the ship. 

Leaving New York on 1 May 1915 you would have to imagine an underlying tension for all on board, this wasn't like the Titanic were no threat could be imagined, a credible threat existed but in life there are risks we all take, some more riskier than others but we still make the choice to accept what could be in order to achieve the goals we set ourselves.  My ancestors took a risk to achieve their end goal of coming home.  By all accounts of the time the ship was waved off at 1220 to applause and cheering. At the same time the U20 was leaving Germany.  

What the journey was like for those seven days, I can only imagine from movies I've seen.   Decorum would have been followed, in first class, movie stars, suffragettes journalists, philosophers and entrepreneurs expired luxury most could only ever imagine. This compared to the U20 which ran on diesel only using electric when submerged.  For the crew of 35 the air would be thick with the smell of sweat and fuel.  

Passengers would go about their business sometimes watching one of the infrequent lifeboat drills which showed how the crew, those who had not been called up by the navy could manage the ship in a crisis. A crisis that drew ever closer as the U20 was already in the waters and knew the Lusitania was heading home, but would they shoot at a passenger ship?

I wonder if Alice and Thomas would have strolled on deck, enjoyed the talent shows and dances that were held on board.  Would the hours they whiled away in the library or smoking room have been over shadowed by the threat and stories of war that they were drawing ever closer to.  I would have to imagine they'd have been in touch with home and found out from their families here what was happening before they left New York.  Did they know that Thomas's brother, John Telford Robinson, was enlisted in the Yorkshire Regiment and would be deployed to the Somme, not that they could have imagined then that or that John would never return home. 

As the fog lifted on the 7 May and the Irish coast came in to view, would their hearts have lifted, they were almost home.  Preparing to disembark they couldn't have known the U20 had them in her sights.  The headland would have been visible to the Captain and his crew and their preparations would have been underway her course adjustments taking her in to the path of the U20. 

Would the crew of the U20 have doubted what they were doing as they set their torpedo?  Would there have been any doubt that targeting this ship was against regulations, would the presence of women and children have played on their minds or was it simply an act of war against a British commodity? What would they have felt as the torpedo was let loose and tracked it's prey through the water? 

The only notice the Lusitania would have had would have been the bubbling on the surface, the foam attracting the attention of Seaman Leslie Morton.   As the torpedo hit Alice and Thomas were on deck, a newspaper interviewed her after the even and she recounted what happened; 

"The boat immediately began to list, there was a a rush for lifebelts.  Her husband acquired two and they put them on.  Mr Robinson then said "Follow me" and plunged in to the sea, "I did not obey his orders" said Mrs Robinson, "I just waited for him to appear on the surface, but he disappeared altogether and I never saw him again, I hope he has been saved but am fearful of the worst.  It seemed to me that he struck something in the water."

"Then I looked round" said Mrs Robinson "and the sight I saw was terrifying.  The vessel itself has almost entirely disappeared and there were just the funnels above the water line.  The next thing I remember is being washed into the sea by several big waves.  I thought I should have drowned, but the life-jacket kept me afloat.  Fortunately I came across a log and that held my head out of the water for a time.  Eventually a man came to my assistance and pulled me on to an upturned boat.  There were nearly 50 passengers clinging to the sides and one of them, a poor man whose arm had been shattered moaned piteously.  There were hundreds of struggling and dead people near the spot where they Lusitania went down and the moaning and groaning and crying and shrieking was something awful.  I shall never forget it.  I was scared to death."

" After the vessel had disappeared we saw the submarine come to the surface about 200 yards from us, it hoisted a flag" said Mrs Robinson "but offered no assistance to those struggling for life in the water.  Shortly afterwards it dived and disappeared."  Mrs Robinson clung to the upturned boat for three hours and was then picked up by a trawler, which conveyed her and others to Dublin."  
Thomas was never found.  

Reporting on the tragedy

The story of the Lusitania is remember in history, there are conspiracy theories, cover up stories propaganda stories and so on but to me it's the story of a woman who lived.  

Alice died in 1981, after having spent some time with her family in Sunderland she moved to Leicestershire and later remarried.   My nan remembered her fondly and I wonder if my nan becoming a dressmaker was inspired by Alice's trade.  I also assumed it was due to Alice's marriage and connection to the Robinson family, that my nan and grandad met and married later during World War II.  

Alice was strong, she lost her husband at 29 but she lived until 86.  She lived through two world wars, she was a survivor.  

Edith Alice Baum 

I never met Alice, I wish I had, but I think she lived in my nan and in the way she lived, in the strength she had when faced with adversity.  I think she showed a trait that all the female line in my family seem to show she took on challenges in life, no matter how terrible and over came them.  She lived, she wrote her story and I admire her for it.  Her story is my history, I learn lessons from it, draw strength from it, I am inspired by it and I feel the sadness of it and then the hope that life is there to be lived and is only what what we can make of it.  


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