The Forgotten Member Of A Tragic Trio: Empress Of Ireland

On May 29, 1914, around 2:00am, the Canadian Pacific liner Empress of Ireland was accidentally rammed by the Norwegian collier Storstat. This sinking was the middle event of a trio of terrible ocean liner tragedies that starts with the loss of Titanic on April 15, 1912, and ends with the loss of Lusitania on May 7, 1915. Titanic and Lusitania are so well‐known that they have almost become clichés. Empress of Ireland remains little‐known today despite the scale of the tragedy that makes it a part of this star‐crossed trio.

The collision occurred in the midst of a dense spring fog on the Saint Lawrence as relatively warm spring air turned to fog immediately above the waters of the river which were chilled with snowmelt. Immediately prior to steaming into the fog bank, Captain Henry Kendall of Empress observed the running lights of Storstat, a Norwegian collier (coal carrier.) He ordered the ship’s horn sounded to alert Storstat, maintained Empress’ course, (so Storstat would not be surprised at her location) and slowed her speed to a prudent crawl in the impenetrable fog.

Storstat’s First Mate who had the helm at the time also slowed his vessel. Apparently he saw a red light faintly in the fog and he adjusted his ship’s course to be sure of passing Empress well off her port side. The facts of the collision remain in some dispute even today. Storstat, being a Norwegian vessel with a foreign crew, was identified as the ship at fault in an Admiralty inquiry in the summer of 1914, but later reviews have suggested that Captain Kendall may have altered course while in the fog, or possibly that Empress had faulty steering. David Zini devotes three chapters to the facts of the collision and the subsequent investigation in his landmark 1998 book, Forgotten Empress: The Empress of Ireland Story. Robert Ballard, who discovered the remains of Titanic has also explored Empress’ resting place. He includes a chapter about Empress in his book Lost Liners.

Perhaps the real culprit was simply bad luck: had both ships held speed and course, they would have passed unscathed. As it was, Empress was breached amidships by the bow of Storstat, in a nearly perpendicular collision. Unfortunately for Empress, Storstat had started life as an icebreaker before becoming a coal ship, which made her very well designed to deliver a shattering blow. Worse still, Storstat had a full hold making her relatively low in the water and giving her great force on impact. Empress never had a chance.

The ship was rent as if by a great axe, and began taking on water at an unimaginable rate. Her watertight compartments could not prevail under the incredible strain. It took just ten minutes for Empress to heel completely into the water and a mere four more for her to disappear beneath the surface. Under such cir cumstances, most folks aboard being asleep when the collision occurred, the loss of life was huge: of more than 1,400 souls aboard, a mere 360 or so were saved. There were more than enough lifeboats (the lesson of Titanic having been quickly learned) but as in the case of Lusitania, the speed of the sinking prevented deployment.

Empress of Ireland was no Titanic ‐‐ there were no Astors nor Guggenheims aboard Empress, it was not her maiden voyage, and she had never been proclaimed unsinkable ‐‐ but it is likely that her story would be more widely remembered today if the tragedies of World War I had not followed so fast in the wake of her sinking. It would be less than a month until Sarajevo, and within ten weeks all of Europe was embroiled in loss of life on a scale that made the souls aboard Empress a mere footnote to history.

It is a hopeful reflection to note that one positive change did come about as a result of this tragedy.

When one looks at pictures of the ships of that era, it is striking to note that they do not appear to be very aerodynamic. In those days the bow of a vessel made a nearly vertical line from waterline to deck. such a design maximized carrying capacity, but also meant that in a collision, full impact would be transmitted to the victim ship’s hull from waterline to deck, ensuring a deadly breach.

After the Empress tragedy, new design specifications for ships included a bow that angled sharply so that the first point of impact in a collision would be well above the waterline. The aim was that the strongest point of impact would be well above the most vulnerable area of a ship’s hull, and hopefully reduce or eliminate a fatal breach. The idea has proven sound: when Stockholm collided with Andrea Doria in July of 1956, it took hours for Andrea Doria to sink. The 46 lives lost were almost all due to the impact at the site of the collision, and remaining 1660 survivors were all evacuated safely.

We can learn from our mistakes. And sometimes we do.

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

Are there lessons in history? Or only tales, mostly sad? — Adam Goptnik

Under The Buttonwood Tree, 221 Years On …

It was on this day in 1792 that the world renowned New York Stock Exchange was originated with a two-sentence agreement. Twenty-four New York securities traders met under the buttonwood tree at 68 Wall Street to establish a trustworthy and honest market. Opinions about just how trustworthy and exactly how honest that market has been in the ensuing 221 years do vary, but there is no denying that those 24 far-sighted traders engendered the most important financial market that the world has yet seen. And though this was enacted without governmental requirement, it is worth noting that prominent New Yorker, at that time Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton had “strongly urged” such a market be formed. (Hamliton’s bank was one of the first stocks to be listed on that exchange.)

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

He that is of the opinion money will do everything may well be suspected of doing everything for money. — Benjamin Franklin

Ninety-Four Years Ago: A Strike In Winnepeg

It was on this day in 1919 that the immense Winnipeg General Strike commenced. The strike was called for by a coalition of more than 70 labor unions in and around Winnipeg after an overwhelming vote in favor: about 96% of unions’ membership supported the call. By noon on 15 May 1919, the city of Winnipeg had come to a near standstill as more than 35,000 workers – almost half of the city’s workforce – walked off their jobs. The strike was a protracted one, effectively lasting until 21 June when a detail of the Royal Northwest Mounted Police charged a crowd of strikers resulting in at least one death and scores of serious injuries. (This police force would be merged into the Royal Canadian Mounted Police the following year, so many accounts anachronistically refer to a charge by the RCMP; “Mounties” they were, but not yet RCMP.) With an abrupt, violent, and deadly conclusion, the strike was not considered a success. By 25 June, the strike was formally called off.

The Province of Manitoba in general, and the city of Winnipeg in particular, seem to be Canada’s trouble spot. In the later 19th Century, Manitoba saw the rise of Louis Riel as leader of the Metis, an indigenous people of Canada. Little more than a year after Canada gained autonomy within the British Empire in 1867, Riel and his Metis agitated for the organization of their lands along the Red River (of the North) into an autonomous state. Riel and others formed a provisional government, unilaterally exercising governmental powers which Canada had not authorized. The resulting conflict, called the Red River Rebellion, lasted more than a year. The Metis were successful in negotiating the with Ottawa for the formation of Manitoba, but Ottawa, to assert control, dispatched a military force under Sir Garnet Wolseley (later famous for his expedition to relieve Gordon at Khartoum.) Ottawa thus asserted its sovereignty. Riel and those who had participated in the provisional government were exiled.

Manitoba saw further unrest and conflict in 1885 in the Northwest Rebellion. Canada had not made good on all of the previous promises to the Metis; the Metis in turn resorted to armed rebellion, once more under the leadership of Louis Riel. Riel’s rebellion was unsuccessful, and on 15 May 1885, Riel surrendered to Canadian authorities. This time Riel did not escape with his life. Riel was executed in July of that year. So Winnipeg, Manitoba in 1919 was a place in which many residents recalled the rebellious past.

Add to this the fact that 1919 was a a year fraught with stresses and strains across North America and across the globe. Societies throughout the world were reeling from the terrible cost of World War I, and a burst of social reform and experimentation took effect in nation after nation. Kings and Emperors were formally deposed, republics were established. Communist parties were formally organized in all major Western nations, including the United States and Canada. Labor looked to the successful Bolshevik revolution in Russia as a harbinger of a better day for Labor everywhere.

It was in 1919 that the 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution was adopted, banning the sale of manufacture of alcohol, and ushering its own era of social upheaval. In June, the 19th Amendment enabling universal female suffrage in the U.S. was introduced, sparking enormous debate on the traditional role of women in society. And the unease and unrest were manifest in more physical ways as well. In the Spring of 1919 “anarchists” exploded bombs in several cities of the northeastern United States. Labor riots cropped up throughout the year as the economic uncertainties created by the war increased the disagreements between labor and capital. Police strikes were called in London, Liverpool, and in Boston. Race riots broke out as returning soldiers and others reacted to the great internal migrations that had taken place within the U.S. to supply labor for war industries. Hundreds of thousands of African Americans relocated from the Deep South to the opportunities provided by manufacturing jobs in the North as more and more soldiers had been sent overseas. Once the war was over, there was a nostalgic desire for things to return to “normalcy,” and tempers erupted into violence time and again. Reading the commentaries and observations of the day, one finds that many writers felt that the world had changed in every detail, and not for the better.

The wider world was no more peaceful, despite the “end” of “the war to end all wars.” The eastern theater of the First World War saw continued conflict; war broke out between Poland and the USSR, and between competing factions with in the new USSR. The Baltic states and Finland experienced armed internal conflicts between factions vying to fill the power vacuum left after the collapse of the Russian empire. In Turkey, Mustafa Kemel ignited the Turkish War of “Independence,” and Greek forces landed along Turkey’s Ionian coast to protect the interest of the Greek residents there. In Amritsar, India, a crowd of peaceful demonstrators was dispersed by the British Colonial Army using rifle fire; more than 1,100 people were wounded and nearly 400 killed. (The troops were recorded to have fired a total of 1,600 rounds.) And, yes, there were even troubles in Iraq, between Kurd and Arab, between Sunni and Shi’ite.

While it is true that virtually every year has wars, conflicts, social change, and riots, 1919 was unusually fraught with upheavals. It was against this background that the Winnipeg Strike played out. The western Allies had concluded the major conflicts of World War I in November of 1918. Millions of troops were demobilized in rapid order, returning to societies which had been forever changed by the experience of the Great War, but which had no mechanisms in place to assist this huge corps of veterans with reassimilating into civilian life. Tens of thousands of of Canadian troops came home to find very few job opportunities available and the openings they found were typically very low-paying positions. this contrasted unfavorably with the great profits that Canada’s industrialists had reaped from war contracts. Fostering resentment among people just returned from war seems a nearly certain way to provoke riot and rebellion, or, at the very least, strikes. Thus it was that the Winnipeg General Strike was called, and the city came to a halt 15 May 1919.

The strikers found great sympathy among the common workers, but great hostility in the press and media of the day. Villified as “Anarchists” and “Bolsheviks” by the major papers throughout North America and England, the strikers were in fact, mainly neither. These were in the great majority, ordinary, moderate folks seeking a fair shake, not subversives seeking to topple the world order. But after several weeks without any concessions from the businessmen nor from the politicians, and with the violent events of 21 June, the Strike Committee formally called an end on 25 June. There was a sense of futility and failure. Yet some important things were accomplished in the longer run.

In the wake of the strike, a Royal commission’s investigatory report concluded that “if Capital does not provide enough to assure Labour a contented existence … then the Government might find it necessary to step in and let the state do these things at the expense of Capital.” In the following years, the Parliament of Canada would enact legislation to further the interest of labor and to define the obligations of business , and Canada’s acts would influence similar legislation in the United States. Though there have been other major strikes in Canada since 1919, none have had the scope, the scale, nor the impact of the Winnipeg General Strike.

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

Capital and Labor are both wild forces which require intelligent legislation to hold them in restriction.

— John D. Rockefeller

Tragedy On The Sea: Lusitania

It was on this day in 1915 that one of the fastest, most luxurious, and most popular ocean liners of its day was torpedoed without warning and sank in less than 18 minutes, taking 1,195 people to their deaths. The sinking of the unarmed passenger liner Lusitania by a German U-boat ultimately propelled the United States of America into the carnage and butchery of World War I, “the war to end all wars.”

Lusitania, a Cunard liner, was launched in 1906 and began regular transatlantic service in 1907. She was the finest ship of her age when launched. Her second class accommodations were more luxurious than first class on her rivals and sister ships. (Today we would find things rather spartan: private bathrooms were only for the priciest cabins!) Lusitania set the transatlantic speed record in November 1907: 4 days, 20 hours, thereby becoming the first ship to cross the Atlantic Ocean in under five days. She and her sister ship, Mauretania, (launched 1907) were known as “The Atlantic Greyhounds.” They ensured that the legendary “Blue Riband” (not a real trophy, but the popular designation of the transatlantic speed record) would remain in Cunard’s hands (and out of the Germans’) for the next 22 years!

Lusitania became the preferred ship for the transatlantic set, and remained so even during those perilous days as the first World War was unfolding. Lusitania was ready to depart from New York on 1 May 1915 even as a widely published advertisement from the German Embassy warned Americans that British ships were fair game for German U-boats.

Lusitania crossed the open ocean without incident, her fabled speed being her best armor. Unaccountably, however, despite being notified that U-boats had sunk three British ships south of Ireland immediately prior to the time that Lusitania was expected, Captain William Turner ordered the vessel to reduce speed. Apparently he was more concerned about patchy fog on the route than about German U-boats.

Kapitanleuntnant Walter Schweiger of U-20 could not believe his good luck! The most tempting target a U-boat captain had thus far seen was directly in his sights!

One torpedo was all that was required to kill the great liner. Holed amidship, the damage was compounded by a secondary explosion which some believe was exacerbated by a secret cargo of munitions which was detonated by the initial blast, but which submarine archeologist Robert Ballard believes to have been Lusitania’s boilers. Lusitania sank in an almost unimaginably short time. Most of Lusitania’s 1,959 passengers had no opportunity to save themselves. The loss of life was staggering, especially considering that the great ship was within easy sight of land.

The dastardly attack provoked outrage around the world. The act was condemned even in German newspapers, and Germany’s allies Austria-Hungary and The Ottoman Empire both protested to the Kaiser’s government. Imperial Germany immediately began a propoganda campaign justifying the sinking, making note of Germany’s many warnings about the dangers to vessels of combatant nations, and claiming that Lusitania was carrying contraband arms cargo. This claim was immediately refuted by the Port Authority of New York which had inspected the ship’s cargo as required by law and had found only crates of small arms cartridges which were permitted. Cunard lines and the British Admiralty both denied that Lusitania had war materiel aboard, but the matter is still hotly debated. It should be noted that none of the physical investigations of the wreck and its debris field have ever found any evidence of contraband cargo.

In the United Kingdom, the sinking was predictably met with outrage and the tragedy was used as an occasion to whip up patriotic fervor. Posters were printed demanding justice for the sinking, and to inspire recruiting efforts and bonds sales. But the most significant reaction was in The United States.

The U.S. government protested to the Kaiser’s government and demanded that, in addition to paying reparation for the 123 Americans killed in the attack, that Germany abandon its policy of unrestricted submarine warfare. Unwilling to draw the United States into the European conflict on the side of the English and the French, Imperial Germany declared an end to unrestricted U-boat attacks. The termination of such attacks was more in name than in fact: in the Fall of 1915, a German U-boat sank an Italian liner without warning, killing 23 Americans. The tide of public opinion in America turned decisively against the Germans. When the Germans declared the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare in early 1917, America’s entry into the war became inevitable. On April 6, 1917, just shy of two years after Lusitania was lost, America declared war on the German Empire.

Thus did Kapitanleuntnant Walter Schweiger’s moment of irresistable opportunity turn into one of the linch-pins of 20th century history: had he not torpedoed Lusitania, it is possible America might have remained neutral. Had America not entered the war, Germany might not have been so decisively defeated. Had Germany’s defeat and humiliation not been so complete, Apolph Hitler might not have found so fertile a ground for his noxious schemes to reclaim German glory. The course of history just might boil down to one man, one moment of decision.

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

Der Krieg ist nichts als eine Fortsetzung der politischen
Verkehrs mit Einmischung anderer Mittel.

— Karl von Clausewitz

The Hindenburg Tragedy

It was on this day in 1937 that the largest airship that the world has ever seen, Germany’s Hindenburg, was destroyed in an apocalyptic ball of flame at Lakehurst, New Jersey. The calamitous event was one of the first disasters that was captured live on radio, and the recording of the event was subsequently broadcast across the United States. Chicago radio station WLS had their reporter Herb Morrison at the scene to cover the landing of the great zeppelin. His vivid description of the tragedy, with his immortal exclamation, “Oh! The Humanity!!!” remains one of the defining moments of broadcast journalism.

As the immense aircraft was readying to land at Lakehurst, a fire burst forth from the aft section. within seconds, the entire vessel was consumed and the twisted skeleton crashed to earth. Of the 97 people aboard the ship, 35 died in the flames, and nearly all of the survivors were severely injured. Investigations from that time concluded that a fire of unknown origin had ignited the airship’s highly flammable hydrogen gas. Hitler’s government took advantage of the occasion to condemn the United States’ policy forbidding the export of the safe gas helium, (the U.S. had all the world’s reserves of helium) but never so much as hinted that the tragedy might have been the result of saboteurs or provocateurs within the U.S.

Many theories have been offered about the Hindenburg tragedy. One “mainstream” explanation is that atmospheric electrical charges from the day’s thunderstorms used the great vessel as a ground (it was already connected to its mooring lines when the tragedy struck) and ignited the extremely flammable hydrogen. Another theory is that the ship was the victim of anti‐Nazi saboteurs who wished to destroy the mighty symbol of German prowess. One recently offered explanation blames the ship’s highly flammable cloth skin ‐‐ and not the hydrogen gas ‐‐ for the fire, noting that the flames spread in a conventional pattern, atypical of gaseous fires.

In the early 1960’s, a small, far‐right magazine in West Germany published an article in which it was declared that Hindenburg had been destroyed by British agents in revenge for the torpedoing of Lusitania 22 years earlier. The article offered not so much as one shred of evidence to support its claims, yet the theory continues to surface. The 1975 movie “Hindenburg” exploited the sabotage theory in its plot. There is still no completely satisfactory “official” explanation.

The flaming ruin of Hindenburg effectively ended the era of transatlantic dirigibles. By 1945, the world’s remaining lighter‐than‐air vessels were consigned to novelty status. For many years, the only dirigible that most Americans were aware of was “The Goodyear Blimp” which is actually any one of a fleet of Goodyear blimps. In the past decade or so, blimps have become something of a status symbol, so today we have blimps sponsored by film makers and other concerns far, far removed from lighter‐than‐air flight.

Remember The Fifth Of May!

On this date in 1862, Mexican forces led by Goliad, Texas‐born General Ignacio Zaragoza and General Porfirio Diaz defeated an invading French army at Puebla on the road to Mexico City. The French forces outnumbered the Mexican troops at least 2 to 1, and they had much more modern armaments such as rifled muskets. Some of the Mexican troops carried muskets that had seen service with British troops in the Battle of Waterloo 47 years earlier (the selling off of outdated weapons to developing nations being an old and respected tradition!) It is a wonderful irony that those same “Brown Bess” muskets beat the French a second time! Despite the unequal odds, the ferocity and audacity of the Mexican troops defeated the French nevertheless.

This patriotic victory stalled the French invasion for more than a year, and though the French ultimately remained in Mexico until 1867, this battlefield success proved that Mexico could face the military might of Europe without relying on the support of the United States and its Monroe doctrine (the U.S. was rather preoccupied with a bit of an internal struggle at the time.)

The French had invaded Mexico in April of 1861 along with British and Spanish troops under the pretext of collecting Mexico’s outstanding loans owed to those countries. The year before, after three years of bitter civil strife between the conservative party led by Felix Zuloaga and the liberal party led by Benito Juarez, Juarez had formed a government and had, of necessity, suspended payment on all foreign debt. (A common tactic to this day.)

After Juarez’ government negotiated terms for extended repayment with both Britain and Spain, France’s Napoleon III (Louis Napoleon, a nephew of the Napoleon) declared that France was unsatisfied and would remain in Mexico until full repayment was completed. Britain and Spain withdrew their troops, but Napoleon III, confident that he could succeed while the United States was rent by Civil War, decided to install his own puppet government in Mexico.

The conservative faction was impressed with Louis Napoleon’s plan to place a European monarch at the head of Mexico, and backed the French. The liberal republicans who supported Juarez vowed resistance. As the powerful French force advanced from Veracruz to Mexico City, they won city after city and seemed to be unstoppable. But at Puebla the loyal Mexican forces rallied and made what was almost certainly a last‐ditch, suicidal stand. Yet they prevailed and turned back the French advance.

Since “Cinco de Mayo,” is a Mexican holiday, some may wonder why we in the U.S. would have any interest in it. Well – as is true for so much of history – there is an important but often overlooked connection between the Battle of Puebla, the Mexican Victory/French defeat, and the very fate of the United States of America.

My friend George Krieger was good enough to point out this connection to me some years ago, and I feel it is worth sharing, because it turns out the United States of America was a very real beneficiary of the Mexican victory.

In May of 1862 The United States of America had been engaged in a fierce Civil War for just over a year. This meant that the U.S. could not intervene against the French in Mexico as I mentioned earlier. But it is also worth noting that after nearly a year without new shipments of raw cotton from the South, the vast cloth mills of England and France were becoming idle. Many politicians and patricians in England were very interested in throwing their support, financial and military, to the Confederacy. In France, Louis Napoleon was similarly eager to support the Confederacy.

The reasons behind this notion of supporting the Rebels were more than just a desire to keep the mills running and the people working. There were also geo-political considerations: neither England nor France were anxious for a growing United States to become a Western rival to their dominance of world trade and politics. It would help both England and France to maintain their global positions if the United States remained two separate countries (preferably squabbling with each other!)

In his concise history of the Confederacy, The Confederate Nation: 1861 – 1865, Emory Thomas notes: “… diplomatic circumstances were a bit more volatile … than historians have often assumed. The Powers had not declared irrevocable neutrality.[1] James McPherson writes in Battle Cry of Freedom, his acclaimed one-volume history of the Civil War, “Napoleon [III] dared not act unilaterally … he recognized that a confrontation … without Britain at his side might scuttle his plans. From his summer palace, Napoleon therefore instructed his foreign secretary: “Demandez au government anglais s’il ne croit pas le moment venu…“* And McPherson further notes that a Union diplomat in London, James Mason, sent his superiors dispatches warning of intervention.[2]

The threat of Anglo-French intervention in the United States Civil War was quite real and such intervention would have been disastrous for the cause of The Union. Great Britain had the greatest navy in the world, and it was chiefly lack of a navy that put the South at a great disadvantage in the war from the start. And, too, France had a large and well-trained military presence on the North American continent, in Mexico.

If the French army had triumphed at Puebla, it is very possible that Louis Napoleon would have been willing to take steps to aid the Confederacy. Had the French not been forced to withdraw and regroup, and to spend another year recovering from the Mexican victory, the United States might not exist as we know it today. Unreconstructed Rebels amongst us notwithstanding, the world would be a much different place had the Union been sundered, very likely a much worse place as well, for what nation, then, would have been able to defeat an Adolph Hitler, or to bring down a Soviet Union?

Always bear in mind that events in history do not happen in a vacuum. The events a world away affect us, and surely the events next door must as well. The failure of the Polish wheat harvest in the Fall of 1862 also helped to deter Anglo-French intervention in our Civil War (the details of which are for another essay.) But it remains that the victory celebrated by our Mexican neighbors indeed helped to make the world we have today. It was Mexico’s greatest patriotic victory, surpassing in importance and emotion even Mexico’s independence from Spain. But it also was a victory for our One Nation, Indivisible.

Here’s to the Fifth of May! And my thanks to George Krieger for reminding me of this connection.

The emotional impact of the victory is commemorated in the festivities celebrating “Cinco de Mayo.” In the modern U.S., the day has become yet another occasion for marketing hype and enthusiastic consumption, with little or no concern for the actual reason or origins of the event (just as have other national holidays such as St. Patrick’s Day, Oktoberfest, and even Chinese New Year.) But that’s terrific! We can always use another excuse to celebrate!

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

Las armas nacionales se han cubierto de gloria . — Zaragoza

[1] The Confederate Nation: 1861 – 1865, Emory M. Thomas, Harper & Row: New York, 1979. p. 182.

* “Ask the English government if they think that the moment has come…”

[2] Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, James M. McPherson, Oxford University Press: New York, 1988. pp. 554-555.