Life Aboard the Lusitania
Reliving the infamous sinking through the letters of a survivor—my great-grandmother.
By Emily Walker in Slate
A century ago, a 30-year-old passenger on the Lusitania named Minnie Campbell was minutes away from going down with the fast-sinking ocean liner, which had just been torpedoed by a German U-boat, when a Cunard Line employee pushed her into one of the last lifeboats launched into the Atlantic.
“You’re just a tiny thing,” the seaman supposedly told the young Scot as he flung her into the nearly full lifeboat. From that boat Minnie watched the Lusitania slip beneath the frigid water off the coast of Ireland, killing nearly 1,200 people.
Adamina Campbell, my great-grandmother, was tiny, at under 5 feet tall and less than 100 pounds. It’s a good thing she was so small, we like to say in my family, because it seems to have helped make her one of the 763 people who survived the infamous sinking.
“Here I am, all alive and kickin! You see I won’t drown.”
The British passenger ship Lusitania was completing a transatlantic crossing from New York harbor to Liverpool, England, when it was struck on May 7, 1915. The ship sank in just 18 minutes, hitting the ocean floor 8 miles from Ireland. The brazen attack against a civilian ship outraged Great Britain, already in the midst of fighting the Germans, and it shocked the United States, too—128 Americas were among the dead. It’s widely believed that the sinking of the Lusitania paved the way for America’s participation in the Great War, although that wouldn’t come about for another two years.
“I can scarcely realize yet that I was in the disaster at all,” Minnie wrote in a letter to her brother on May 14, one week after she made it off the ship. That letter and another longer one that Minnie wrote days later are prized possessions in my family. The paper on which they are written is brittle and Minnie’s cursive handwriting faded, but when I read them, I can picture my great-grandmother boarding the ornate and imposing Lusitania in New York City on May 1, 1915, returning home after visiting her brother David, who had immigrated to the states. It was to be a weeklong sail to Liverpool, and from there she’d make her way back home to Patna, Scotland.
Minnie was an unmarried 30-year-old schoolteacher when she traveled on her own to America to visit her brother David. Always exceptionally close with her brother—one of Minnie’s nine siblings—she and David posed for a photo together during her visit, both with mischievous grins that fit the adventuresome spirits I imagine them possessing.
It was adventuresome, or maybe just foolish in retrospect, for Minnie to return to Scotland on the Lusitania while Great Britain was more than nine months into a war with Germany. David, a bricklayer in Ellettsville, Indiana, had just recently received a letter from his Scottish sweetheart, who urged her “dearest Dave” to keep his sister Minnie with him in Indiana for a bit longer, saying it wasn’t safe to travel by sea to Europe. “Shipping is really at a standstill just now with so many … submarines about.”
The Germans even warned passengers of the danger of sailing in Great Britain’s waters in a notice that, while written more than a week before the Lusitania’s return voyage, didn’t appear in newspapers until the day the ship left New York City.
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 EMBASSY
Washington, D.C. 22nd April 1915
Washington, D.C. 22nd April 1915
But Minnie wasn’t worried about German submarines, and if any of the nearly 2,000 people on board the Lusitania were concerned, they didn’t show it. Most couldn’t fathom that a ship loaded with innocent passengers would be a target, war or no war.
“Everybody most was joking about the submarines and calling them soup tureens,” Minnie wrote to her brother in a letter dated 10 days after the sinking. A few passengers tried on their life preservers now and then, but Minnie’s was still in its wrapper in her second-class stateroom.
“I had a dandy time on board up until the time of the accident,” Minnie wrote to David. During those six days of travel, she’d made friends with the two girls in her cabin—one English, one Irish; the trio stayed up late turkey trotting on the Thursday prior to attack, returning to their room after midnight. None of the portholes were darkened, Minnie wrote. Surely if anyone thought Germans were searching for the ship to attack it, the ship would be sailing in complete darkness at night.
On Friday, May 7, Minnie awoke to the ship moving slowly through fog. It was thought that the Lusitania’s greatest defense from a submarine attack was its speed—it was the fastest passenger liner in service at the time—but as part of an effort to save money on fuel during wartime, the Lusitania never sailed at full speed on its final journey.
Minnie had her trunk all packed and ready to unload in Liverpool, which they were to reach later that day. The Lusitania had just sailed into the “danger zone” where German submarines could be lurking. Captain William Turner ordered the lifeboats to be swung out from their cranes so they’d be ready to go if something were to happen.
After lunch Minnie and her two friends went up one level to write letters. By then the fog had lifted, the day was bright, and the ship’s speed was increased slightly for the final push to England.
At 2:15 p.m. a seaman spotted the telltale white fizz of a torpedo streaming through the clear water, heading toward the starboard side of the Lusitania. “We were right there when the awful ramming sound came and the steamer shook from bow to stern,” Minnie wrote.
She ran to the top deck of the ship and was on the stairs when a second explosion rocked the ship, causing the glass on the roof of the ship to shatter.
“Everyone went pale to the lips, some women screamed and fainted. But Dave, I seemed to stay cool through it all,” Minnie wrote to her brother.
All of the accounts I’ve read of those 18 minutes between the torpedo striking and the ship’s bow hitting the ocean floor describe confusion giving way to rising panic and, then, gruesomeness. In Diana Preston’s 2002 book Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy, she tells of babies being thrust into the arms of strangers and lifeboats spilling passengers in the water. One Lusitania employee called the chaos “a horrible and bizarre orchestra of death.”
After the torpedo struck, it took Captain Turner 10 minutes to slow the ship down enough to where the lifeboats could be launched into the water. By then the Lusitania listed drastically to the starboard side, causing the lifeboats on the port side to swing inward toward the ship, making them impossible to launch.
Luckily for Minnie, she was on the starboard side of the ship and happened to be passing one of the six lifeboats that were successfully lowered when the seaman pushed her in.
“Oh it was awful,” Minnie wrote to David. “[T]he lifeboats on both sides of us swamped as they were being lowered & we were being drawn further into the Lusitania’s side until someone got a knife & cut the rope. It seemed like as if [the ship] would come on top of us every minute. However, we got clear before she made the final plunge.”
Minnie’s lifeboat was leaking badly and passengers tried to bail it out using a bucket and their hats. The men in the boat rowed, but they were still 8 miles from shore. Finally an Irish fishing trawler towed Minnie’s lifeboat to a government ship, which eventually brought them to shore in Ireland.
She eventually reunited with her two roommates, and the survivors were all put up in hotels in Queenstown, Ireland, and bought dry clothes at Cunard’s expense. She made it home to Scotland several days later, where she penned a letter to her brother that began with: “Here I am, all alive and kickin! You see I won’t drown.” Several days later she wrote a longer letter to David detailing the entire ordeal. “My dear boy, I know you felt bad but my time hadn’t quite come yet,” she wrote.
In 1922, Minnie married my great-grandfather, William Little, a mechanic from Patna who was 8 years her junior. She thus became Minnie Little, declaring in both her first and last names the very quality that may have saved her life when lifeboat space was dear. Their wedding ceremony was performed on board the Caronia, a Cunard Line ship that brought them to America for good.
Emily P. Walker is a writer living in Madrid. Previously she covered health care in Washington, D.C.