The Sinking of the Allan Liner R.M.S. Hesperian

The Great War:

The Sinking of the Allan Liner R.M.S. Hesperian

The HESPERIAN was built by A.Stephen & Sons, Glasgow in 1907 for the Allan Line. She was a 10,920 gross ton ship, length 485.5ft x beam 60.3ft, one funnel, two masts, twin screw and a speed of 15 knots. There was passenger accommodation for 210-1st, 250-2nd and 1,000-3rd class. Launched on 20/12/1907, she left Glasgow on her maiden voyage to Quebec and Montreal on 25/4/1908. In January 1910 she was chartered to Canadian Pacific and completed a single round voyage between Liverpool and St John NB. On 4/9/1915 she was torpedoed off Fastnet by the German submarine U.20, the same U-boat that sank the Lusitania. On 6th September she sank 130 miles west of Queenstown (Cobh) after unsuccessful attempts to tow her to port. There were 32 deaths.


* "The major suppliers of women's clothes, hats and accessories to Newfoundland in the late 1880s were British. Most St. John's firms were general department stores. To acquire stock, buyers -- all males -- were sent to England several times each year. On Feb. 22, 1887, Ellen Carbery broke that tradition when she left St. John's for England to purchase her own stock. She felt that she was best suited to meet the needs of her patrons, certainly more suitable than any man.
"Ellen Carbery's Ladies Emporium proved to be a great success."


"Elizabeth Fisher was one of twin girls, who grew up in England with the name Ellen but was nicknamed Nellie. Only when she went to register for old age pension (and applying for her birth certificate) did she learn that the twin who died at birth was actually Ellen and she was Elizabeth. Her family was very poor. Her first job was collecting eggs and gardening, but at the age of 15, she was hired as a chamber maid for Sir Harold Bowden at his estate called Beaston Fields. It was there that she met Jesse Would, who worked at a nearby farm and delivered milk to the estate. At the age of twenty, Jesse sent for her to join him in Canada, and she went, despite a warning from her friend that 'It was a terrible place'. "
"In September of 1915, she set sail from Liverpool to start her new life."

August, 1914

Putting down the last of the stadia cases, and locking the trunk, Hugh Lewis joined the rest of the survey crew in the local bar.
Without much need of discussion, it was agreed. The work on the railway would have to proceed without them. Money was brought out and laid on the tables, drinks were brought down from the shelves, cigars replaced cigarettes for once, and many toasts were drunk, to the king, the country, to one another, and to the Kettle Valley Railway, too.

FRANCE: one year later

The war in France had just entered its second year. All of the British Empire had thrown itself behind the call to arms, and the better part of an entire generation of english speaking youth, fresh out of school, or on temporary leave from promising careers, or those just glad of a chance to be useful, had joined up to fight the aggressor in middle-europe.
The first year of the conflict had gone terribly, and the stalemate of forces wrestling along the Western Front was resulting in a massive influx of British subjects and war materials from overseas and the United Kingdom, into France.
The Prussian war machine was able to match the effort, and millions of men were thrown into industrialized slaughter.
Raised on Tennyson's romantic account of the charge of the light brigade (Lord Cardigan's celebrated half hour of suicidal impatience in the Crimean war sixty years before), the men of these new english brigades would, if they survived, endure four and a half years of war.

Survivors and casualties alike would face relentless barrages of incoming explosives, showers of stabbing hot metal and rock. They would endure bullets, poisonous gas attacks, mutilation, festering infections, sleep on frozen ground, advance and retreat through the muck of flooded cesspools, sinkholes, and craters, surrounded by endless miles of barbed wire and ditches.
Many would live years outdoors with diseased rats, lice and fleas, eat spoiled food, entrenched in ditches carved from the soil of obliterated villages, surviving all, only to be told finally to attack a hidden line of machine guns and riflemen head on in broad daylight, on foot, carrying a hundred pounds of gear through knee deep mud. So many men died trying to do this for their commanding officers during that four and a half years of war that an entire generation of englishmen was considered lost.
(Vimy Ridge, 150 kilometres north of Paris, was the site of several battles, including a single assault on Vimy Ridge during Easter 1917, in which the Canadians won the day, that left more than 200,000 soldiers dead.)
There was nowhere near enough men left after the Great War to carry on the work of the British Empire, which collapsed from insufficient manpower and disappeared within thirty years. Many new settlements of the wider Empire did not again achieve the prewar population base until the late 1960's.

In February of 1915, the German command introduced unrestricted submarine warfare against shipping.

**In 1915 Major Percy Guthrie of the 7th Canadian Battalion volunteered to join the "Fighting 10th" Battalion of Calgary, Alberta who’s numbers had been decimated at the Battle of Saint-Julien. On his first day with the 10th he was almost killed.
"I felt a chug in the head and some time afterwards discovered that a bullet had grazed my scalp, taking a piece of hair and leaving a nice little hole in my cap."
In his first action with the battalion Guthrie said:
"The air was absolutely full of whistling bullets and shrieking, whistling and crashing shells. I had the men on each side of me shot dead - at practically the same instant I saw six men blown to bits a few yards away. I saw arms and legs torn off by shell explosions all along the line. I saw men with eyes protruding, arms dangling and otherwise mangled on all sides of me. In every sense of the word war is indeed Hell."

On May 7th, 1915 off the Old Head of Kinsale in the south Irish Sea, German U-boat U20 had surfaced from a depth of 24 metres. Captain Schwieger wrote in his log:

"Excellent visibility, very fine weather...Saw smoke on the horizon. Sight dead ahead 4 stacks and 2 masts of a steamer steering on a parallel course to us. Ship identified as a large passenger steamer. Dive to periscope depth and proceed at high speed on intercepting course toward steamer in the hope that the steamer will alter course to starboard along the Irish Coast...Clean bow-shot from 700 metres. Torpedo hit starboard side close abaft the bridge, followed by a very unusually large explosion..."
Schwieger had just sunk the Lusitania, killing 1198 people.

Before he got back to the docks at Wilhelmshaven for refuelling and resupply, the United States had formally protested to Berlin against the brutality of his action.

The Kaiser wrote in the margins of the American note: "Utterly impertinent" and "outrageous" and "this is the most insolent thing in tone and bearing that I have had to read since the Japanese note last August." Nevertheless, to keep America out of the war, in June the Kaiser was compelled to rescind the unrestricted submarine warfare order and require that all passenger liners be left unmolested.

On May 25, 1915 Major Percy Guthrie of the 10th Battalion had been fighting at the Battle of Festubert. A shell exploded at his feet and he was wounded in eleven places. "I then got over the stunned feeling and looking down saw that my clothing was torn away and blood gushing from several places." The following September, he was invalided home to Canada, aboard the ocean liner Hesperian.**

September 4, 1915

* "Despite the outbreak of the First World War, and the sinking of the Lusitania with great loss of life earlier in the year, on July 15, 1915, Ellen Carbery left St. John's aboard the Pomeranian on her regular summer buying trip to England. She spent the summer there, visiting soldiers from Newfoundland and sending news of their experiences home to relatives. Her buying completed, she left Liverpool aboard the Hesperian."

Postcard of the Allan Liner R.M.S. Hesperian

For studied elegance, nothing could match the black, shear slabbed hull, the understated opulence of the white topsides with their expanse of teak decks, the golden raked funnels, the comforting size and speed, of a Glasgow built, ocean going passenger liner of the late Edwardian age. Inward bound from Canada, the ocean liners were now all troop carriers.

The Hesperian was now beginning a new run outward bound from Liverpool to Quebec and Montreal, with a general cargo, also doubling as a hospital ship, and carrying about 800 passengers.
The previous torpedoe sinking of the ocean liner Lusitania, with a loss of 1,198 lives had shocked the western world, and everyone who boarded the Hesperian at the Liverpool dockside was well aware of the risk involved in passing through the Irish Sea. Under way early, the first day was spent anxiously by those passengers half expecting some crisis to appear. The Irish Sea passed beneath them as the hours slid away.
On the approach to the southern reaches of that sea, the passengers dressed themselves for the evening, and made their way down to dinner. As the evening progressed, the tension among the passengers began to ease up, for they were putting more distance between themselves and the troubles of Europe with every passing minute. Soon, they would be safe under the cover of night, and would awake in the morning far and away in the autumn North Atlantic, speeding westward towards the peace of the New World.

She was attacked off the Fastnet, a landmark islet in the north Atlantic, off the south-west coast of Ireland.
The "History of the Great War: The Merchant Navy, Vol. II", by Hurd, reads:

"Only a few days before, Count Bernsdorff, the German Ambassador, had assured the United States government that passenger liners will not be sunk without warning and without insuring the safety of the non combatants aboard providing that the liners do not try to escape or offer resistance.' "

On September 4, 1915 Schwieger was back at sea with U20, eighty five miles off the Fastnet Rock in the south Irish Sea. This rock held one of the key navigational markers in the western ocean, The Fastnet Lighthouse, and any ships passing in and out of the Irish Sea, would be within visual contact of it.
The periscope search paid off. The column of smoke from the stacks of a western bound ship was visible. Soon, the captain confirmed that the ship was approaching him. He waited.
As the large target zigzagged towards him on the alternating legs of a manoeuver intended to avoid torpedo telemetry, the captain of the U-boat carefully estimated the probable location of his target if it maintained the zigzag pattern as it passed him.
On the final approach, the ship changed course and maintained it, exactly as the submariner had hoped. He knew now, under these perfect conditions, he could not miss. But, he could see she was a passenger liner.
The ship was a non-combatant, with hundreds of people aboard, probably mostly women and children. It was not carrying troops now, but it would, on its return. He could not miss. He made his decision. He would kill the ship.
The submariners heard his order and obeyed. Within seconds their tasks had been executed, and the large propeller driven bomb slid out of the torpedoe tube, started on its way by the venting of compressed air behind it. The bomb sped on its way below the water's surface, towards the steel plate of the ocean liner's hull.
The vessel was going at full speed, zigzagging on her course, when she was struck.

Marjorie, 1914

One of the passengers on board was Marjorie Campbell Robarts, daughter of Aldham Robarts, of Port Arthur, Ontario. She had been two years in England with her Aunt Flo and Uncle Herbert Montgomery Campbell, (age 16-18) when war broke out, and with the war dragging on into a second year it was decided that she should return to Canada.
Before she boarded the Hesperian, her Aunt Flo instructed her to go directly to her stateroom after dinner and not to join in any partying.
She (Marjorie) said there were other young people aboard and she wanted to stay with them, however, she respected her Aunt Flo's wishes and returned to her stateroom.
Shortly after, the ship was hit by a torpedo...

The liner shivered throughout her length, a column of water and debris was thrown up into the evening sky about one hundred feet above the bridge, and fell back onto the decks. The hatches on No. 2 deck were blown up and considerable damage was done to the second cabin and bridge decks.
The impact of the explosion stopped the ship, and Captain Main sounded the boats-station signal on the steam whistle and ordered the chief officer to get the passengers into the boats: "Women and children first."
The passengers realized that they were in desperate straits, but there was no sign of panic.
All the alarms sounded.
Marjorie ran upstairs to the lifeboat area ...

The ship was very quick to take on water, developing a bad list to starboard, and began sinking by the head. Marjorie considered that survival was no longer a certainty at that moment, but the ship was well fitted out with lifeboats, and her crew began loading them in an orderly and seamanlike way.
She soon found herself ordered into one of the lifeboats with several other passengers, none of whom she knew. The chocks were freed, the davits cleared away, and the lifeboat with Marjorie in it began its dangerous descent from the upper deck, high above the darkening swells below.


All the while, the party she had just left at the dining room had gathered altogether on the other side of the liner, and had been directed, as one, into their own lifeboat. By this time, the ship had taken on a list, and the hull projected out under their lifeboat. As her friends were being lowered down the tall, sloping sidewall of the hull, the lifeboat caught up on the hull and rolled, tossing its occupants into the night. They were all lost to the ocean into which they splashed.
Unaware of the tragedy, Marjorie shivered in the cooling night air, as the lifeboat upon which she depended was maneuvered safely into the twilight seas, and cast off from the doomed ocean liner.


After they were torpedoed, Major Percy Guthrie was rescued, "found floating on the sea supported by his crutches." The S.O.S. had been sent out, and within a short time, the lights of faraway rescue vessels could be seen approaching out of the dark. The serious work of casting off the lifeboats continued for less than one hour, by which time almost all of the eight hundred and fourteen passengers, along with most of the several hundred crew, were safely awaiting rescue in their lifeboats, drifting with the North Atlantic swells, scattered in the night. A cold northwind breeze mixed with the whisps of warm autumn air left hanging by the lost evening.
Voices carried all round, from near and far, and the slap of countless waves on topsides, the puttering of motor launches, accompanied the chorus of rescuers and searchlights painting the blackness.
The Hesperian did not sink immediately, which gave the crew time to get most of the passengers into lifeboats. Ellen Carbery was in one of the first lifeboats to leave the ship, but she was 70 and the incident took its toll on her. She died before daybreak of shock and exhaustion. Her body was brought back to Newfoundland and she was buried in Harbour Grace.

The night was far gone, by the time the last of the lifeboats had been brought alongside for evacuation to safety.
Hurd's account :

It was realised that the comparative smallness of the death-roll was due, not to any consideration on the part of the enemy submarine, but rather to the admirable construction of the ship, the life-saving appliances with which she had been provided by her owners, and the calm way in which officers and men, as well as the passengers, had behaved in the great hour of emergency.

Marjorie and the other passengers were evacuated to Ireland. She immediately cabled her family in Port Arthur, and her aunt in England, to announce her survival. Soon afterwards, she booked a passage to Liverpool, and returned to her aunt Flo's estate.

This time, Schwieger was received with official disgust upon his return to Wilhelmshaven. Ordered to report to Berlin to explain himself, he was required to apologise for having sunk another passenger liner in defiance of a direct order not to do so again. He complained about his treatment in Berlin thereafter.

Elizabeth Fisher "had lost all her belongings except the clothes she was wearing and a money belt around her waist. She wrote this letter about the event;
Hotel European, Queenstown, Ireland
Telephone No. 39
Sept 6th , 1915
My Dear Sister,
I am staying at this Hotel with several other survivors suffering from shock.
I wired to Southwell the morning I arrived here. Cabled to Jesse I was coming on the next ship to Canada.
You must excuse this writing my hand is all of a tremble. I only just managed to get saved by a rope and broken ladder . We were lowered into the boats below. All boxes have gone to the bottom. But the company is finding us a change of clothes and all we need in that line. I hadn't got a hat and all my hair was down of course. We are getting well seen to here. I hurt one of my fingers by getting off the sinking vessel but was glad to escape with that. I went down this rope like a mad man, I felt as though I had the strength of a lion. What with the shouting of men and the crying of women and children it was something awful. I nearly fainted when lowered into the life boat. No luggage saved at all. Children were falling into the water and were drowned. We were all ordered to put on our life belts. We were picked up by a destroyer and made very comfortable provided with food and drink. Some women were in bed, when we were all alarmed at the awful thud of the torpedo, had to get of the vessel in night attire.
Well goodbye for now until I land in Canada. Your loving sister
- Nelle X X X
Do not write to me but wire if you wish to. We are leaving here any minute.

"She arrived safely in Montreal and then made her own way across the expanse of Ontario and miles of flat prairie to Regina, and even then she had to get herself to Herbert Would's farm where Jesse waited for her."

After refitting her kit, as it were, Marjorie Robarts once more said her goodbyes from her Aunt Flo. One month after setting out on the doomed Hesperian, she sailed once more for Canada, and home.

By 1917, Schwieger had been forgiven in Berlin. He received Germany's highest decoration: For Merit, having sunk by that time 190,000 tons of ships.

Major Percy Guthrie of the 7th Battalion was later promoted to the rank of lieutenant-colonel and raised a Highland battalion, the 236th. Guthrie, who had been a provincial member of parliament in New Brunswick prior to the war, moved to the United States following the war and practiced law in Boston, Massachusetts.


In 1920, Major (ret'd) Hugh Lewis met Marjorie Robarts in Port Arthur, Ontario (Thunder Bay) where he had gone to work at the pulp mill after the war. They married shortly after her father passed away. Hugh took his family back to British Columbia, where he supervised the pulp mill at Ocean Falls until the second world war. In 1941, they moved to Vancouver. He managed the South Yard of the Burrard drydocks while they built the Liberty class ships for merchant marine convoys.

Hugh Lewis, photograph from the mid 1940's

[ Main Page ]

*quoted from "Carbery Pushed the Envelope for Newfoundland Women" From the files of The Gazette May 30, 1996.

**Major Percy Guthrie's story quoted from the chronicle of the "Fighting 10th" Battalion of Calgary.