I imagine she gripped her daughters’ hands tightly as the three women jumped from the sinking boat into the icy cold waters of the Atlantic Ocean. It was a time of war and safe passage anywhere was far from guaranteed. The ocean itself had been declared a war zone by the Germans and warnings to potential passengers discouraged some from stepping foot on any boat attempting the crossing. But the Lusitania was travelling as a passenger ship and surely would be recognized as such by both sides in the conflict many believed. Besides, she was fast, the Lusitania. And while her shape was undeniably unique, her hull had been painted grey to reduce the chance of being seen by the new German submarines that were terrorizing the waters around the British Isles. And she had nearly made it to Liverpool from New York when she happened to cross the path of a German U-boat. When the torpedo hit the ship’s starboard side that afternoon in May, everyone on board was shocked. Was it possible that the Germans were attacking a passenger ship? A second explosion followed and, much like the Titanic, the Lusitania began its fast descent to the ocean floor. Due to the location of the torpedo, most of the life-boats were inaccessible. Of the 48 on board, only 6 were launched.
Lady Marguerite (Mackenzie) Allan stood with her daughters, Anna, aged seventeen, and Gwendolyn, aged fifteen, on the deck, making fast calculations – should they jump or should they search out a life-boat? Which option produced the best chance of survival? Had they realized when they left New York a week earlier that this was a possibility? Had they considered that of the many times they’d crossed the Atlantic Ocean for European tours that this time they might not make it? Did they know that by joining the other elite Montreal women who’d relocated to London to work with the Red Cross, they’d lose more than time at home? Had these women, the wife and daughters of Canada’s most important shipping magnate, Sir Hugh Montagu Allan, ever considered that their lives would be put at risk on a ship?
They chose to jump.
In making that jump into the icy waters of the Celtic Sea, Lady Allan’s fall was broken in such a way that she was seriously injured. Was it for this reason that she was rescued while her daughters never left the water alive? Did they help their mother make it to rescue while no rescue would come for them? Local Irish sailors and fishermen had heard the distress signal of the Lusitania and did what they could to rescue passengers and crew from the water. In total, they rescued 764 people. Of the 1959 people aboard the ship, 1195 were drowned that day. Two of these were the Allan daughters.
Public and international outrage followed. Accusations and conspiracies abounded. In addition to its passengers and crew, the Lusitania was carrying significant supplies of munitions, a fact recorded on the public manifest. The Germans argued that not only was the ship listed as an auxiliary to war vessel, they had also issued a warning that the ship would not be protected in the watery war zones. In effect, the attack was a reasonable act of war argued the German press. For England, it was an act so inhumane that they called on the United States to declare war on Germany.
For Lady Allan, one of the fortunate passengers to be rescued from those icy waters, the nightmare had just begun. Anna was never found, her remains swallowed by the sea. Gwendolyn’s lifeless body was found among the floating wreckage the following day. Lady Allan accompanied Gwendolyn’s body back to Montreal for its burial in the Mount Royal Cemetery.
While Montreal was home and therefore may have offered some comfort, Lady Allan returned to a grim city – a city haunted by the mounting death toll of the war. She returned also to the news that her only son, Hugh Jr., had joined the Black Watch and would be heading to Europe immediately to join the fighting. Like one of his sisters, his body would never return to Montreal. On his very first solo mission, his plane was shot down over the English Channel.
As an historian I have a hard time reconciling the trauma of this event with the numbers and facts. Lady Allan lost her two youngest daughters when the Lusitania sank. 1193 other people’s families experienced loss of the same nature on the same day. By war’s end approximately 8 ½ million combatants had died. Another 6 million civilians joined them. Even the act of rounding and estimating the number of deaths – even that seems unreal.
As she stood on the deck of the sinking boat, did Marguerite know it was the last time she’d hold her daughters’ hands?