The years preceding the Great War saw a pair of maritime disasters to British ocean liners that made headlines at the time. One shook the civilised world to it’s very core; yet the second caused nary a ripple.
Each took more than a thousand passengers and crew to the bottom. The first happened in the middle of the Atlantic, the second took place in the sheltered waters of the Saint Lawrence seaway, literally within screaming distance of land.
Of course, the first ship was the Titanic. With boats for just over half the people on board, she foundered in mid ocean, with the nearest rescue ships unable to reach her in time. Horrific as it was, the loss of life is at least understandable in the context of her lonely, isolated death.
The second ship was the Empress Of Ireland. In the early morning hours of May 29th, 1914, she capsized in the Saint Lawrence after being rammed in thick fog by a Norwegian collier, the Storstad. The 14,400 ton Canadian Pacific liner was close to shore, and carried far more than enough lifeboats for every soul on board. Despite this, she was gone in fourteen minutes, with a death toll in excess of 1,000. In the words of one contemporary commentator, the Empress Of Ireland rolled over ‘like a hog in a ditch.’
In many ways, the sinking of the Empress was even more ghastly than the loss of the Titanic, numbers lost notwithstanding. Inquiries in both Britain and America in the wake of the Titanic disaster mandated lifeboats for all, compulsory safety drills, and the creation of an international ice patrol (later to become the US Coastguard)
To be clear, this is not the story of that sinking, but more of an attempt to put her awful, near forgotten tragedy in context. The loss of the Empress occurred only months before the outbreak of the Great War, which saw another huge loss, in the sinking of the Lusitania. She, too, took more than a thousand passengers and crew to the bottom with her. But that is rather getting ahead of the story in hand.
The Empress Of Ireland was one of a pair of twin sister ships- the other one was the Empress Of Britain- built in Glasgow between 1905 and 1906. They were intended for the secondary, transatlantic liner service between Liverpool and Quebec City, from where passengers could join a Canadian Pacific train that could take them all the way to Vancouver. Ship and train were seen- and sold- as complementary parts of a through service; the greatest in the world at that time.
The two sister ships were steady and comfortable, rather than spectacular. Both were graceful twin stackers, with knife edge bows and cruiser sterns. They could make the one way trip from England to Canada in a week, and offered good, solid comfort for around 1500 passengers, in three classes. The Saint Lawrence route certainly lacked the glamour of the more famous and popular New York run, but many people preferred this more economical journey. As a result, the twin ‘Empresses’ were popular and successful ships from the start.
The Empress Of Ireland was under the command of Captain Henry Kendall when she pulled away from the pier at Quebec on the afternoon of May 28th, 1914. Kendall had become famous a few years earlier, when he recognised the fugitive Doctor Crippen as a passenger on board his ship, the liner Montrose. The message he sent to Scotland Yard led to Crippen’s appointment with a Pentonville hangman just months later, and Kendall became a minor national figure as a result.
There were a total of 1,477 passengers and crew on board the Empress Of Ireland as she groped her way down river from Quebec, through an increasingly thick fog. In the early hours of May 29th, as she passed the small town of Rimouski, she briefly sighted the flickering lights of another ship in the murk.
Without the benefit of radar, and in appalling visibility, the two ships tried to pirouette past each other. But a series of hideous miscalculations resulted in a horrific collision.
The ice reinforced bow of the Norwegian collier, Storstad, sliced into the starboard side of the liner as neatly as a stiletto blade. She was fully laden with coal, and the impact was catastrophic.
What followed was ghastly beyond adequate description. As the damaged collier slid back into the murk with her bow crumpled like so much wet cardboard, the Empress Of Ireland rolled over onto her starboard side. Most of the passengers and crew were asleep below decks. They literally never had a chance. Most drowned in their beds.
Within fourteen minutes, the Empress Of Ireland was engulfed by the freezing, fog shrouded expanse of the Saint Lawrence seaway.
There was no time to close the watertight doors, or the serried ranks of open portholes that admitted torrents of freezing cold water as the Empress heeled over. There was no time for any kind of organised evacuation; all those extra lifeboats proved as ultimately useless as the bureaucrats that belatedly decreed them in the first place.
Something like 1,012 people- passengers and crew alike- went to the bottom with the Empress Of Ireland. The disaster was an eight minute wonder; it made huge headlines at the time, and yet it also faded with obscene, almost indecent haste.
Why was that?
Mainly, because most eyes were focused on Europe, and the sabre rattling antics of the increasingly unstable Kaiser Wilhelm II and his royal cousins, installed as the rulers of empires right across Europe and Russia. But it went deeper than even that.
The Empress Of Ireland was a solid, workmanlike ship, built to carry ordinary, hardworking people and hopeful emigrants. For the media, her loss had none of the ghastly fascination of the events of 1912, when the sinking of the Titanic wiped out half the entire New York social register at a stroke, and took a huge chunk of the stock market down with her.
The Titanic also sank slowly that night, and she foundered on a glass calm sea. There was time that night for legends to be made, and stories to be remembered and recounted to a thrilled and horrified public. Time, in short, for a whole industry of burnished, barely credible stories to take hold, and be accepted as the true record. It was as fantastic and dramatic as it was unbelievable.
The Empress Of Ireland and her doomed human cargo had none of that. Her end was sudden, shocking initially, but ultimately soon overwhelmed by events on the ground in Sarajevo. It was thus the precursor to a horror without parallel, the appetiser for a particularly ghastly banquet.
All the same, there is something more than a little shameful and shocking in just how quickly and completely this horrific accident has been allowed to slip below the horizon. As the centenary approaches in May, it is to be hoped that, at last,. the story of the Empress Of Ireland is brought to light.
Those lost on that awful night back in May, 1914 deserve nothing less than that.