Days from end of WWI, more than 500 died when U-boat torpedoed mail ship

The RMS Leinster. During the war the vessel would have been camouflaged.
The RMS Leinster. During the war the vessel would have been camouflaged.

A century on, historian Gordon Lucy remembers the sinking of the RMS Leinster in Dún Laoghaire harbour

On October 10 1918, a month and a day before the end of the Great War, the mail boat RMS Leinster was sunk by a German U-boat, with the loss of more than 500 lives.

The ship's anchor forms part of the memorial that was erected at D�n Laoghaire harbour to remember the more than 500 people who perished on the RMS Leinster

The ship's anchor forms part of the memorial that was erected at D�n Laoghaire harbour to remember the more than 500 people who perished on the RMS Leinster

Although the official death toll was placed at 501, on the strength of recent research at least 565 people perished in what remains the greatest single loss of life in the Irish Sea.

The Leinster was one of four ships owned by the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company to operate a mail and passenger service between Kingstown (now known as Dun Laoghaire) and Holyhead in Anglesey. The other three ships were named RMS Connaught, RMS Munster and RMS Ulster. Collectively they were known as the ‘Provinces’. The prefix RMS is the abbreviation for Royal Mail Steamer.

Shortly before 9am on October 10 the Leinster left Kingstown, under the command of Captain William Birch, a Dubliner who lived with his family in Holyhead. The ship had a crew of 77 and was carrying 694 passengers, of whom approximately 190 were civilians. The remainder were service personnel either returning to their units or going on leave. Some were nurses. Some of the service personnel were from Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States.

Although the weather was fine, the sea was still rough following recent storms.

At about 10am the Leinster was emerging from Dublin Bay at a point four nautical miles east of the Kish light. It was here that the UB-123 fired a torpedo at the Leinster which missed, passing across the ship’s bow. A second torpedo struck the ship on the port side, in the vicinity of the mail room. The explosion tore holes in both the Leinster’s port and starboard sides. Attempting to turn with the intention of returning to Kingstown, the ship was struck on the starboard side by a third torpedo which inflicted catastrophic damage, ‘shattering the ship into matchwood’.

Many on board were killed outright. Some were fortunate enough to clamber into lifeboats. Others clung to life-rafts and wreckage. Fifteen vessels, tugboats and destroyers were hurriedly despatched to pick up the survivors but many perished before they arrived. Those who survived were landed at Victoria wharf at Kingstown to receive medical attention. In the days that followed many bodies were recovered from the sea but some were never recovered.

Captain Birch and 36 of his crew were lost in the sinking. Wounded in the initial attack, Captain Birch was drowned when his lifeboat became swamped in heavy seas and capsized while trying to transfer survivors to HMS Lively. Incidentally, according to an article, based on the testimony of a Mr Knollys Stokes of Cork, in the Irish Times on July 31 1964, Birch may have smuggled guns (600 rifles and 300 revolvers) for the UVF through Kingstown in July 1914.

As already noted, the first torpedo to hit the ship struck on the port side in the vicinity of the postal sorting room. As a result, of the 22 postal sorters on board, only one survived. He avoided the blast by virtue of the fact that he had slipped out of the post room for a smoke.

Josephine Carr, the first Wren to die on duty, was a historically significant casualty. Daughter of Samuel and Kathleen Carr of 4 Bethesda Road, Blackrock, Co Cork, she had enlisted in the newly created Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) in September 1917, and was described as a clerk/shorthand typist. Josephine’s body was never recovered.

At least three prominent casualties had strong connections with north-west Ulster. Lady Alexandra Phyllis Hamilton was the daughter of James Hamilton, the 2nd Duke of Abercorn. Lady Phyllis remained calm and handed her lifejacket to someone else, observing: ‘I’m a strong swimmer.’ The Princess of Wales (the future Queen Alexandra and consort of Edward VII) had acted as sponsor at her baptism. She was also a cousin of Winston Churchill and one of five close relatives whom he lost in the Great War. Lady Phyllis’ body was never recovered.

Jocelyn Alexander was the eldest son of William Alexander, successively Bishop of Derry and Archbishop of Armagh, and the hymn writer Mrs C F Alexander. He is buried in Derry City Cemetery close to his parents.

Alderman James McCarron was a prominent trade unionist from Londonderry who had been president of the ICTU in 1899, 1907 and 1910. Although a nationalist in politics, he was a staunch defender of the role of British trades unions in Ireland and had been a member of the Irish Convention of 1917-18. He is buried in Derry City Cemetery.

Lieutenant Colonel Theodore Montgomery Archdale DSO of the Royal Horse Artillery was a casualty with strong Fermanagh connections. Although born in Edinburgh, he was the son of Nicholas M Archdale of Crock-na-Crieve in the county and the husband of Helen Archdale, a high-profile Anglo-Scottish feminist, political activist and journalist. He is buried in St John’s Churchyard, Clondalkin.

Alexander Burleigh came from Florence Court, Co Fermanagh. He perished after visiting his older brother, Andrew, a wounded soldier, in a Dublin hospital.

One hundred and forty-four military casualties were interred at Grangegorman Military Cemetery in Dublin. This fascinating but comparatively little known cemetery, which dates from 1876 and is situated near Phoenix Park, contains the graves of military personnel from both world wars (including those killed during the Easter rebellion of 1916) and close family relatives.

The sinking of the RMS Leinster attracted stern comment from President Woodrow Wilson who observed on October 14: ‘At the very time that the German government approaches the government of the United States with proposals of peace its submarines are engaged in sinking passenger ships at sea.’

Germany responded on October 20 by agreeing to cease hostilities against merchant ships. The attacks stopped the following day.

And nine days after the sinking of the Leinster, the UB-123 struck a mine in the North Sea Mine Barrage, killing all 36 crew members.

• A special event to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Leinster is due to take place in Dún Laoghaire on Wednesday. Church bells will sound across the town to remember those who perished.