The captain was on the bridge of the ship when he saw the track of the torpedo about 300 feet away, but by then it was too late.
Pictured, the SS Arabic sinking (Image: Illustrated London News [London, England]
Captain William Finch was a portly man, but I imagine him moving faster than someone of his build would be expected. I can almost see those jowls quiver as he issued his final commands before the torpedo struck, sending a huge column of water into the air and hurling him into the sea.
Finch was sucked beneath the roiling waves, but he fought for his life and managed to make his way to the surface.
It was August 19, 1915, and his passenger ship, the SS Arabic, was in its death throes, having been torpedoed without warning by German submarine U-24 just four miles off Ireland’s Cape Clear.
There were 180 passengers – 145 British, 26 Americans and several Spanish, French, Belgians and Russians -- on board, as well as 250 crew, travelling from Liverpool to New York.
Fourteen lifeboats were launched, and all the passengers donned the life jackets that had been placed around the ship’s deck. Finch and his men must have worked very fast because in little over 10 minutes the SS Arabic would be gone, taking 44 lives with her.
Captain William Finch (Image: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA)
Had it not been for the quick actions of captain and crew, the number of fatalities would have been higher. As William Finch said later about the engineers, who stuck to their posts up to the last moment: ‘They were heroes a thousand times over, who carried out my orders from the bridge, even when they knew the ship was sinking.
‘It was well that this was so, as otherwise the loss of life would have been very large, as the enemy submarine never gave us any warning whatever, and as a matter of fact we never saw her.’
A little over two months earlier, on June 9, the luxury liner RMS Lusitania was struck by a torpedo just a few miles from the Arabiic’s position. It sank with the loss of almost 1,200 lives.
'The enemy submarine never gave us any warning whatever, and as a matter of fact we never saw her.’ -- Captain William Finch
On October 10, 1918, the RMS Leinster would suffer the same fate. A German submarine sank it as it travelled across the Irish Sea to Holyhead. A total of 529 civilian and military passengers were killed that day – the greatest ever loss of life in that stretch of water and the greatest loss of life on an Irish-registered ship.
I’d never heard of the Leinster, much less the Arabic. It is ships like the Lusitania and the Titanic that we commemorate. The loss of life was greater in those tragedies, and in the numbers game that sometimes is history, they qualify as somehow being more significant.
Tell that to the families of those on the Arabic, who felt the weight of their loss almost a hundred years ago to this day.
History can be as unforgiving as the cruel sea. It takes complex, nuanced lives that were filled with passions, secrets, loves and fears, and then consigns them to its dusty depths, leaving only a statistic to be browsed by the mildly curious.
I’ll think of the Arabic in the days ahead. That’s not much as far as commemorations go, but it’s all that’s left.