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.

SS Arabic

SS Arabic

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 WIliam Finch (Image: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA)

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.


Views: 1133

Tags: History of Ireland, history, maritime, ship

Comment by Claire Fullerton on August 16, 2015 at 11:09pm

I, too, will think of the Arabic in the days ahead. Thank you, Mr. Lawlor, for this post.

Comment by David Lawlor on August 17, 2015 at 12:18am

Thank you, Claire.

Comment by Fran Reddy on August 19, 2015 at 10:08am

Great story to bring to mind the others who may not receive the same recognition. Thanks David.

Comment by David Lawlor on August 22, 2015 at 4:34am

Thanks Fran. Sorry for not replying sooner, I've been out of action for a few days

Comment by Ricky Duffy on August 23, 2015 at 5:03pm

Thank you.

Comment by David Lawlor on August 23, 2015 at 5:19pm

You're welcome.

Comment by Patrick Murphy on August 25, 2015 at 9:03am

I've recently finished reading Erik Larson's excellent book, Dead Wake, that relates the last voyage of the Lusitania.  You are right - certain ship tragedies get all the attention.  But as you study history you find there are many, many tales that also deserve to be told.  As you say - every family touched by an event like the sinking of the Arabic has suffered a loss.  For anyone interested in what that experience may be like, Larson's book effectively humanizes the tragedy of these indiscriminate torpedo sinkings.

Comment by David Lawlor on August 25, 2015 at 9:29am

Thanks Patrick. Larson's book certainly sounds like an interesting read. I'll check it out.

Comment by Patrick Murphy on August 25, 2015 at 9:50am

David, you should. It is a terrific read.  If you are not familiar with Larson's work he has a gift for weaving historical facts and evidence into a compelling narrative.  History written as mystery.  In addition to the humanizing quality of his writing about the Lusitania there is a great deal of intrigue and politics that is exposed. I would say, possibly, some interesting context regarding the protection, and lack of protection, of merchant and passenger vessels at the time and how this served strategic interests - some of which may apply to the story of the Arabic.

Comment by David Lawlor on August 25, 2015 at 9:52am

Sounds just up my street, Patrick. Thanks


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