The sinking of the RMS Leinster: the international significance

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 1 (Spring 2004), News, News, Volume 12

Mention the sinking of the Lusitania and most people will give a nod of recognition. Mention of the sinking of the Leinster will usually elicit a puzzled frown, despite the fact that its loss was of major international significance. It was also the worst disaster ever to befall an Irish-owned shipping company and resulted in the highest-ever loss of life in the Irish Sea. Even in Dún Laoghaire and Holyhead, the ports from which the Leinster operated, the incident has been virtually forgotten. It seems hard to believe that the sinking of the mail-boat Leinster was once notorious throughout the English-speaking world. In the years that followed the disaster, newspapers and books referred to it in a way that suggested that their readers were familiar with the incident and didn’t need to have the circumstances outlined to them. However, with the passage of time the story of the Leinster sank into an ocean of forgetfulness as deep as the sea in which the ship itself lies.

From 1 January 1850 the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company (CDSPCo.) was given the sole contract to carry mail across the Irish Sea. The ships operated between Carlisle pier at Dún Laoghaire (then Kingstown) and the admiralty pier at Holyhead. Mail was carried on the RMS (Royal Mail Steamer) Connaught, Leinster, Munster and Ulster. Mail was sorted on board by Dublin Post Office staff. Crews were drawn from the towns of Dún Laoghaire and Holyhead. The mail-ships carried passengers from the earliest days. Eventually passenger traffic became the company’s main source of revenue. Towards the end of the nineteenth century the company updated their mail-carrying fleet. Like their predecessors, the new ships were named after the four provinces of Ireland.

At the outbreak of World War I the Royal Navy blockaded the English Channel and the North Sea between Scotland and Norway. This resulted in the numerically inferior German fleet being bottled up in port. The blockade prevented war materials and food from reaching Germany. With the submarine, however, the Germans had a weapon that could avoid the blockade by sailing underneath it. Once through, the submarines could strike at Britain’s lifeline, her merchant fleet. The German campaign began with civility and gallantry. Crews were allowed to take to the lifeboats before their ships were sunk. But the British began to arm their merchant ships, and the admiralty ordered merchant ships to ram surfaced submarines. ‘Q’ ships, merchant ships armed with hidden guns and crewed by the Royal Navy, would pose as ordinary merchant ships and sink submarines when they surfaced. These developments resulted in Germany switching to no-warning underwater attacks on merchant shipping. But German fear of a possible US declaration of war, heightened by American protests after the sinking of the RMS Lusitania in 1915, led to a suspension of the no-warning attacks.

On 31 January 1917, with the war going against her, Germany announced that she would resume unrestricted attacks on merchant shipping. On 3 February 1917 the US broke off diplomatic relations with Germany and on 6 April she declared war. Successful German attacks on merchant shipping forced the allies to sail their vessels in convoys escorted by warships. The success of the convoy system in turn resulted in the Germans concentrating their attacks on areas like the Irish Sea, where shipping was not convoyed and where long-range convoys began to disperse as they reached British waters.

Meanwhile Ireland had become used to the sight of military uniforms from many countries. British troops were stationed throughout the country. The Royal Navy increased its presence on Ireland’s south coast, and in particular at Cobh, Co. Cork (then Queenstown). The Royal Air Force operated a number of aerodromes in various parts of the country. The entry of the US into the war saw a build-up of American ships at Bantry Bay and Queenstown. The US Naval Aviation Service operated five bases in Ireland. Military personnel from Australia, New Zealand and Canada visited the country on leave from the battlefields of France and Belgium.
On 10 October 1918 the RMS Leinster left Kingstown before 9am. On board were ship’s crew, postal sorters and passengers. While there were many civilian passengers on board, the majority were military personnel. Many were going on or returning from leave. There were soldiers, sailors, airmen and nurses. They came from Ireland, Britain, the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

About fifteen miles from Kingstown the Leinster was struck by two torpedoes and sent to the bottom of the Irish Sea. Many died immediately, while others perished in the rough sea while awaiting rescue. The final death toll was 501. The sinking provoked widespread outrage in the Allied countries. From the US Irish tenor John McCormack, whose brother-in-law was lost, publicly condemned the sinking. From England Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts, sent a telegram of sympathy on the death of John Ross, secretary of the Howth Yacht Club, who was on his way to a scouting conference. But the most significant comments came from US President Woodrow Wilson on 14 October. Referring to German peace overtures made on 4 October, he said:

‘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.’
With the ghost of the Leinster threatening the possibility of peace negotiations, Germany responded on 20 October, agreeing to cease hostilities against merchant ships. The attacks stopped the following day. An armistice was agreed and the war itself ended on 11 November 1918.
Philip Lecane is chairperson of Friends of the Leinster.


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