People's Stories

Everyone on the Lusitania's last voyage, including passengers and crew.

Herbert W. Ehrhardt

Herbert W. Ehrhardt

About Herbert W.

Herbert Wilfrid Ehrhardt was born in Ludwigshafen, Rhein, Germany, on the 15th July 1893, the son, and one of eight children, of Ernest Francis and Ida Louise Ehrhardt (née Hardy), who registered his birth in England.  His father was a research chemist and was working for a German chemical firm in Ludwigshafen.  The family came from Birmingham, Warwickshire, originally and Herbert was firstly educated at Heidelberg College in Germany and then spent a year at King Edward VI’s School in Birmingham, which enabled him to take the Birmingham matriculation examination and thereafter study at Birmingham University from which he subsequently graduated in chemistry.

In June 1912, he travelled to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and studied there until September, when he returned to England.

After this, he intended to study for a doctorate at Heidelberg University, and having returned to Germany, he was in Heidelberg when the war clouds were gathering in 1914.  In late July of that year, his father decided that the family would be safer in England and they consequently left there and arrived back in England just as the war broke out.  The family home in Birmingham was at Woodbourne Road, Edgbaston.

Knowing that he was unfit for military service without an operation on his lower abdomen, Herbert Ehrhardt then decided to take up a one year post offered at Toronto University, in Ontario, Canada as a demonstrator in the Chemical Department there, which allowed him to earn his keep and at the same time to work for a Master of Arts degree - chemistry was considered an art in Toronto at that time.  At the end of April 1915, as Canadian university terms had been shortened because of the war, he set off for home, having already booked second cabin passage on the May sailing of the Lusitania from New York to Liverpool, as he had been offered a holiday job in England at The Mersey Chemical Company at Bromborough on the Wirral Peninsula, which by then, was being run by his father, yet still owned, technically by his German parent firm!

Having arrived in New York on the evening of 30th April, he stayed with some friends of the family, before he travelled to the Cunard berth at Pier 54 in the port, on the morning of 1st May 1915, in time for the liner’s scheduled 10 o’clock sailing.  He boarded and then, in company with all the rest of the passengers and crew, he had to wait until just after mid-day until the liner actually sailed.  This delay was caused because she had to wait to embark passengers, crew and cargo from the recently requisitioned Anchor Liner Cameronia.

In later life, he committed his experiences of the voyage to paper: -

I travelled second class which was at the stern of the ship and had a berth in a four-berth cabin.  Two of the other inmates were brothers whose parents had a two-berth cabin. The fourth occupant was a student who was to travel in Europe.  The voyage was uneventful except that in order to save coal the speed was reduced and the voyage planned to take seven days instead of the usual five days.

Friday the 7th May was a gloriously fine day with plenty of hot sunshine, and after the early morning mist had dispersed we could see the Irish coastline from the upper decks but not from sea level.

The second class accommodation on the Lusitania was fully booked and this necessitated two sittings for all meals.  I had chosen the second sitting and was just finishing lunch when the torpedo struck causing a dull thud which shook the whole ship.  The dining saloon was on D deck just above the water line and all the portholes were open.  I realised that it was no good having the ship divided into watertight compartments if the portholes were left open so started to close the ones nearest to me.  While doing this, with my back to the dining saloon I had a fright - all the crockery, cutlery etc. on the tables for 200 diners slid to the floor with a tremendous crash and for a second I thought the ship was breaking up.  The stewards job, in the case of an emergency, was to shut all portholes and this was done in a few minutes.  I then went to my cabin (which was just off the stairway leading to the upper decks) to get my life jacket. I found however that somebody had been there before me and had taken it.  This did not worry me at all as I felt I could swim as easily without it as with it.  Not only had I swum a distance of two miles the previous summer but I had been at a school where rowing was the chief summer sport and had on several occasions been upset out of a boat when fully clothed.  While in my cabin I did however transfer my money from my suitcase to my pockets.

On getting up on deck I found that on the starboard side women and children were being loaded into lifeboats and that I would only be in the way.  On the port side people were waiting by the lifeboats; however it was impossible to launch these owing to the list on the ship.  They would have scraped against the side and either broken or overturned or both.  One family consisting of a father and mother two girls of 16 and 8 and a boy of 10 were there and very perturbed that the boy was missing.  I went to look for him and found that he had taken the opportunity of the general confusion to examine the first class accommodation with the lifts which ran between decks.  I returned him to the rest of the family.

This was the Neville family, whom Ehrhardt had befriended on the way and the little boy was their eleven year old son Charles.  Despite Ehrhardt’s opportune return of Charles to the family, they all perished in the subsequent sinking, apart from the mother, Mrs. Mabel Neville!

Just after this a steward came on deck with a number of life jackets and I helped him to distribute these to ladies who had not got any.  This led to an embarrassing scene the next day when one of these ladies greeted me and told me that she had been worrying all night as she thought nobody without a life jacket could possibly have survived.

By this time the list had become so bad that it was impossible to stand without holding on to something so I sat down.  A number of people slid down the deck and came to rest against the railings which marked the end of the second class deck.  The Lusitania was now plunging rapidly and when I began to slide I was afraid that I might hurt somebody already against the rails.  I need not have worried as before I reached them they were under water and I was swimming.

I was sucked down a long way and twisted and turned about but by keeping my eyes open and swimming towards the light I managed to reach the surface and get a few breaths of fresh air.  There was still a lot of commotion and a large wave was turning an empty lifeboat over just above me but before it hit me I was sucked down again and had a further struggle to reach the surface.  By experimenting later as to how long I could hold my breath I guess I was under water for about 75 seconds on each of those two occasions.  Since the Titanic disaster, when there had been a shortage of lifeboats, the Lusitania had been fitted with two sets of lifeboats namely an ordinary lifeboat stacked above one which was collapsible with canvas sides which were normally folded but could be raised before launching.  These were virtually flat-bottomed and measured about 40 ft. in length and some 1 2 to 1 5 ft. in width.

When I had got my breath back I saw one of these collapsible boats upside down about 20 yards away and it had a normal lifeboat lying across it. I swam to these and found that the two brothers who had been my cabin mates already on the upturned boat trying to launch the other.  We put the younger lad (about 16 years old) into the boat and sent him to the stern in the hope that his (weight) would tend to raise the bows.  We then tried to push the boat off.  In this we were too successful as once it began to move it went too quickly for us to get in and it floated away and was soon out of sight.  The boat was of course too heavy for the lad to be able to do anything in the way of maneuvering.  Several people however swam to it and climbed aboard and they then rowed round picking up others but by that time they had no idea in which direction to look for us.

Very soon we could see no other boats but occasionally somebody in a life jacket would come near enough to be pulled up on to our boat and occasionally a dead body would float past.  Although we were feeling safe and free of anxiety the time on the boat was not free of tragedy.  One of the bodies floating past seemed familiar to my cabin mate who turned it over only to find that it was his father.  One lady that we pulled out was obviously very ill and could not speak but only moan.  She died soon afterwards.  Later we picked a man up who seemed to be very nearly as ill, but after about half an hour he revived sufficiently to ask whether we had seen his 'missus.'  I helped him along to the dead lady who, it turned out, was his wife.  One of the people we helped aboard had taken off his shoes and socks in order to swim better and was complaining that his feet were cold.  As I had both shoes and socks on I lent him my shoes and went about in socks for the rest of the day.

Our vigil on the boat was livened at one time when a small steamer came in sight and passed near us but to our disappointment did not see us.  Shortly after this we were cheered by the sight of some twenty columns of black smoke coming over the horizon and these gradually grew larger and then we could see the funnels of a flotilla of boats of all kinds.  These fanned out to cover a large area of the sea.  One came near to us and asked whether we were alright.  On receiving the answer “yes” promised to pick us up later and went on to pick up people who were still floating in their life jackets or clinging to wreckage.  At dusk we were taken off our boat and headed for Queenstown.

The ship was the Royal Naval trawler H.M.S. Indian Empire.

A lady had been picked up just before us and had apparently died on reaching the deck so the doctor on board asked me to try artificial respiration which I kept on at for most of the journey to Queenstown but it was all in vain.

At about 10 p.m. we reached Queenstown and when we were disembarking the doctor called me back to get my name for the report he might have to write.  By the time I got on the dock the main body of people had been shepherded out of sight, and my cabin mate, who had waited for me, and I were directed to the American Consulate instead of to the Cunard offices.  The Consul sent off telegrams for us and then took us to the Cunard office where we met the younger brother and had our names entered on the list of survivors.  We were then taken to a hotel which still had one room with a large double bed vacant.  We all three shared this.  Our clothes were taken away to be dried.  I slept soundly though people kept coming in looking for relatives.  The other two were not so comfortable knowing their father was dead and suspecting that their mother had also drowned.

It has not proved possible to identify the two brothers.

In the middle of the night a policeman came round to get our names and he had to waken me three times before he got my name spelt correctly (I still had the German version of my name - that is to say Ehrhardt) and even then he told the others he did not believe it!

After we had got our clothes back and had breakfast I went to the nearest shoe shop to get a pair of shoes and while waiting to be served looked around and saw my shoes abandoned near a chair.  I put them on and told the shop assistant that I would not be buying any new ones.  He replied “I'm glad of that as we are running out of some sizes already.”.

On getting to the Cunard offices I was told that one of the ladies of whom I had seen while on board was ill in a hotel and asking for me to go round the three temporary mortuaries to see whether her 15-month-old child had been picked up.  She knew he was dead as she had him in her arms when he died and had held him until she became so numb that she could hold him no longer.  Going round these temporary mortuaries was the most harrowing part of the whole experience.

In other sources, Ehrhardt names the lady as a Mrs. Smith, but he must have mistaken her name, as there was no Mrs. Smith on board the Lusitania who lost a fifteen month old boy!

Later I was told that the mother of the family of five was very ill in the Admiral's house and asking for me.  She knew I had been near them on deck and thought I might know something about the rest of the family who as it turned out had all been drowned.  My visit to her could not have been any comfort as I could tell her nothing.

One thing that impressed me very forcibly was that the anxiety of relatives and friends waiting for news was much worse than my own.  As soon as I was safe on the upturned lifeboat I knew I was safe and my personal anxiety was over.  The first news that I was safe did not reach my relatives until 10 a.m. the next day and in most cases it was mid afternoon before they had any news.

Herbert Ehrhardt eventually left Queenstown on Monday 10th May and having taken the train to Dublin, he crossed by boat to Holyhead in Anglesey, North Wales, and spent the night in a hotel there, before taking another train to Chester, where he was met by his parents who took him to their new home in Bromborough.  Afterwards, he took on a position at the Mersey Chemical Company which he held until the end of the war.

During the war, his Germanic sounding surname was no hindrance, as people knew that had he been a German, he would have been interned, but after the war was over, he found it a liability - especially when trying to obtain employment.  Consequently, in 1919 he decided to change it to the more English sounding one of Hereward, which was, in any case the English equivalent of Ehrhardt, both Ehrhardt and Hereward being derived from the Anglo-Saxon name Herrwart!

During the war years, apart from the fact that Herbert Ehrhardt was medically unfit for military service, his work involved making chemicals for dying cloth khaki, and as such, it was a reserved occupation.  However, his younger brother, Alexander, served in the Mercantile Marine and like himself, was torpedoed not far from Queenstown, another brother, John, was killed in action in 1918 serving as an officer with the Royal Tank Corps, and his elder brother, William, was so badly wounded in action that he died not long after the war, in 1923.!

In late 1917, Herbert married Daisy Vanora Wearne in Swansea, Glamorganshire, Wales, and the couple had three children – Frances Penley, born in 1919, Laurence Wilfred, born in 1923, and William Herbert Neil, born in 1932.

For many years, the family lived in Scotland, and in fact both Laurence and William were born there.  William died before his second birthday of congenital heart disease, meningitis, and measles. 

Herbert Hereward died on the 14th February 1985, aged 91 years.  He resided at 15. High Street, Toller Porcorum, Dorchester, Dorset, at the time of his death.  He left an estate valued at £241,929!  His wife, Daisy, outlived him by less than four months, dying on the 4th June 1985.

Ludwigshafen Germany Births 1876 – 1903, Register of Births, Marriages and Deaths, Canadian Passenger Lists 1865 – 1935, U.S. Border Crossings from Canada to U.S. 1895 – 1960, UK Incoming Passenger Lists 1878 – 1960, U.S. Records of Aliens Pre-Examined in Canada 1904 – 1954, Cunard Records, Brotherton Library UniLeeds, Birmingham Daily Gazette, Liverpool Echo, Last Voyage of the Lusitania, Probate Records, Graham Maddocks, Geoff Whitfield, Michael Poirier, Jim Kalafus, Cliff Barry, Paul Latimer, Norman Gray.

Copyright © Peter Kelly.

Herbert W. Ehrhardt



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