Remembering Lusitania

Tuesday 7 May 2019 marked the 104th anniversary of the sinking of RMS Lusitania. Each year we hold a commemorative service alongside the Lusitania propeller on our quaysides, to remember the 1191 men, women and children who lost their lives, as well as the survivors and families affected. Kath Kavanagh, who attended our commemoration in 2019, has kindly shared her thoughts about her Great Uncle, who was on board Lusitania when she was torpedoed.

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Kath visiting Cobh cemetery in 2015. Image courtesy of Kath Kavanagh

My Great Uncle James Wallace joined Cunard in 1912 as a second class waiter on board Lusitania. When the ship was attacked 3 years later, James was just 21 years old. He jumped into the water with his friend George Thomas (assistant officers' mess steward) who drowned. Uncle Jim couldn't swim but managed to stay afloat for approximately 5 hours before being rescued by the Julia patrol boat. I believe he was in hospital in Queenstown (now Cobh) for a while before heading back to Liverpool.

James Wallace in uniform

James Wallace.Image courtesy of Kath Kavanagh

He continued to serve with Cunard for 46 years, becoming the youngest man to hold the position of chief deck steward when he was promoted in 1919. After the Lusitania disaster he served on the Aquitania until the end of the First World War, before being transferred to the Mauretania where he served until 1934 when she was retired from service.

After 2 years on the Berengaria, Uncle Jim then joined the Queen Mary in 1936 for 10 years, including during the Second World War. When the Queen Elizabeth was launched he joined her for the maiden voyage in 1946, serving on her until he retired from Cunard in 1958. He never spoke of the Lusitania sinking but in 1965 he attended the 50th anniversary of the disaster, held in Queenstown.

Seafarers group on board RMS Queen Mary

James Wallace (holding lifebuoy) on board RMS Queen Mary. Image courtesy of Kath Kavanagh

In 2015 I was aboard the Queen Victoria for the 100th anniversary commemoration and also visited the site of the mass graves in the exact same cemetery. The highlight of Uncle Jim's career was when the Queen Mother travelled aboard the Queen Elizabeth. He was responsible for her safe and comfortable passage and as a thank you to him she presented him with a set of gold cuff links. He later had them converted into a brooch for his sister, my grandmother, and which I have possession of to this day.

On his retirement he lived with my grandmother in West Kirby until his death in the mid/late 1970s. As a child I remember him as being a very quiet and proud man. I became interested in the history of the Lusitania after he died but he had kept so much memorabilia from his service with Cunard that I regret never speaking to him about his time with the company. What I do know is that he would be very proud of us all keeping the memory of the Lusitania disaster living on, and remembering all those that so tragically lost their lives, and those that were affected by it for so long. It is my honour to be a part of that group that will keep their memories alive.