I would like to thank David Carroll for this guest post on Captain Albert Bestic who served aboard the RMS Lusitania which was torpedoed on this day, May 7th 1915. Third Officer Bestic was one of those that survived. Over now to David for his account.
Growing up in Dunmore East during the 1950s and 60s, I was constantly regaled by my father, a Master Mariner, of stories of shipwrecks, great exploits and heroic deeds by seafarers and explorers. Names that were always to the forefront and that were given tremendous respect were Sir Robert Falcon Scott, and Irish Antarctic explorers Sir Ernest Shackleton and Tom Crean, a member of three expeditions to Antarctica. It is sad to think and an indictment of the lack of respect shown to Ireland’s maritime heritage that it is only in recent years that the latter two and other Irish explorers have received the proper recognition and celebration that they deserve in their native land.
Another name that kept cropping up during my childhood was Captain Albert Bestic, who was Junior Third Officer on RMS Lusitania, torpedoed off the Old Head of Kinsale on May 7th, 1915. My father had served with Irish Lights for a short period before World War Two and would have known Captain Bestic on a personal basis. I can still remember the excitement that followed when my father received a copy of Captain Bestic’s book, ‘Kicking Canvas’, an autographical account of his maiden voyage as an apprentice aboard a sailing ship called the Denbigh Castle in 1908. The Denbigh Castle sailed from Cardiff and its destination was Peru. The ship had a treacherous crossing and endured many storms. The ship was feared lost until it finally sailed into Freemantle, Australia and then proceeded to its destination of Peru, a voyage that had taken over a year to complete. This traumatic voyage did not deter Bestic and he continued to work his way up the nautical career ladder to become a professional deck officer in the Mercantile Marine.
Albert Arthur Bestic was born on August 26th, 1890 and grew up in South Dublin. Bestic is not a name of Irish origin, his family descended originally from Huguenots in the Normandy region of France. He was the second child of Arthur and Sarah Stephenson. He had an older sister Olive who was born in 1888. He was educated at the Portsmouth Grammar School and St. Andrew’s College in Dublin.
As a boy on holidays in Scotland, he had seen the Lusitania in the Clyde. “If I could sail on a ship like that,” he had thought, “I’d go to sea.” He added: “To me she was my dream ship. I saw her first when in her regal beauty she sped along the surface of the Clyde upon her trials. My boyish heart went out to her in admiration.”
Later, while in the service of the Denbigh Castle, he once again saw the large liner sweep by. As he looked up at the liner, he saw, “a photographic impression of four big funnels, tiers of decks, fluttering handkerchiefs, the name ‘Lusitania’, in gold letters, and a roaring bow wave.” When the ship “streaked by”, it created a large wave that sent all the men into the lee scuppers. The sailors began cursing at her, but not Bestic. He vowed one day that he would stand upon the bridge of that ship! 1
In early 1915, Albert married Annie Queenie Elizabeth Kent, originally from Belfast but by then living in England. He sailed to the United States as an officer aboard the Leyland liner, SS Californian, that is best known for its inaction during the sinking of the RMS Titanic in 1912 despite being the closest ship in the area. To Bestic’s great surprise, he was informed that his next assignment would be as the junior third officer of the Lusitania– his dream ship! With many officers, joining the Royal Navy for the war effort, Cunard’s recruitment policy had altered.
The RMS Lusitania had been launched on June 7th, 1906 at the shipyard of John Brown & Co, Clydebank, Glasgow. The ship, and her sister ship RMS Mauretania had been built because of negotiations between the British Government and the Cunard Line with a view to being capable of taking back the prestigious ‘Blue Riband’ for the fastest Atlantic crossing. She was the first British passenger ship to be built with four funnels, with a gross tonnage of 32,500 tons and an overall length of 785 feet, and with seven decks for the use of passengers.
On September 7th, 1907, after the completion of her trials, she sailed from Liverpool on her maiden voyage to Queenstown (now Cobh) and New York, watched by a crowd of 200,000 spectators. On her second voyage, in more favourable weather conditions, she did achieve the distinction of taking the ‘Blue Riband’, a record that would stand for the next twenty-two years.2
Lusitania completed her last peacetime voyage from New York, arriving in Liverpool on the day Great Britain declared war on Germany, August 4th, 1914. Lusitania was not requisitioned by the Admiralty but continued to sail for Cunard once a month to New York. Between December 16th and March 13th, 1915 four more successful round voyages were made, although these were not without incident.3
The waters around the British Isles were dangerous places for Allied shipping, and in April 1915, the German Embassy in the United States published warnings in the New York newspapers that passengers, travelling on Allied ships, travelled at their own risk. At the time, the Lusitania was taking passengers on board at Pier 54, New York, for the homeward voyage, departing on Saturday May 1st, 1915, with 1,266 passengers, including many wealthy and notable Americans, and 696 crew aboard, including Junior Third Officer Bestic, making his first voyage on the ship.
On Friday, May 7th, 1915 at 11.00hrs, Lusitania broke through the fog into hazy sunshine on its voyage from New York to Liverpool. To port was an indistinct smudge, which was the Irish coastline. But there was no sign of any other ships. Captain William Turner, Master of the Lusitaniahad expected to see HMS Juno, which would have acted as an escort. There was no sign of Juno.
At 11.55hrs, Captain Turner was informed of U-boat activity off the southern Irish coast. At 13.40hrs, Captain Turner saw a landmark as familiar to him; a long promontory with a lighthouse on top of it, which was painted with black and white horizontal bands- the Old Head of Kinsale. To avoid reported U-Boat activity in the area, Captain Turner was instructed by Vice Admiral Coke of the British Admiralty to change course and head for Queenstown.
However, at 13.20 hrs, the German U-Boat U-20 under the command of Kapitänleutnant Walther Schwieger spotted the smoke from a steamer with four funnels astern approximately 12-14 miles away. Once the U-boat closed into its target, it fired a single torpedo.
At 14.10hrs, the torpedo struck the ship with a sound which Turner later recalled was “like a heavy door being slammed shut.” Almost instantaneously there came a second, much larger explosion, which physically rocked the ship. A tall column of water and debris shot skyward, wrecking lifeboat No. 5 as it came back down. On the bridge of the Lusitania, Captain Turner could see instantly that his ship was doomed. He gave the orders to abandon ship. He then went out onto the port bridge wing and looked back along the boat deck. The first thing he saw was that all the port side lifeboats had swung inboard, which meant that all those on the starboard side had swung outboard. The starboard ones could be launched, though with a little difficulty, but the port side boats would be virtually impossible to launch. 4
At 14.11hrs the Lusitania has started to send distress signals from the Marconi room. “SOS, SOS, SOS, COME AT ONCE. BIG LIST. 10 MILES SOUTH OLD KINSALE. MFA”. The last three letters were the ships call sign.
An extract from Lusitania website describes vividly the drama and mayhem that unfolded:
“At the port No 2 boat station, Junior Third Officer Bestic was in charge. Standing on the after davit, he was trying to keep order and explain that due to the heavy list, the boat could not be lowered. Suddenly, he heard a hammer striking the link-pin to the snubbing chain. Before the word “NO!” left his lips, the chain was freed and the five-ton lifeboat laden with over 50 passengers swung inward and crushed those standing on the boat deck against the superstructure. Unable to take the strain, the men at the davits let go of the falls and boat 2, plus the collapsible boat stowed behind it, slid down the deck towing a grisly collection of injured passengers and jammed under the bridge wing, right beneath the spot where Captain Turner was. Bestic, determined to stop the same situation arising at the next boat station, jumped along to No. 4 boat, just as somebody knocked out its link pin. He darted out of the way as No. 4 boat slid down the deck maiming and killing countless more people, before crashing into the wreckage of the first two boats. Driven by panic, passengers swarmed into boats, 6,8, 10 and 12. One after another they careered down the deck to join 2 and 4. The sea was now swirling over the bridge floor. Then the stern of Lusitania began to settle back, and a surge of water flooded the bridge, sweeping Captain Turner out of the door and off the ship. As the Lusitania sank beneath the waves, that same surge of water swept Junior Third Officer Bestic out through the first-class entrance hall into the sea. The Lusitania was gone, and with her had gone 1,201 people. It was now 14.28 GMT, on Friday May 7th, 1915.”
Another extract from website continues with the story of Bestic’s ordeal:
“He was still at his post on the port side of the ship when he saw the last wave charge up the deck. Without a lifebelt, he jumped over the side and tried to swim clear of the ship but was still “dragged down with the ship.” He tumbled in the water and noticed the water getting lighter as he was pushed upwards. He swam upwards for what felt like minutes, and when he burst to the surface, he realized that he was inside an overturned lifeboat. He made his way under the gunwale and felt a hand as Seaman Thomas Quinn pulled him by the collar to the top side of the boat. When Bestic surfaced, he only saw wreckage and people struggling in the water where the great ship had been. He could hardly bear the sound of hundreds of men, women, and children crying out in the water, “the despair, anguish and terror of hundreds of souls passing into eternity.”
Fearing that the capsized boat that he was on would soon be overwhelmed, he struck out on his own, swimming towards land miles away. A current carried him off by himself but could still hear the cries of children in the water. The cries soon stopped. He lost his sense of time and place, imagining that he was a young boy seeing Lusitania sail by again. Then Bestic found his own collapsible and hauled half of himself over the gunwale into the boat, the other half of him still in the water. He soon realized that this boat was taking in water. Bestic struggled to keep afloat by plugging his collapsible boat with any flotsam that was around him.
Bestic soon sighted a young, dark-haired man swimming in the water and called out to him. After the young man got himself on the boat, he quipped, “I suppose it’s no use asking you for a cigarette.” “I’m sorry,” Bestic apologised, “Mine have gone rather soggy.”
The two men rowed and bailed water from their boat to keep warm and came across the body of a young girl. They then came across a woman in a lifejacket, seemingly in shock. Her heavy, soaked garments required that both men pull her out of the water and into their boat. She asked them, “Where is my baby?” “I’m sorry,” Bestic answered, “we haven’t seen any babies.” To their horror, the distraught woman threw herself overboard. The young man grabbed the woman and lied, “Your baby is safe. I saw it taken into another boat.”
The woman allowed herself to be helped into the boat again. Bestic chided himself for not thinking of the lie. The small, waterlogged boat picked up a dozen or more survivors before they could not take on anymore. Hours passed and Bestic feared that it would be dark before help came for them. He found a watertight tin of biscuits and passed them out to everyone in his boat, “Chew these biscuits. You’ll find that working your jaws keeps you warm.” He had learned this from experience when he had sailed around Cape Horn. The lifeboat was quiet as all on board busied themselves with chewing instead of making conversation.
Four hours after Lusitania sank, their collapsible was picked up by the trawler Bluebell. If help had come any later, the skies really would have been dark. In the messroom of the Bluebell, Bestic saw Captain Turner alive, sitting by himself. Bestic went up to him and said, “I’m very glad to see you alive, sir.” “Why should you be?” Turner asked. “You’re not that fond of me.” “Fondness doesn’t enter into it, sir. I’m glad to see you alive because I respect you as my Captain and I admire you as a seaman.”
Amongst the 1,191 who lost their lives were 786 passengers and 405 crew, and the trawlers Bluebell and the Wanderer from Peel, Isle of Man rescued most of the 771 survivors. In all, only 289 bodies were recovered, 65 of which are never identified. The bodies of many of the victims were buried at either Queenstown, where 148 bodies were interred in the Old Church Cemetery, or the Church of St. Multose in Kinsale. The bodies of the remaining 885 victims were never recovered.5
Courtmacsharry RNLI received news of the disaster and the lifeboat Ketzia Gwilt under the command of Coxswain Timothy Keohane (Father of Antarctic explorer Patrick Keohane) was launched and set out to row the 12.6 nautical miles to the casualty, as in calm conditions the sails were of no use.
An extract from Courtmacsharry RNLI Return of Service log states: “We had no wind, so had to pull the whole distance- on the way to wreck, we met a ship’s boat cramped with people who informed us the Lusitania had gone down. We did everything in our power to reach the place, but it took us at least three and half hours of hard pulling to get there- then only in time to pick up dead bodies.”
The Courmacsharry Lifeboat then proceeded in picking up as many bodies as they could and transferred them to the ships on scene tasked with transferring bodies back to Queenstown. The final entry from the log stated: “It was a harrowing site to witness- the sea was strewn with dead bodies floating about, some with lifebelts on, others holding on pieces of rafts- all dead. I deeply regret it was not in our power to have been in time to save some”. 6
Included amongst the lost passengers was Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, one of the richest men in the world. Yet he showed himself willing to sacrifice his own life for the sake of others. He was travelling with his valet to Britain to conduct a meeting of the International Horse Breeders’ Association. He refused to save himself. He gave his lifejacket away and used the critical moments as the ship was sinking to put children into the lifeboats. He showed, according to a report in the New York Times, “gallantry which no words of mine can describe”. His body was never found.
Another famous person that drowned was Sir Hugh Lane, the Irish art dealer and nephew of writer Augusta, Lady Gregory of Coole Park. He is best known for establishing Dublin’s Municipal Gallery of Modern Art, but his famous collection, the ‘Lane Bequest’ has proved to be a controversial issue with ownership being disputed for almost a century between Britain and Ireland until an amicable arrangement was agreed.
There were harrowing scenes in Queenstown as survivors and bodies were brought ashore. The casualties of the Lusitania included 128 Americans, leading to outrage in the United States. President Wilson later dismissed the warning printed in the paper on the day of the ship’s departure, stating that no amount of warning could excuse the carrying out of such an inhumane act. However, it would not be until April 1917, before he went to a joint session of Congress to request a declaration of war against Germany.
In May 1915, a wave of anti-alien rioting spread throughout many English cities, particularly in Liverpool where the local Echo newspaper reported in May 2015: “Almost 600 people with Liverpool and Merseyside connections alone were on board the RMS Lusitania when it was torpedoed and sunk off the coast of Ireland 100 years ago this week. At least 145 local crew members are recorded as losing their lives.”
As news of the attack on the Lusitania spread around the world, emotions and opinions became polarised. Britain and Germany each advocated for the justness of their side. The sinking became a powerful propaganda tool in the build-up to America joining the war and closer to home, many propaganda posters appeared that advocated for more men to join the war effort.
A year after the sinking of the Lusitania, Albert Bestic’s wife gave birth to their first child, Desmond. At that time, he was serving in the Royal Navy aboard minesweepers. His second son, George was born in Scotland in 1919 and his third son, Alan was born in England in 1922. Alan became a well-known journalist, initially with the Irish Times, and later as a prolific writer. One of his sons Richard, a name that many readers may recall, was an outstanding international correspondent with Sky News, broadcasting from around the world.
In 1922, Captain Bestic joined the Irish Lights Service. On December 19th, 1940, he was master of the lightship tender SS Isolda, which was bombed and sunk by the Luftwaffe off the Wexford coast. Sadly, six crew members, all from Dun Laoghaire were lost on that occasion. Relating this part of Captain Bestic’s maritime career must wait until another time.
Albert Arthur “Bisset” Bestic died in Bray, Co Wicklow on December 20th, 1962, aged seventy-two years. He is buried at St Michan’s Church in Dublin. The nickname “Bisset” had been given to him by Captain William Turner.
All images are courtesy of Maritime Historian Cormac Lowth, whose assistance with the article is very much appreciated.
- Information kindly provided by Cormac Lowth.
Recommended Further Reading: