1917: Year of shipwrecks off Irish coast

More than three dozen ships were sunk off the Irish coast in 1917, most in German attacks related to World War I. About 600 people, including merchant crews and civilian passengers, died in these episodes, but the toll likely was much higher. Some survived these ordeals.

The Irish Shipwrecks Database (ISD) lists 41 vessels as sent to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, Irish Sea and St. George’s Channel in 1917. Some of the wrecks were more than 100 miles off the coast, others within sight of shore. My review of other sources indicates the database is missing at least a few navy ships and cargo vessels sunk by German submarines, and also does not included a few of the U-boats destroyed in Irish waters by the U.S. and British navy.

About half the vessels listed in the ISD were torpedoed by German submarines. Others struck mines floating in the sea lanes. A few vessels were captured, stripped of food and other valuables, then scuttled. The wrecked watercraft included cargo ships under steam and sail, merchant cruisers, minesweepers and fishing trawlers.

The 41 shipwrecks in 1917 is the third highest total in the ISD behind 64 sunken vessels in 1867 and the same number in 1852. The ISD shows five shipwrecks in both 1918 and 1916, including the Aud.

Germany renewed its policy of unrestricted submarine warfare in early 1917 after restricting such activity in the wake of sinking the British liner Lusitania in May 1915. America entered the war in April 1917, and a month later the U.S. Navy arrived at Cork. The war continued through November 1918.

The deadliest episode of 1917 was the 25 January sinking of the Laurentic at Lough Swilly, County Donegal. The British steam ship, which had been converted into an armed merchant cruiser, hit a mine about 90 minutes after leaving the harbor. One hundred twenty one men were rescued from the crew of 475.

S.S. Laurentic

The Laurentic was carrying a valuable cargo of gold ingots. As of October 2017, 542 of the gold bars had been recovered from the original load of 3,211 as high-tech salvage crews continue searching the bottom for the rest of the treasure.

The second deadliest 1917 Irish shipwreck occurred two weeks after the Laurentic, on 7 February, when the passenger steamer California was torpedoed 38 miles from Fastnet Rock, off the Cork coast. A total of 43 people were killed–30 crew and 13 passengers–among the 205 aboard.

While these episodes were widely reported in Irish newspapers, other ship sinkings were not mentioned at all, or matter-of-factly. For example, on 24 April, this story appeared on page 5 of the Freemans Journal:

IRISH STEAMER SUNK

Another Irish ship, with a cargo of grain, flour and general merchandise, for an Irish port, has been sunk by a German submarine. It is understood that the crew was rescued.

The 1917 Irish shipwrecks are getting some contemporary media attention at this year’s centenary:

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