The following account of the sinking of the SS Artist is an extract from the book
The merchant seaman in war
by L. Cope Cornford, with a foreword by Admiral Sir John R. Jellicoe.
Published 1918 by George H. Doran Company in New York.
Written in English.
"BUT NINE OF HER CREW ALIVE"
on the morning of January 27th,
1917, invery dirty weather, in the North Atlantic.
One of his Majesty's patrol boats fighting out a
full easterly gale with a breaking sea, smothered
in water, violently flung to and fro. To the
lieutenant-commander, R.N.R., comes a mes-
senger with a signal pad, on which is neatly
written an intercepted wireless S.O.S. call :
" S.S. Artist sinking rapidly, mined or torpedoed
in ' then followed her position. The lieu-
tenant-commander replied by wireless that he
was proceeding to her assistance. No answer
came, then or afterwards. The lieutenant -
commander increased his speed up to the limit
the boat could stand in that sea, and steered for
the spot indicated. He shoved along for two
hours ; then, as the vessel was being strained
and the engines were racing, he reduced speed ;
an hour later he was obliged again to reduce
speed. At half-past one he arrived at the
position indicated. There was nothing but the
boiling waste of waters.
The lieutenant-commander cruised twelve
miles in one direction and twelve miles in another ;
the wind increasing, the sea rising higher, the
cold very bitter.
At in the afternoon the lieu-
tenant-commander was obliged to heave-to. He
did not think that in such weather the boats of
the sinking ship could have been launched, or if
they were launched, that they could live. That
night it blew harder than ever, and the thermo-
meter fell to 37 degrees. At the
next morning the lieutenant-commander went
to succour another ship in distress, and so passes
out of this story.
He was right and wrong in his surmise. A
little after the lieutenant-commander had
received the S.O.S. call from the Artist, the
boats had been launched from her, and one lived.
While the lieutenant-commander, the same
afternoon, was beating to and fro in the raging
sea and icy spindrift, there was a boat with its
miserable crew somewhere near.
It was between eight and nine on that Saturday
January 27th, 1917, when the Artist's
wireless operator sent out his call. The Artist,
sailing from an American port, had run right
into the gale ; and she had been hove-to for
three nights and two days. Between eight and
nine in the morning, without a sign of a submarine,
the dull boom of an explosion roared through the
tumult of the gale, and a torpedo, striking the
starboard side forward, tore a huge hole close
upon the water-line.
There was not a moment to lose. The violent
pitching of the ship, lying head to sea, ominously
slackened as she began to settle by the head. The
sea poured over her bows and swept the decks
from stem to stern. Waist-deep in water, the
crew struggled desperately to lower the three
lifeboats. In one boat were the master with the
second and third officers and part of the crew ;
in another were the chief officer and part of
the crew ; and in the third were a cadet and
part of the crew. What followed is taken from
the cadet's narrative.
He was in his boat, which was swung out on
the falls, and he saw the chief officer's boat, also
swung out, dashed against the ship's side as
she rolled, and broken. The next moment the
cadet's boat was borne upwards by a rising wave,
so that the after fall was pushed upwards and
thus unhooked. As the boat was left hanging
by the bows her stern dropped suddenly. Two
men were flung overboard and sank at once.
The next wave bodily lifting the boat on an
even keel, enabled the cadet to unhook the
foremost fall, and the men, pulling hard, got
clear of the ship.
As he pulled clear, the cadet saw the chief
officer's boat filled with water to the gunwale,
broadside on to the tremendous sea, and help-
less. She was never seen again.
In the meanwhile the master's boat had also
pulled clear of the sinking ship. Both boats laid
out sea anchors and drifted in sight of each other
all that terrible day.
There were forty-five persons in all on board
the Artist when she was torpedoed. Some had
gone down in the chief officer's boat, some were
in the captain's boat, and in the cadet's boat were
That night, the night of January 27th, as
the lieutenant-commander stated, the gale
increased in violence and the thermometer
dropped to 37 degrees. Somehow, the frozen,
wet, exhausted men must keep baling out the
boat, and her head to the sea. Concerning the
horrors of that night the cadet says nothing.
It is possible that the partial paralysis of the
faculties, induced by long exposure, dulls the
memory. There is no consciousness of time, but
a quite hopeless conviction of eternity. The
state of men enduring prolonged and intense
hardship seems to them to have had no beginning
and to have no end. After a period of acute
suffering, varying according to the individual,
the edge of pain is blunted and numbness sets
in. In many cases the retardation of the
circulation, withdrawing the full supply of
blood to the head, causes delirium, in which
men shout and babble, drink salt water, and
leap overboard. By degrees the heart's action
is weakened, and finally stops. Then the
man dies. Seven men in the cadet's boat did
in fact die.
After the night of the 27th the captain's boat
was no more seen. The cadet and his crew alone
were left of the people of the Artist.
They drifted in the gale all that Sunday, the
28th, all Monday, all Monday night. Men died,
one after another, and the pitiless sea received
their bodies. When each one passed the cadet
does not state. Probably he could not remember.
For the survivors were dying, too. They were
dying upwards from their feet, in which frost-
bite had set in. One man, a fireman, endured
the agony of a broken arm. . . .
On the night of January 29th-30th, when
the castaways had been adrift for three days
and three nights, they saw the distant lights of
land towards the north. The wind and sea
began to go down, and at daylight the crew
hoisted sail and steered north. At a little
after nine on that Tuesday morning, exactly
seventy-two hours since they had cleared the
sinking ship, they sighted the smoke of an
outward-bound steamer. Twenty minutes later
nine men were taken on board, and one dead
man was left in the boat.
The rescued men were transferred to a
patrol boat, which landed them in an Irish
port the same evening. Here, says the cadet,
" the Shipwrecked Mariners' authorities took
care of us and did all they possibly could
Five of the nine survivors were placed in
hospital. The remaining four, of whom the
sturdy cadet was one, speedily recovered.
The boat with the dead man in her was picked
up by a patrol vessel.
A brief official account of the affair was
published at the time by the Secretary of the
Admiralty, who remarked that ' The pledge
to the Germany not to United States
sink merchant ships without ensuring the safety
of the passengers and crews has been broken
before, but never in circumstances of more
But when it comes to brutality the Germans
can do better than that, as will be seen. What's
the use of talking ?