Monday, June 25, 2012


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.

NINE O'CLOCK on the morning of January 27th, 
1917, in very 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 three o'clock 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 nine o'clock 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 
morning, 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 
sixteen persons. 
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 
for us." 
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 
given by Germany to the United States not to 
sink merchant ships without ensuring the safety 
of the passengers and crews has been broken 
 before, but never in circumstances of more 
cold-blooded brutality." 
But when it comes to brutality the Germans 
can do better than that, as will be seen. What's 
the use of talking ? 

No comments: