Sinking of passenger liner sparked anti-German sentiment

"Common sense and restraint were never more needed than they are today." -Cowichan Leader.

A full century later the sinking of the Cunard passenger liner Lusitania by a German U-boat is remembered as one of the greatest maritime disasters of all time (1,198 men, women and children killed), as a crime against humanity, and as having influenced the ultimate decision of the United States to join the Allied nations against Germany during the First World War.

Even though the tragedy occurred off the south coast of Ireland half a world away, there was such outrage in Victoria that the resulting rioting and vandalism against citizens of German/Austrian origin had to be quelled by the military and police after the city’s mayor declared martial law.

In Duncan, just 35 miles distant, the reaction was much more muted despite a damning editorial in the Cowichan Leader which published a week later: "The past week has furnished an appalling example of what German ‘frightfulness’ can do. It will not stop at the sinking of the Lusitania or the outrageous use of poison gases. Again the call comes to Canada to

organize every possible resource to meet a peril which is generally underestimated…" The newspaper went on to urge the U.S. to declare war on Germany because of the deaths of numerous American citizens aboard the Lusitania which had sailed unescorted from New York Harbour when passenger shipping was supposed to be exempt from attack: "Her reputation as a united nation is at stake."

The riots and destruction of property and businesses operated in Victoria by those of Austro-German ethnicity – even those of other nationalities with German-sounding names – were not repeated in the Cowichan Valley, a fact noted with satisfaction by the editor in a succeeding issue of the Leader: "It is to be regretted that there has arisen need to remind a section of the public that the inhuman acts of Germans in Europe must not be allowed to influence their relationships with those in our midst who do not bear names that are actually British.

"Atrocities on the part of our enemies do not advance their

cause one whit. Recrimination and reprisal will help neither their cause nor ours. If there be at large enemy aliens who should be interned that is the business of the Dominion Government, and the public will be well advised to leave it to them. That this part of Ottawa’s business needs reorganizing should be apparent, even at 3,000 miles range.

"Recent atrocities and the belief that the authorities had bungled long enough were responsible for the late Victoria disturbances. In these troubles

there is no doubt that many innocent people suffered with the guilty [sic] and that the public will have to pay for the mistakes of the mob.

"There must be no repetition of these things in any part of Canada.

"Information has

reached us that suspicion and idle talk have centred not only upon persons bearing names of foreign origin, but even upon those who are known to speak more than one European language. Two languages are spoken by most of the French-Canadians in our midst.

"When Dame Rumour fixes upon any of these loyal British subjects and associates them with the stigma of the ‘enemy alien,’ it should be plain to the most heedless that the bounds of reason have been passed. Common sense and restraint were never more needed than they are today."

While urging restraint in the public’s reaction to German provocation, it’s obvious that the editor believed that there were, in fact, dangerous enemy aliens about thanks to government "bungling." It should be pointed out that the First

World War was yet in its first of four years of bloodletting and that the Cowichan Valley, because of its high British ex-patriate population, would ultimately have the highest enlistment per capita in all of Canada. Thus it should come as no surprise to us that emotions – and suspicions – ran high, particularly after such outrages as the use of poison gas in the trenches and the sinking without warning of the Lusitania. Among my many interviews over the years was that of the late Florence M. Padley, a survivor of the Lusitania with whom I became friends in the 1960s. The wife of a bank

employee, it has always stuck with me that she described the sound of the detonation of the first torpedo as the slamming of a vault door.

She recalled that there was no panic, that passengers were stunned, incredulous, that they’d been hit.

Even when the truth began to register few seemed to be alarmed, so convinced were they that a ship the size of the Lusitania – 790 feet long – wouldn’t sink. (Despite the fact that this was just three years after the Titanic -Ed.)

A second torpedo put that mistaken confidence to rest and sealed the ship’s doom. By the time the last survivors were rescued, 1,200 men, women and children – all of them civilians – were dead. It took two more years for the United States to enter the war. When the first Yankee troops poured into war-torn Europe, it was with the battle cry, "Remember the Lusitania!"