“You’ve been very ill, young woman. This flu is not to be treated lightly.” The doctor’s face was grave as he looked at Vicky. “You are debilitated and this terrible war does nothing to help your spirits. You need a change and a rest. Is there somewhere you could go for a holiday?”
Vicky looked her mother.
Rose thought for a moment. “Yes,” she said. “I know the perfect place. There’s a hotel near the sea in Queenstown. I’ve been there before with Arthur. It should be very comfortable.”
Rose and Vicky travelled down together to Queenstown on the train and by the last week of April were safely ensconced in the white fronted Queen’s Hotel. The proprietor of the hotel was a man called Humbert, a naturalised German. Blossoms hung on the cherry trees and the sunlight sparkled on the sea. Postcards were sent home to James, Arthur and Ellen, with a cross marking the window in the front of the Hotel which was their room. After two weeks of good food and rest Vicky was almost returned to her old self.
The 7th of May dawned a glorious day. Vicky felt so well she persuaded Rose to accompany her down to the harbour to see the ‘Wayfarer’, a very large transport ship that had been torpedoed a few weeks before. It had only got in with great difficulty, and the loss of seven men, though half the side of the ship was torn away.
“Look, it’s half full of water.” Vicky pointed the damage out to Rose.
“The iron deck looks like a switchback railway.” Rose was horrified at what she saw. Part of the iron plating from the bottom of the ship was torn off and lay in the upper deck where it had been blown by the force of the explosion. “Did you know all the horses on board were landed safely?”
“Let’s go. We’ve seen enough.” Vicky was uneasy now that she could see the reality of war at first hand.
“God help the seven who died. We must remember them.”
They began the walk back to the Hotel. But Vicky couldn’t stop thinking about recent events.
“What do you think about the rumours? Do you think they could be true?”
For several days leading up there had been rumours of a submarine just outside the harbour. Rose was inclined to brush them aside.
“Some people think it is waiting for the Lusitania.” Vicky was not so easily calmed.
“Some of the Naval Officers are saying that the Lusitania will not come near Queenstown. I’m sure they know what they are talking about. I don’t think you need to worry.” Vicky shivered. She had heard them. Their comments had done nothing to calm her fears.
Rose was more sanguine. “She’s a passenger liner. Why would they harm her? Even if she were torpedoed she would not sink. And even if she did it would be so slowly everyone would be saved.”
At the front door of the Hotel they were greeted by the dreadful news. About ten miles from Queenstown the Lusitania had indeed been torpedoed.
Everyone had a different story.
Some said, “I’ve heard she’s coming in under her own steam and all are safe”. Others said “No, it’s not so, she’s gone to the bottom”.
But no one knew for sure.
At dinner that night they were a sad party. The good food did little to lift their spirits, and there was hardly any conversation. The meal had only just been served and they had scarcely begun eating when Adjt General Colonel Du Croix, sitting at their table, received an urgent message. Turning to his table companions he told them they might expect 50 of the survivors into the hotel.
“I can help,” offered Vicky at once, surprised at the unexpected news and glad that there were survivors. “I’m a nurse.”
Du Croix looked at her. He had not expected this. To him she seemed small and frail and he knew she had been ill. “We’ll need you. You’ll be busy. But are you sure you are strong enough?” he warned.
“Yes, indeed. I’m well now. Just tell me what you want me to do.” She was glad to be active and involved. It was easier to be doing something than to be idle.
Rose, though not strong, was not to be outdone, and also offered to help to get things ready for the survivors. They found blue aprons for themselves in the kitchens and tied them on, marked out now as part of the official team of helpers.
Du Croix took charge of every one and they set to work. They got ready 50 beds. Shook out sheets and blankets, made up the beds with mitred corners, plumped pillows. The staff of the hotel opened linen cupboards and storerooms, and ran up and down the stairs with armfuls of bedding. Chambermaids unlocked empty rooms and aired them, letting in the evening sun.
Hardly had they finished but Du Croix returned and ordered them to prepare for 100 more. Though all the other ladies in the hotel joined them and helped them they still hadn’t finished when the survivors began to arrive.
A scene of chaos unfolded in the lobby of the hotel as they came in, dripping, pale, and exhausted. Their clothes were wet, encrusted with salt, stained with blood. Some were unconscious. Others were on stretchers injured in every possible way. Rose and Vicky, along with all the other helpers, watched in horror. There were children crying for their mothers. There were husbands looking with anxious eyes for their wives and families, and wives looking for their husbands who they were never to see again.
As she watched Vicky realised that almost every nationality was represented there, Greeks, Americans, Belgians, French and Cuban. All came under Vicky’s notice and many others. As quickly as she could get their names registered in the Hotel, this formality insisted upon by Du Croix, she hurried them up to their rooms. Once there their dripping clothes were torn or cut off them. Most of them had been in the water for four hours or more so were in a deplorable condition. They were rolled in blankets and put them in bed with hot water jars. As many as five shared a room and some even shared a bed. Du Croix called in the local doctors to assist, and army doctors from Spike Island. With them came the local nurses, the Protestant clergyman and the Catholic priests. And the undertaker, for there were many bodies and many deaths.
Rose took it upon herself to run around with a bottle of brandy. She gave everyone she came across a drop. Medicinal comfort, she called it, as she handed round the glasses. In all cases it was received with gratitude. Vicky later believed that this was the means of saving a good many lives.
It was only now that the kitchen staff were free to return to their kitchens. They made gallons of hot soup and tea. Waiters rushed hither and thither with trays. Vicky spooned hot soup into the mouths of the weak, held cups for small children, comforted the dying, supported those who had lost loved ones, spoke gently to the shocked and distraught. Never once did she stop for a rest, never once did she spare herself.
The hotel was a hive of activity until long into the night. Nurses and doctors walked the long corridors endlessly tending to the wounded, the delirious and the dying. Rose sat with a child who could not grasp that her parents were lost.
“They’re coming on the next boat,” she said, and Rose could not persuade her otherwise. Vicky cleaned wounds and applied bandages until her back ached from leaning over and her head was dizzy. But still she worked. There was to be no respite.
The following morning was fraught, but somehow Vicky managed to find a space and a lull in which to walk down to the sea wall and gaze out at the calm and sunlit sea. Below her five white lifeboats rocked at their moorings. Each bore the name Lusitania in black lettering. They were filled with life preservers, many of them bloodstained, bearing witness to the fact that this had been no ordinary shipwreck. As she watched trawlers came into the shore, bearing the bodies of the dead. Ahead of each one came a crowd of screaming gulls. The crews of the trawlers described how the wreckage of the ship spread across the sea for miles, boxes, basketwork, deckchairs and floating amongst them the bodies.
Vicky felt the shadow of war reach out and encompass her, here in the sunshine, so far away from the battlefields of Europe. The Cork Examiner carried the story on pages 7 and 8. Rose and Vicky had barely time to glance at it before they returned to their posts. But Vicky folded it up and kept it in her suitcase.
On a warm summers day six weeks later a package arrived at Marie Lodge. Hearing the dogs barking, Vicky came in from the garden where she had been deadheading the roses and took it from the postman at the front door herself. She could see Du Croix had sent it. The sinking of the Lusitania seemed already far in the past, a nightmare best forgotten. She brought it into Rose in the kitchen turning it over and over in her hands.
“Open it?” suggested Rose, drying her hands on a tea towel.
Vicky tugged at the wrappings, tore open the paper, opened the carton inside and lifted out a small velvet covered jewel box. Opening that she saw a gold watch, feminine, dainty. A green ribbon. She turned it over in the palm of her hand. There was an inscription on the back.
Ellen took it from her and strapped it to her wrist. She waltzed around the room holding out her arm and admiring it. “I wish Daddy could see it,” she said. But James was in Dublin, having at last been granted a Commission in the Territorials in May. Vicky had been forced to accept his absence.
Arthur had come into the room behind them, curious to see what had caused the sudden uproar. He took the watch from his granddaughter and examined it in the light from the kitchen window.
“For great kindness” he read,” from a survivor of the Lusitania.”
“But who?” she asked. “There’s no note. Only a card from Du Croix.”
“Who knows," he said handing it back to her. “ Someone who appreciated your care. Keep it safe. Keep it for your daughter.”
[Extract from an unpublished novel Who is Vicky Hamilton?]
[Extract from an unpublished novel Who is Vicky Hamilton?]