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The S.S. Arabic was the first White Star Liner passenger ship to be sunk during WWI, having served the Liverpool to New York and Liverpool to Boston routes. On 19 August 1915, the German submarine U-24 torpedoed Arabic, and the ship sank in 9 minutes. 44 lives were lost with 390 survivors. American reaction to the Arabic sinking led to Germany suspending unrestricted submarine warfare until 1917. Miss Dorothy Kelk was just 21 years old, but rejected the old adage of ‘women and children first to the lifeboats’, when she gave up her position in one to another passenger. This is her story.

 

The S.S. Arabic was the first White Star Liner passenger ship to be sunk during WWI, having served the Liverpool to New York and Liverpool to Boston routes. On 19 August 1915, the German submarine U-24 torpedoed Arabic, and the ship sank in 9 minutes. 44 lives were lost with 390 survivors. American reaction to the Arabic sinking led to Germany suspending unrestricted submarine warfare until 1917. Miss Dorothy Kelk was just 21 years old, but rejected the old adage of ‘women and children first to the lifeboats’, when she gave up her position in one to another passenger. This is her story.

 

Unable to make it to safety as the ship was rapidly sinking, Dorothy dived from the stricken deck and plunged into the water. This is Miss Dorothy Kelk was born in January 1894 in Birkenhead, Cheshire and was travelling to America in the passenger births of White Star Liner S.S. Arabic with her mother, Jane Lockhart Kelk, younger brother, John Kelk and two younger sisters, Olive and Violet Kelk aboard the S.S. Arabic. The Arabic had been launched in 1903 and manned by an experienced crew and captain that had made hundreds of successful Atlantic crossings. With a capacity of almost 1,400 passengers, the ship was used during early WWI to transfer post, supplies, and passengers across the Atlantic.

 

DSC07728 1024x525Earlier that year, in March 1915, the Arabic had been pursued by a German U-boat near to the Irish coast, but successfully evaded engagement. The Lusitania had been famously sunk barely 3 months earlier when, on 19 Aug 1915, the Arabic had been caught in the periscope of German U-Boat SM U-24, which was hiding near to the wreckage of the S.S. Dunsley, which it had just sunk. The Arabic was to become the most famous of four ships sunk by the U-24 that day. Being aware of the danger around them, the Arabic operated a zig-zag motion for protection from attack. However, a torpedo was fired from near the wreckage of the Dunsley, which crashed into the starboard side of the Arabic.

 

Miss Dorothy Kelk had found her way to one of the lifeboats and sat aboard. Just as it was about to be lowered, Dorothy spotted a young stewardess in distress. She insisted that she give up her position of safety for this young member of staff. Back on deck, Dorothy could feel the ship listing alarmingly and feared she might not be time to get to another lifeboat. Courageously, she dived into the water from a great height and was strong enough to remain afloat and swimming amongst the flotsam and jetsam, away from the Arabic which bobbed perpendicular like a cork, before filling to the brim and thundering to the seabed below.

 

DSC07729 1024x911After the ship had sunk, wreckage rose to the surface, injuring other still in the water. There were bodies of some of the victims floating by, including that of a little child on a lifebelt, tragically dead. Dorothy was eventually rescued by a nearby minesweeping vessel, the Primrose, which ferried the survivors to safety in Queenstown, Ireland. Dorothy was one of just 8 people, and the only woman, to be decorated with the Liverpool Shipwreck Medal in silver for her bravery. Captain William Finch was awarded the medal in gold for his part in minimising the loss of life. The death toll stood at 44 of the 424 passengers and would have been much higher had the ship been full to capacity.

 

Just three days after the sinking, and with American lives lost, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson issued a statement stating that if the investigation into the incident indicated that it had been a deliberate German attack, then the US would sever relations with Germany. Simultaneously, U.S. Secretary of State Robert Lansing, approved Assistant Secretary Chandler Anderson's suggestion for a meeting with German Ambassador Johann Heinrich von Bernstorff to explain informally that if Germany abandoned submarine warfare, Britain would be the only violator of American neutral rights. Anderson met Bernstorff at the Ritz Carlton Hotel New York and reported to Lansing that Bernstorff had immediately recognised the advantage of making Britain responsible for illegal acts.

 

DSC07727 671x1024Subsequently, German Chancellor Theobold von Bethmann-Hollweg and Foreign Secretary Gottlieb von Jagow informed the Americans about secret orders of 1 and 5 June, which instructed submarine commanders not to torpedo passenger ships without notice and provisions for the safety of passengers and crew. Bethmann-Hollweg and von Jagow also sought the Kaiser's approval to spare all passenger ships from submarine attack. Naval Secretary Alfred von Tirpitz was angered enough to offer his resignation, The Kaiser rejected this and issued the order to submarine commanders which were relayed to Washington. From now on, all passenger ships could only be sunk after warning and the saving of passengers and crews. Arbitration on both the R.M.S. Lusitania and S.S. Arabic was also offered.

 

Buy the gallantry medal of Miss Dorothy Kelk.