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The RMS Hesperian was a passenger ship of the Allan Line, which served the Liverpool – Québec – Montréal route from 1908 to 1915. On the night of 4 September 1915, the submarine SM U-20, under the command of Kapitanleutnant Walther Schwieger, who sank the Lusitania, torpedoed Hesperian. The Hesperian sank over a day after being torpedoed, on 6 September 1915, while being towed to Ireland. Thirty-two people were killed when a lifeboat upset while lowering. Hesperian was also carrying the body of Lusitania victim Frances Stephens on her last voyage, with Mrs. Stephens being sunk twice by the same submarine and commander.
Schwieger was reprimanded for this action, as the previous week Count Bernstorff, the Imperial German Ambassador to the United States, had assured Washington that “passenger liners will not be sunk without warning” after the Lusitania disaster.
Hesperian of the Allan Line was a cargo and passenger steamship built by the Scottish shipyard Alexander Stephen and Sons, Ltd., of Linthouse, Glasgow, Scotland. She was launched on 20 December 1907 and embarked on her maiden voyage on 25 April 1908 on the Liverpool – Québec – Montréal route. The ship was named after the Garden of the Hesperides of Greek Mythology, a mythical land to the west, near the Atlas mountains, famed for the three “nymphs of the evening” who lived there and its tree which grew golden apples.
Hesperian was a single-funnel, double screw ship 485.5 feet (147.8 meters) in length and 60.3 feet (18.3 meters) wide. Her size was 10,920 gross registered tons. She could accommodate 210 passengers in first class, 250 in second calss, and 1,000 in third class. Starting in January 1910, Hesperian was contracted out to the Canadian Pacific Line for a voyage from Liverpool to St. John, New Brunswick, Canada.
Hesperian left Liverpool on Friday, 3 September 1915 at 7:00 p.m. for Québec and then Montréal. Her commander was Captain William Main. On board were 814 passengers and 300 crew members. In addition to civilian passengers, she would be carrying wounded Canadian soldiers home and cargo.
No United States citizens were passengers, although one steward was an American national. Most of those aboard were either British or Canadian. The passengers knew of the risk of a German U-boat attacks or the possibility of running into run a German mine, as in the course of the submarine war already many British merchant ships, including Lusitania, had already been sunk.
The passengers list included the following people:
Ellen Carbery from St. John, New Brunswick, one of the first private Canadian women decorators and the founder of Ellen Carbery’s Ladies Emporium. She would be lost in the subsequent sinking.
Marjorie Campbell Robarts, sister of John Robarts, a high Canadian dignitary of Bahai Faith, who survived.
Major Percy Guthrie, a Canadian battalion commander and a former member of the Legislative Assembly of New Brunswick, who survived.
Also on board was the casket of Frances Stephens, the widow of a Canadian politician George Stephens. Four months prior, Frances Stephens was lost in the sinking of the Lusitania. Her body was shipped aboard Hesperian to Montréal in order to be buried beside her husband. She was therefore sunk twice by the same U-boat and commander, with her final resting place at the bottom of the Atlantic rather than by her husband.
The German submarine SM U-20 of the Imperial German Navy under the command of the 30-year-old Kapitanleutnant Walther Schwieger was about 85 miles off of Fastnet Rock, Ireland, on the evening of 4 September 1915.
Schwieger sighted Hesperian steaming at full speed just hours after the ocean liner had left Liverpool. Through his periscope, he saw Hesperian zigzagging towards him. Even though he did not know the identity or the purpose of the ship, he made the decision to attack. As he did with Lusitania, Schwieger fired a single torpedo at his target.
The torpedo struck Hesperian‘s starboard bow at 8:30 p.m. and exploded in the forward engine room. The impact sent a wall of water and debris shooting into the air and striking the bridge and the boat deck with great violence, causing significant damage. The ship shuddered and listed to starboard. Furniture slipped and dishes fell and broke. Steam escaping from the engine room enveloped the upper decks.
Captain Main had the ship stop immediately, rang the alarm bells, and ordered the SOS signal to be sent. He also ordered his officers to lower the lifeboats. Despite it being nightfall, the evacuation was orderly and fair, and most boats were manned and lowered safely. A port side lifeboat upset while lowering, killing 32 people. Eyewitnesses reported afterwards that there had been no great panic among the passengers.
The survivors were rescued during the night by several wary British ships in the vicinity and taken to Ireland. One man who had been blinded on the Western Front had his sight restored by the shock of the explosion. A boy had been left behind, sleeping in his bunk, throughout the sinking.
The ship’s watertight bulkheads kept the ship afloat, although she was now riding lower in the water. The vessel was evacuated in less than an hour. Only Captain Main and several officers had remained on board as a skeleton crew. The body of Mrs. Stephens was still aboard as well. Captain Main hoped to beach the Hesperian or have her towed to Queenstown. The ship never made it. On 6 September 1915, Hesperian succumbed to the waves, sinking some 37 miles from land and not far from the Lusitania wreck.
The week prior to the sinking, Count Bernstorff, the Imperial German Ambassador to the United States, had assured Washington that “passenger liners will not be sunk without warning” following the Lusitania sinking. When word reached Germany of Walther Schwieger’s actions, Schwieger was ordered to Berlin in order to justify his actions and apologize officially.
He was accused of having sunk another unarmed passenger liner without warning, despite the explicit directions given to submarine commanders not to do so. Kaiser Wilhelm did not want to risk further provocation of the United States. Schwieger complained about his unfair treatment, but in 1917, Schwieger would be forgiven by Berlin. He received Germany’s highest decoration, Pour le Mérite, also known informally as the “Blue Max.”
Schwieger would be killed in action in World War I when his command, the SM U-88, was lost with all hands, presumed to have struck a mine north of Terschelling while outbound from Germany for the French coast.
Port of registry
485.5 feet / 147.8 meters
60.3 feet / 18.3 meters
Number of funnels
Number of masts
Steam turbine engines geared to double screws
15 knots maximum
Alexander Stephen and Sons, Linthouse, Glasgow, Scotland
20 December 1907
25 April 1908
6 September 1915
210 first class
250 second class
1,000 third class