• Home
  • Blog
  • The heart-breaking calamity that has befallen us all

The heart-breaking calamity that has befallen us all

May 7th, 2015 By Paul Diamond

On Anzac Day, Te Papa curator Puawai Cairns spoke at the National Library about researching one of the stories featured in the museum’s Gallipoli exhibition – the Māori designs carved into the clay wall in one area of the trenches at Gallipoli. Her research was based on museum and archival collections, and stories of Māori soldiers from their descendants. Puawai paid tribute to the persistence of the collecting institutions, but for me the big lesson was the power stories have when collections are connected with whānau. I was reminded of this while researching the Turnbull Library’s holdings relating to the sinking of the liner Lusitania in 1915.

The Lusitania at end of record voyage in 1907.
The Lusitania at end of a record voyage in 1907. Library of Congress Ref: LC-DIG-ds-07216

On 7 May 1915, the Lusitania was attacked and sunk by a German U-boat, off the coast of Ireland. Nearly 1,200 passengers, mostly civilians, were drowned. The ship took just 18 minutes to sink. Among those lost at sea were Joseph Cochrane Macky and his wife Mary Birrell Macky, from Auckland. Joseph Macky was a former mayor of Devonport, and principal of merchant firm Macky Logan Caldwell.

Joseph Cochrane Macky and Mary Birrell Macky.
Joseph Cochrane Macky and Mary Birrell Macky. Ref: PAColl-1076

In 1987, Helen Kominik (a granddaughter of Joseph and his first wife) loaned a photo of Joseph and Mary to the Turnbull Library for copying. Helen also transcribed a large quantity of letters and other Macky family documents for her family, and deposited a copy of the two volumes with the Turnbull Library in the 1990s. Among the letters transcribed are some written while Joseph and Mary were on the Lusitania, en route from New York to London. In 1915, the Lusitania was one of the fastest, most luxurious passenger liners in the world, taking five and a half days to cross the Atlantic.

The trouble really will be to get a berth on the Lusitania which, Jacks tells me, is quite full already. It seems everybody is going by the fast steamer, no one by the slow, although the American steamers are all fairly full, as they expect that no German submarine will dare to touch them. We may have to go first class in order to get a cabin.’ - Letter from Joseph Macky, 22 April 1915.

How you would enjoy this big ship! There is the usual bustle going on outside but in this rose red comfy lounge there is comparative quiet.’ - Letter from Mary Macky, 1 May 1915.

Major General Robley’s ‘Episodes of the Great War’ and the infamous ‘Lusitania Medal’

The sinking of the Lusitania, and the deaths of American civilians on board, put pressure on the United States to enter the Great War. When this occurred in 1917, the connection with the Lusitania was highlighted in a series of scenes painted on postcards by the soldier, artist and author Horatio Gordon Robley. The German leader Kaiser Wilhelm II looks on in disbelief as waves of American troops march past.

Robley, Horatio Gordon, 1840-1930.
Robley, Horatio Gordon, 1840-1930. What ship brought these troops over? Reply Battle cry Lusitania. 7 May 1915. Lusitania destroyed. 1917-1918. Drawn ca 1919. Ref: E-024-q-2-028

After fighting in the New Zealand Wars, Robley returned with his regiment to England and retired in London in 1887. He’s thought to have painted his ‘Episodes of the Great War’ from 1914-1928. The sinking of the Lusitania was followed by celebrations in Germany, horrifying her enemies. There was further outrage when a satirical medal was created by a German artist, Karl Goetz.

Hun rejoicing over U boat murders The Lusitania medal.
Robley, Horatio Gordon, 1840-1930. Hun rejoicing over U boat murders The Lusitania medal. 1915. Drawn ca 1919. Ref: E-024-q-2-012

Goetz’s medal focused on the allegations that the Lusitania was used for military purposes. One side of his medal shows the liner sinking (with the wrong date), with weapons on board, and the heading, ‘Keine Bannware’ (No contraband). Historians continue to debate exactly what arms the ship was carrying. There were some munitions on board which may have caused the second explosion after the liner was hit.

Evening Post article about Goetz's medal.
Evening Post, 18 November 1939

Despite not being an official medal, the ‘Lusitania Medal’ as it became known, sparked a propaganda war. Britain produced its own version of the medal as a protest and to raise funds for war charities; copies (many more than the original German version) were distributed in Britain, America and other countries. The different versions of the Lusitania medal may account for the title of photos taken in 1957 in the Evening Post collection.

A 'Lusitania Medal' (either genuine or a copy). Negatives of the Evening Post newspaper.
A 'Lusitania Medal' (either genuine or a copy). Negatives of the Evening Post newspaper. Ref: EP/1957/0725-F

Anti-German violence reaches New Zealand

The sinking of the Lusitania triggered anti-German violence in Britain, South Africa, Canada and New Zealand – where it coincided with the arrival of news of losses at Gallipoli. In Whanganui crowds attacked German-owned businesses in the main street, Victoria Avenue on Saturday, 15 May. A pork butchery owned by Conrad Heinold, a naturalised German, was attacked and destroyed. Further up the avenue, the Dresden Piano Company had changed its name to the Bristol Piano Company, but this didn’t stop the crowd from smashing the plate-glass windows of its showroom.

This picture from the Auckland Weekly News shows Conrad Heinold’s shop in Whanganui after the riots on 15 May 1915.
This picture from the Auckland Weekly News shows Conrad Heinold’s shop in Whanganui after the riots on 15 May 1915. Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries. Ref: AWNS-19150527-48-3

‘A heart-breaking calamity that has befallen us all’

The following month, a memorial service was held for Joseph and Mary Macky, at the Unitarian Church, where the couple had been part of the congregation and donated the church organ. The plaque unveiled during the service can still be seen in the church today.

To the Glory of God.
In loving memory of Mr. and Mrs. J.C. Macky,
This tablet is erected by their fellow worshippers in token Of the affection they bore them and the esteem that time can only enhance.
“Whose adorning was the hidden man of the Heart.” A.D. 1915

After putting an advert in the London Times newspaper, Macky family members met with Miss Manly and her friend, who were with Joseph and Mary Macky when the ship was hit. Joseph Macky tried to cut through jammed ropes that were preventing lifeboats from being launched. In a family letter, Will Jellie (Joseph’s son-in-law), recounted the eyewitness accounts of Joseph and his wife when the ship sank.

‘Father and Mother standing together at the rail. And when Miss Manly waved for Mother to come, she turned to Father, as much as to say “I stay with him”, and then she turned a smiling face on Miss Manly, happy to die with the husband she was so proud of. We all know that smile. The picture is one to treasure in memory till our deaths. He died because his only thought was to help others. She died because she chose to die with her husband.’ (Letter from Will Jellie to Tom Macky, 7th June 1915)

In his letter back to family in New Zealand, Will Jellie described the loss as ‘a heart-breaking calamity that has befallen us all’. The originals of these letters have been deposited with the Sir George Grey Special Collections at the Auckland Public Library. Being able to access family collections such as this, helps later generations understand the Great War – as it was experienced by the generation who lived through it.

Find out more

Historian Harold Kidd has written a feature about the Lusitania sinking, with a focus on Joseph Macky’s yachting career, in the May 2015 issue of Boating New Zealand. A book based on the Macky family letters is being published by Trish Macky, a great grand-daughter of Joseph Macky.

Post a blog comment

(Your email will never be made public)
Michael Brown
12 May 2015 12:41pm

Fantastic blog Paul.

It was astonishing to read that Germany issued a celebratory medal over the sinking.