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25/01/2017 - Remembering the Laurentic tragedy 100 years on



Remembering the Laurentic tragedy 100 years on




One hundred years ago today on the 25 January 1917 354 men from the UK, Ireland, Canada, South Africa and Hong Kong lost their lives when the HMS Laurentic, an armed merchant cruiser converted from a passenger liner was sunk off the mouth of Lough Swilly, Co Donegal after striking German mines.


SS Laurentic was one of the most popular ships in the White Star-Dominion service from Liverpool to Montreal and Quebec before the war. She was built at Harland & Wolff's yard in Belfast in 1908, and was the first passenger liner to be equipped with twin reciprocating engines and a low pressure turbine in the centre to drive the third propeller. The Laurentic was 550 feet 4 inches long and 41 feet 2 inches depth of hold, and had accommodation for 150 first class , 430 second class, and 650 third-class passengers, and six holds insulated for carrying frozen beef.


While at Montréal, Canada on 13th September 1914, Laurentic was requisitioned by the Canadian Expeditionary Force for use as a troop transport. She sailed to Gaspé Bay where on 3rd October 1914 she set sail, under the command of Captain John Mathias, as part of huge convoy of 32 ships sailing from Canada to the United Kingdom with well over 30,000 Canadian soldiers sailing to Europe to serve the British Empire. HMS Laurentic arrived at Plymouth, United Kingdom on 14th October 1914.



Afterwards she became an armed merchant cruiser. It patrolled around Hong Kong and Singapore from February 1915 until August 1916.



With 3,211 gold ingots each weighing 40lb worth a total of £5 million (net worth in 1917) aboard and intended to pay for war supplies, under the command of Captain Norton, Laurentic left Liverpool, United Kingdom bound for Halifax, Canada on 23rd January 1917.



Two days later, on 25th January, HMS Laurentic left Lough Swilly. “The ship was not camouflaged in any way; her sides and upper works, being dazzling white, presented a beautiful sight steaming down the Lough.” Included on board was Rufus Austin Chief Armourer in the Royal Marines.



Around 5.55pm, 3 miles outside the mouth of Lough Swilly , off Malin Head, the Laurentic suddenly hit a German mine, striking her forward end of the port side, followed by hitting a second mine, striking the area of her engine room on the port side. With Laurentic sinking the survivors started to evacuate the ship in the lifeboats; as the power had failed, there was no light aboard the sinking ship. Laurentic sank within about an hour. The last person to leave the ship was the Captain. Those in the lifeboats were not safe – it was a terrible freezing cold winter’s night. The rescue was slow with some being rescued in the morning; others as late as the afternoon. Of the 475 people aboard Laurentic only 121 survived the tragedy resulting from an act of war.


Most of the gold aboard was recovered by the Royal Navy between 1917 and 1924, during over 5,000 dives to the wreck. The last gold to be found at the wreck site was in the 1930’s. Despite some unsuccessful efforts since to recover more, it is believed that 22 bars of gold are still hidden somewhere at the wreck site of Laurentic today.


71 of dead were buried in one large grave in Fahan churchyard with an ecumenical service. The Admiralty afterwards erected a monument over the grave inscribed with the names of the officers and men interred there. 


Of the 475 officers and ratings onboard, 354 lost their lives. Others are buried in the many graveyards around Lough Swilly and beyond.



All of the dead are commemorated on the Plymouth Naval Memorial in Devon, England.



To commemorate the 100 year anniversary of these events, a series of events planned as follows:



Wednesday 25 January

Launch of Laurentic Exhibition at the Tower Museum Derry/Londonderry.


Wednesday 25 January (evening)

Traditional Music Session at Flaherty’s Pub, Buncrana.


Thursday 26 January 

Guided coach tour of Inishowen leaving Lake of Shadows Hotel, Buncrana at 10:00 am returning approximately 5:00pm.


Thursday 26 January (evening)

Traditional Music Session at the Drift Inn, Buncrana.


Friday 27 January at 10am

Visit to Crana Collage to meet Transition Year students and view Laurentic Digital History and Legacy Project.


Friday 27 January at 12:30pm

Hosted Lunch at the Guildhall by Mayor of Derry/Londonderry to recreate photo from 1917 when then Mayor of Derry hosted lunch for the 121 survivors from the Laurentic.


Friday 27 January at 7:30pm

Hosted Dinner at Laurentic Bar and Restaurant for Family Members, local Councillors and Guests.


Saturday 28 January at 11:00am

Laurentic Commemoration Wreath Laying at St Mary’s Cemetery Cockhill, Buncrana, Co. Donegal.


Saturday 28 January at 12:30pm

Laurentic Commemoration Church Service and Wreath Laying at St Mura’s Church of Ireland, Fahan, Co. Donegal.


Saturday 28 January at 2:00pm

Reception at Fort Dunree Military Museum.


Sunday 29 January at 2:00pm

Boat Flotilla to leave Buncrana pier to Laurentic wreck site at mouth of Lough Swilly for flower tributes for family members.





More information on events contact Don McNeill:




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