A Very Personal Loss: The Lusitania and RQMS Herbert

On February 21, 1906, a couple married at Sparkbrook, Warwichshire in England. The groom was 27 years old and his bride one year younger. He was a returned army veteran with experience in South Africa and would post 8-years of military experience with the 3rd and 4th Battalion of the Rifle Brigade attaining the position of drill instructor. They would emigrate to Canada after their marriage settling in Guelph, Ontario with the groom, Edgar Vincent Herbert, taking on the trade of cook.

As the summer of 1914 developed there was, no doubt, discussion between Edgar and his wife Florence as to the prospects of war and when it was declared in August familial or monetary responsibilities may have delayed Edgar’s enlistment with the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF). He was able to express his martial fealty to his King and Country on November 1, 1914, when he enlisted with the 18th Battalion at Guelph, Ontario. This would require him to be transferred to London, Ontario, where the Battalion was concentrating as it was being formed into a fighting unit with training as part of the process.

Private Herbert’s military experience was recognized as he was duly promoted to the rank of Sergeant on November 4, 1914, and this recognition of his service and experience was reinforced by his promotion to Regimental Quarter Master Sergeant (RQMS) on March 20, 1915.

Even as RQMS Herbert worked to supply and support his new unit, this man also showed compassion and a strong marital connection to his wife, and she returned the favour. Not to be left in Guelph, Florence would move to London and reside at 690 King Street, 2 kilometres from Wolseley Barracks, where her husband was billeted. This expression of connection would further be conveyed by the planning of her return to England to be closer to her husband. Perhaps the opportunities they hoped to access in Canada had not worked out to their favour and they where planning to return to England at some point in the future. With the war an opportunity to act on this desire presented itself. With Herbert in the CEF he would have his transportation covered when he was shipped overseas, so they would only have to pay for one fare.

Rates of Pay CEF. Circa 1915-18.

Even with a RQMS’s rate of pay of $2.00 per day in Canada and an additional 0.30 cents field allowance one Herbert reach active duty the cost of the fare for the ship they choose to convey Florence was expensive. But they felt that they could afford it and a passage for Florence was booked in 2nd Class at an estimated cost of $185.00, or 3-months pay for the Sergeant. This amount, corrected for inflation is approximately $5,295.56 today.[i] The Herberts could feel confident that the money was well spent, and that Florence could experience a fast and luxurious voyage from New York to Liverpool. Florence was set to live at 119 Greys Road, Henley-on-Thames.

Florence Miriam (Collett) Herbert left London, Ontario by rail sometime after her husband’s battalion had left for Halifax on April 13, 1915. She needed to be in New York City sometime before May 1and arrive at Liverpool by May 8. Her husband had arrived in England on April 29, so they could be assured of a reunion before he was shipped to the front after his training in England.

The RMS Lusitania awaited her passenger from London, Ontario.

The Herberts must have been aware of the U-boat risk and on April 22, 1915, it was reinforced the German Embassy in Washington, D.C. had made the following annoucement:

NOTICE!

Travellers intending to embark on the Atlantic voyage are reminded that a state of war exists between Germany and her allies and Great Britain and her allies; that the zone of war includes the waters adjacent to the British Isles; that, in accordance with formal notice given by the Imperial German Government, vessels flying the flag of Great Britain, or any of her allies, are liable to destruction in those waters and that travellers sailing in the war zone on the ships of Great Britain or her allies do so at their own risk.

IMPERIAL GERMAN EMBASSY
Washington, D.C. 22nd April 1915″

They, were however, willing to take the risk and it had been stated by her captain, William Turner,:

…dismissed the warning. He explained to the press that Lusitania was too fast for any submarine to catch her, and the talk of torpedoes had been “the greatest joke” that he had heard in many days.

He was wrong.

The sinking of the Lusitania had impacts of an international nature. For RQMS Herbert it became a deeply personal loss further exacerbated by his wife’s body not being recovered.

The sinking took only 18-minutes and its rapid starboard list made launching the port lifeboats next to impossible, as well as making it difficult for passengers to extricate themselves from the lower decks. Many stories abound of the passengers and crew meeting with the hazards of attempting to get to lifeboats and safety.

London Advertiser. May 7, 1915. Page 1.

For RQMS Herbert his worst fears would be founded as the news of the May 7 sinking would have been front page news the next day and he could not have missed the electrifying news as it was shared amongst the men of the 18th Battalion, some of which would be aware of the nature of Herbert’s loss. The London Advertiser headline for May 7 was “LUSITANIA SUNK BY PIRATES” shows the rapidity that such news travelled. The Lusitania had sunk 18-minutes after being struck by a German U-boat torpedo at 2:10 PM local time. With the time zone difference of 5 hours the London Advertiser was able to report of the sinking in its evening addition. This edition stated that two Londoners were aboard the Lusitania, Florence Herbert and local golf pro Tertias Selwyn Warner. On the very next day the London Advertiser would print a story that both residents had “…likely drowned.” Their prediction was correct.

London Advertiser. May 7, 1915. Page 1.

Florence Herbert would pass into history as a member of a long list of the dead, one of the 1,193 who perished.

A sad epitaph in RQMS Herbert’s service record under “Assinged Pay” illustrates his loss. The document shows Assigned Pay effective April 1, 1915 to his wife. The address on the document shows she was to live at 119 Greys Road, Henley-on-Thames. It shows an initial payment of $75.00 in June 1915 was to be made making up for 3-months pay starting April of that year, but the cheque (no. 6461) was cancelled as noted in the file that “Wife Drowned.”

She and Warner were the only people from London to perish and reports in the London Advertiser on May 8 of five St. Thomas residents being aboard this ship illustrates the impact of this disaster to residents in the London area and the rest of Canada. According to The Lusitania Resource Canadian residents made up 366 of the passengers who perished, a clear 30% of all the dead. Yet, this disaster is seen as very much an American one as it was one of a series of events that would propel the Wilson administration to war in 1917.

London Advertiser. May 8, 1915. Page 1.

For RQMS Herbert his grief can only be imagined. He served faithfully with the 18th Battalion until November 6, 1916, having been at Ypres, St. Elois Craters, and the hell of the Somme during the 18th’s service there starting in September 1916. On that day he was sent to No. 6 Canadian Field Ambulance with a pyrexia of unknown origin later to be diagnosed at No. 22 General Hospital, Camiers, France with renal calculus (kidney stones). He would be sent to England for treatment and would not return to the 18th Battalion as he served out the balance of his service until his discharge at Ashford, England. He would return to Canada upon demobilization and then returned to England sometime post war and is recorded to have died in 1965 and is buried at All Saints Churchyard, Sutton Courtenay, England.

Ironically, the London Advertiser would publish that RQMS Herbert would be “United” with his wife as he was killed in action. This report was erronous, but illustrates the reverberations of the sinking of the Lusitania.

The sinking of the Lusitania is entrenched in the history of the Great War. Its sinking from unrestricted U-boat warfare would have a lasting impact on more than just the victims of the sinking. For the Herberts it would be an indelible loss and for the 18th Battalion a further motivator for it training to get to the front to fight the Hun.

The story also illustrates the connection between husband and wife who were willing to afford the expense of an overseas fare even with its attendant risks. It also shows that it was not just the wives and families of CEF officers that would come to England, at some peril, to be closer to their loved ones. Though less common, it is one of the few cases the author is aware of an 18th Battalion non-commissioned officer having his family come overseas to be closer to him


[i]https://www.in2013dollars.com/us/inflation/1915?amount=185#:~:text=%24185%20in%201915%20is%20equivalent,of%20%245%2C081.16%20over%20107%20years.

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