On the 7th May 1915 the British liner RMS Lusitania, the fastest and most luxurious ship in the world at the time, was struck by a German torpedo off the coast of Ireland. Of it’s 1962 passengers and crew only 764 survived – my great uncle and aunt were among them. Their one year old son John was not.
An account of their trauma is taken from statements made by both Mary and Elmore upon their eventual arrival in England.
“(Cyril) Elmore and Mary Anita Pells, travelling with their infant son John from Canada to England where Mr. Pells was to join his regiment, despaired of ever leaving the ship safely. At the time the torpedo struck they were dining in the second class salon and returned to their E Deck cabin to retrieve John, and Elmore made a second trip below for lifebelts. Not expecting to survive, they took seats together somewhere on one of the upper decks presumably on the port side, to wait for the end. When it came, they were pulled down deep with the ship, and in the torrent John was wrenched out of his father’s arms and lost. Elmore and Mary surfaced and were able to pull themselves atop an overturned lifeboat.”
Following a short period of recovery in London, Elmore joined his regiment as originally planned but after receiving a brief note telling of his safe arrival in France, Mary never heard from him again and he is documented as having been killed in action during the Battle of Aisne-Chemin des Dames on May 27th 1918.
The human element of this disaster, which has largely been lost among the controversial nature of the incident together with the passing of time, is now coming to light, re-surfacing along with the personal stories. I have researched Elmore and Mary’s accounts with the benefit of the internet and personal family history. However, I am also in possession of a wonderful photographic record of their lives in Canada prior to their fateful journey. The images long since faded, document a young couple in love. Elmore met Canadian born Mary in the UK and following their engagement they emigrated to Vancouver, British Columbia and and were married at North Lonsdale in April 1914. Their son John was born in February 1915. The images tell a story of a vibrant life together, socialising, fancy dress and tennis parties and picnics on the beach with friends. Just one image remains of their infant son John.
It is their own record of their life together, each photograph carefully entered into the small album by their own hands, unaware of the tragedy which was shortly to unfold and change their lives forever. Faces reach out from the faded images, ethereal and yet full of life, crossing the threshold of a time long since gone and reaching into the 21st century in an effort to be remembered. A reminder that they lived life to the full during their short time together: there was life before the Lustania and for Mary a life after but very much changed.
Through the remainder of the war Mary served as a nurse, and she was awarded a sum of $1089.15 for the loss of her personal property and Elmore’s medical expenses after her return to British Columbia. For a time she lived in California, where she continued to study nursing, before returning for a third time to Canada, where the trail is lost in time. However, somewhere along the way she maintained a connection to the Pells family – in 1936 she received a legacy from Elmore’s mother upon her death.
Elmore – ‘lost in action’- has no known grave but is remembered at The Soissons Memorial located in the Aisne département of France. The memorial lists 3,887 names of British soldiers who were killed in the area from May to August 1918 during the Spring Offensive.
And somewhere, somehow, this little album has found it’s way from Canada back to England, passed down my family and following the recent death of my own father John, who was named after his young cousin, is now one of my most treasured possessions.