I can often find a link between someone from Sevenoaks and one of the significant anniversaries of the First World War and the sinking of the RMS Lusitania on 7 May 1915 is no different. A local man, Hugh Donald Whitcombe, whose parents lived at Dudbrook on Eardley Road was on board the ship. Fortunately, Hugh survived that terrible event and lived to tell the tale, his story being recorded in both the Sevenoaks Chronicle and the Kent Messenger.
Hugh Martin Donald Gore Whitcombe, was born in 1894 in Suffolk, the son of John Walker Whitcombe and his wife, Katherine Louisa nee Linnall. By 1901, the family are living in Sevenoaks and the 1911 census records Hugh as an engineer at a motor car works in Coventry. He left for the USA and then Cuba in February 1912, sailing on the Lusitania where his occupation was recorded as chauffeur.
Three years later in 1915, Hugh was sailing from Havana, Cuba, where he had joined the Army Service Medical Corps. According to his interview with the Kent Messenger, the passengers were having lunch in the dining saloon about four flights below deck when he heard a big bang “and the plates and everything on the tables were upset, and fell into their laps”. He stated that everyone knew at once what had happened but took things calmly, the males keeping their seats, until the ladies and children were got up to the boat deck. “Some ladies fainted but the babies, not understanding what happened, remained happy”.
Hugh then made his way to the boat deck and helped get women and children into the boats. The ship had listed heavily to starboard the moment she was struck and the rescue rafts on the port side could not be used as the vessel had listed, bringing that side high out of the water. According to Hugh’s account, the sinking was so rapid that the other boats were only just away before the ship went down, while many boats “were struck by the funnels and were taken down by the boat itself”, with only twelve of the original nineteen boats getting away.
Hugh had stayed onboard with two of the ship’s engineers and some of the stewards, waiting until the last minute, when they were nearly waist deep in water. Very shortly before she sank, they dived off and he became entangled with some of the wireless telegraph gear, which dragged him underwater. He managed to struggle free and swam for fifteen minutes until he met a raft containing the two engineers he had been stood with and an elderly couple,
“The water was full of struggling men and women. We managed to drag onto our raft a lady whose hand and leg had been badly crushed, and a little later a lady who was holding a dead child. We then manoeuvred our raft to an upturned boat and clambered on to it and remained drifting about until we were picked up by a destroyer, It was a horrible time – terrible! The elderly gentleman became exhausted and died before we were picked up, and we had to take the dead child from its mother, as the poor woman was growing frantic”.
After three hours in the water, they were picked up by the first destroyer from Queenstown and taken to the town.
“It was”, Hugh told the press, “a terrible sight to see wives looking for their husbands, husbands for their wives and children for their parents”.
Hugh had been travelling with five pounds worth of tobacco and cigarettes, sent by Cuban planters for the Indian soldiers – all of this and his own possessions were lost. Arriving safely in Sevenoaks, he said that despite some stiffness and bruises and a cut from a wire across the leg, he was little the worse for his experience.
Hugh went on to serve with the Army Service Corps and later with the Royal Flying Corps, being awarded the Belgian Croix de Guerre. Sadly, he died of sunstroke on 23 July 1920, and was buried in the Mikra British Cemetery in Kalamria, Greece.