Touraine - from then until now!

This blog is an attempt to show some of the vast history of Man's prescence in the Southern Touraine.... from first footfall to the present....
especially in and around le Grand Pressigny area.... with special emphasis on life at and around le Moulin de la Forge.
There will also be occasional entries about time before man was here and when the area was at the bottom of a warm, shallow sea...

Friday, 27 March 2015

The historic ship and the German spy (allegedly)

At her launch in 1891, La Touraine was the finest and largest liner in the fleet of La Compagnie Générale Transatlantique (known as Transat), and the fifth largest in the world. The only limit on her size was her home port of Le Havre; any longer and she would have been unable to get onto her berth.

The liner La Touraine in her original configuration with three masts
For her 506 first-class passengers she was the height of luxury and modern equipment, with electric lighting throughout. "At need, she could also carry 540 emigrants" and many of today's Americans owe their nationality in part to a voyage on La Touraine.

La Touraine - the grand staircase leading from the first class dining room to the 'conversation room', 1891

She was capable of crossing the Atlantic at an average speed of 17.5 knots, driven by the most powerful, up-to-date engines (capable of providing 18,000 hp) that Transat's money could buy, yet she was fully rigged for sail, the last of her kind. There is no evidence that her sails were ever used and one of the masts was removed as part of a major refit in 1902.

La Touraine leaving New York, from the Library of Congress. Two masts now, and shades of Belleville Rendezvous in the style of the depiction.

Her history is remarkable:  throughout, she had one exciting adventure after another. I learned:
  • How thousands boarded La Touraine before she was even built
  • Why her telegraphed warning failed to save the Titanic
  • When her entire crew was awarded Sea Gallantry medals by King George V for saving 41 passengers of a stricken emigrant ship in mid-ocean
But the strangest of all is a story from spring 1915 unfolding in the pages of newspapers across the world, from which we have a teaser in just one corner of our old bit of newspaper. In the dry words of Transat's publicity machine,
Steamship La Touraine, bound from New York to Havre, with an inflammable cargo, was discovered on fire on the morning of March 6. The vessel was 400 miles west of the Irish coast. The SOS call was answered by the steamships Arabic, Cornishman, Swanmore, and Rotterdam. The fire was finally brought under control by the crew. However, the Rotterdam remained near by ready to take off the passengers of the La Touraine should this be found necessary. The appeal for help was heard by a British cruiser, which vessel also responded to the call for assistance, but when she reached the La Touraine assistance was not necessary. The La Touraine was convoyed as far as Prawle Point by Rotterdam, and two French cruisers escorted the injured vessel as far as Cherbourg.
On April 1, 1915 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported:
Raymond Rolfe Swoboda, an American citizen, was arrested for causing the fire on board La Touraine the previous March 6, and for espionage. The enquiry had already established that the fire had started in Hold 2, where three heavy trunks belonging to Swoboda were located. It was claimed that he had expressed fervent pro-german sympathies, that he had wandered around at night dressed as a workman, and that he had lied about his origins.
French newspapers lapped up eye-witness statements from various parties, claiming exclusive reports from La Touraine's captain, Swoboda's girlfriend, his business associates, members of the Bourse, the American ambassador who issued his passport, variously quoting his place of birth as New York, or San Francisco, or Quebec, or Fresno, and his antecedents American (for 200 years), Swedish, French, Russian or German, and his claim that he did or did not speak German.
Raymond Swoboda, from Le Matin, 4th April, and the only picture of him I have been able to locate.

What appears in our cutting is another of these exclusive witness interviews. The names Barbe and Sarnac* appear in no other paper that I have located to date.
If you were born in Fresno, wouldn't it be nicer to say you were from San Francisco?
And the link to our house, well this is La Touraine du Sud, isn't it?
The rest of the Swoboda saga is for another post.
* for Sarnac read Sanarens - ref. le Petit Journal 5th April 1915

Touraine departed on her first transatlantic voyage from Le Havre to New York on 20 June 1891 and her last at the end of 1922. Her last voyage of all left Le Havre on 25th November 1923 for the breaker's yard in Dunquerque.  

Le Conservatoire numérique des Arts et Métiers (CNUM) (**) has the full text of an article by an anonymous, albeit rather excitable, engineer in the scientific publication La Nature of 1891, sketching the luxury of the passenger decks in order to get to a description in immense detail of the new ship's engines.

(**)CNUM is a digital library of the history of science and technology, with the objective of making scientific matters accessible to the general public and preserving that sector of France's heritage.

1 comment:

Le Pré de la Forge said...

I am absolutely hooked on this bloke Swoboda. Was he just a prankster whose leg-pulls went too far? Or a spy pretending to be a prankster, and surrounding himself with so much obfuscation that everyone thought he was just a fool? What became of him after 1918? Where was he really born? Did he tell anyone the truth?
More posts to follow.