|This purports to be Leon Chester Thrasher in uniform, I remain unconvinced|
The Falaba had left Liverpool the day before and was on her way through the Irish Sea to Sierra Leone, when she was sunk by the German submarine U-28, captained by Georg-Günther Freiherr von Forstner of the Kaiserliche Marine.
|The torpedo hits...|
It was widely reported that the U-boat captain had not given the civilians on board time to get into the lifeboats and out of the way, and that his crew had mocked those struggling in the water, refusing to help save them.
|The sinking of the Falaba - as imagined|
Remarkably, there was a photographer on board the Falaba who took a number of pictures of the panicking passengers and crew on deck and launching the lifeboats before the torpedoes struck, and that photographer and his glass plates survived, although these were only published much later.
|Panic on the Falaba|
|An upturned lifeboat|
On 1st April the New York Times reported furious reactions in the British and French press, but predicted that the US government would not respond until the facts of the case were known. A list of NYT articles on the Falaba can be found here but you have to subscribe to TimesMachine for full details.
Indignation over the unfortunate engineer's fate rattled the windows of newspaper offices throughout the English- and French-speaking world. These journals often printed undigested lumps of agency reports garnished with their own sparkling prose. The international agencies gave his name as Thrasher, but American local papers referred to him as Thresher. The name "Thresher or Thrasher" appears in genealogy databases as an old British name derived from the occupation of threshing or thrashing corn, to separate the grain from the husk. It was only in the 19th century that British names became the fixed properties they are now.
("The Thresher incident" is a much more recent affair, involving an explosion aboard an American nuclear submarine, and not the same thing as "the Thrasher incident".)
On 2nd April the NYT reported confirmation that Thrasher was indeed an American citizen, and that he was on his way to Africa to work as a steam fitter and mechanic. The NYT highlighted the reticence of the US government to say how it would react.
The background to "the Thrasher incident" was that the British Admiralty under Winston S Churchill had, early in the war, in secret directed all merchant vessels in British waters to paint over their names and ports of call and to fly under the flag of a neutral nation. They were not to stop when challenged by a German u-boat but to open fire at once or, if unarmed, to attempt to ram.
In response, orders came from the German Imperial navy on February 4th that as of February 18, 1915, the waters around the British Isles, including the Channel, were a war zone. Any merchant ship found in that zone would be immediately destroyed without first determining if the ship were neutral.
Let! first service.
The US dispatched an ambassadorial note to Germany to the effect that "a critical situation" might arise should an American be killed in such action.
In response, the British issued an Order in Council proclaiming a complete embargo on trade with Germany, denying her not only munitions but all other goods.
Let! second service.
The American government responded with a protest to the British government; they saw no need to starve Germans.
Le Matin of 3rd April relates the "violent indignation" of Americans to Thrasher's death, quoting (in French, which I have translated back into English) the reaction of great American dailies including the New York Times:
So great was the indignation aroused by these German crimes that there is no room to hope that our government will not respond. If it is true that an American has perished in the sinking of the Falaba, we must protest on the spot.This is some of what the NYT actually said:
In the weeks to come the u-boats are universally called "the German pirates".
The New York Tribune adds that it hopes that
"these savages are captured and hanged."The Press:
"The Germans from now on are struck from the roster of civilised races."
The New York Herald:
It is inconceivable that a single one of those partisans that Germany can count in the United States might not hang his head in shame.And so on and on.
Our clipping is of a supporting voice in the general brou-ha-ha.
Of course, a significant proportion of the American population was and is of German, Austrian, or Hungarian descent, and support for revenge upon Germany for Thrasher's death was by no means universal. Britain and France tried to whip up anti-German feeling in the USA in order to draw her into the war.
On April 5 the Imperial navy issued a communiqué (reported in the Gazette de Cologne) describing as "shameless lies" the reports in British and Neutral newspapers such as the Illustrated London News of statements by survivors that the sailors of the U-boat had laughed at the struggles of the drowning passengers and crew, and had refused to help them. In support of their attacks on merchant ships, the Imperial Navy pointed out that Britain had supported attacks on German submarines by merchant ships, and awarded prizes for success.
However, witness statements from the sinking of the Falaba offered proof that the captain of U-28 gave adequate warnings and time for the Falaba to offload passengers. Instead, the crew of the Falaba had used that time to radio the position of the submarine to nearby armed British patrol ships. As the warship approached, the submarine fired at the last minute — and detonated nearly thirteen tons of contraband high explosives in the Falaba's cargo. This discovery allowed a diplomatic delay in the American response and the decision of whether to go to war.
It was not until 6th April 1917 that the USA declared war on Germany.
Thrasher's body was found off the Irish coast along with that of the Falaba's captain. The body was repatriated to the USA with those of passengers of the torpedoed liner Lusitania. This new disaster led to the loss of 1,202 civilian lives, including 128 Americans.
Nowadays both the wearing of false flags to disguise armed vessels and the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians would be described as war crimes (discuss),
There is a grave with a headstone in Stradbally Burial Ground, Kerry, Ireland, dedicated to Leon Chester Thresher, Hardwick, Mass, USA, and a suspiciously new-looking headstone bearing that name and those of his parents in Hardwick churchyard, Massachussetts.
|See Ireland Genealogy Projects|
|Find A Grave Memorial# 31297904|