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...

Monday 20 March 2017

The circle of fire - Part 3: the other cargo

La Touraine following her 1903 refit - from Wikipedia

The European press makes no mention of the great anxiety triggered by the news of the fire on board La Touraine in the United States and in London. After the initial call for help there was just one brief transmission from the stricken ship followed by six hours of silence. This period was during the early hours of the morning in France, but mid evening in New York which is six hours behind French time, or Chicago, seven hours behind.

Unlike their European colleagues, the American press had no inhibitions about reporting as front page news exactly what cargo this civilian passenger liner was carrying. According to the Chicago Tribune of 7th March 1915, aboard La Touraine were
  • 500,000 rounds of rifle and small arms cartridges, to a total weight of over 80 tons,
  • 139 machine guns, 
  • 1200 tons of uniforms, sweaters, socks and fabric for uniforms, 
  • an unknown number of waggon wheels,
  • 1500 cases of unspecified machinery, 
  • a large assortment of foodstuffs,
  • and 275 silver bars. 
The New York Times went into even greater detail on the same day.
Although the French Line officials denied that there were explosives aboard, the manifest at the Customs House showed that in her 1,200 tons of cargo she held 4,494 cases of cartridges, 139 rapid-fire guns and 500 cases of ammunition for those guns. These weighed twenty-six tons and were valued at $21,000. There were also 550 cases of heavy ammunition for rapid-fire guns weighing 55,000 pounds and valued at $23,000, two heavy automatic guns, barrels of turpentine, five cases of automatic revolvers, 12,000 pounds of blankets, a large amount of foodstuffs including beef, sausages, lard and flour. There were no oils in the manifest. When Mr Cauchois's [*] attention was called to the articles covered in the manifest, he replied: "But cartridges are not explosives" [†].
* Oscar Cauchois, manager of the French Line
† (Gallic shrug)

Small wonder for the panic in the US press, and respect for those of the crew of La Touraine who had to fight the fire, all the while knowing that they were sitting on a bomb.

Nothing of this cargo was in the detritus seen spread out for inspection in the hangars of Le Havre. Machine guns may have been spirited away, but not waggon wheels or all that cloth. No, these war materials were in the main cargo hold, safely battened down before the passengers and their property joined the ship. They reached their destination unharmed. Had the fire reached the ammunition, there would have been a large Bastille day firework and then Goodnight Vienna. The ship would not have survived.

This is a cutaway diagram of La Savoie, nine years younger, otherwise similar to La Touraine. Holds marked 77
Smoke was first seen issuing from the engine room ventilation shaft indicated.
As far as the Germans were concerned, this military cargo was contraband, which would render la Touraine a fair target, for a U-boat (as in Falaba's case) or for... a saboteur.

British intelligence and the US Secret Service were clearly aware of the possibility of sabotage to ships travelling from ports in the USA, and from New York in particular, to Europe. Lusitania, a (British) Cunard liner, was searched minutely from end to end before her departure, for an attack was expected, as was noted in Le Journal of 7 March,
 "On se rappelle la visite minutieuse à laquelle on avait procédé à bord du Lusitania, avant son départ, car on craignait un attentat. D'où provient l'incendie de la Touraine ?" 
Where did the La Touraine fire come from?.

German embassy staff and military attachés were organising covert operations against American supply lines to Europe from the beginning of the War. But Britain was the filter of almost all communications between Germany and the (at that time neutral) USA because one of the first acts by the British at the declaration of war was to cut Germany's transatlantic cables, which led from Ireland, at that time still part of the UK. For that reason, Germany's "Secret War" in the United States was always more or less compromised. Millions of tons of supplies were moving across the Atlantic from the USA to Europe. It was vital for Germany to cut that supply line. A bomb big enough to cause sufficient damage to a large ship to sink it was just too big to go unnoticed, even if the ticking clockwork did not give it away.

British Intelligence knew something new was happening. Just what that was, will keep for the next post. 

Monday 13 March 2017

The circle of fire - part 2 - the debris from the hold

Le Havre - La "Touraine" leaving Port. From earlofcruise
On 4th April 1915, the day when our scrap of newsprint was published, Le Petit Journal's correspondent in Le Havre was making a unique record of the aftermath of the fire on board La Touraine. He saw for himself, piled up for forensic examination, the contents of her no. 2 hold, which was at the heart of the fire. His report appeared in Le Petit Journal on 5th April 1915. What he saw was so bizarre and so brilliantly described that any commentary will be superfluous. Unfortunately the Petit Journal was not in the habit of naming its correspondents, so we may never know who this journalist was.

Le Petit Journal, 5 April 1915

Visiting the débris
of the "Touraine " fire

Le Havre, 4 April 

M. Barnaud, the examining magistrate who is driving forward with extreme activity the enquiry into the fire on board the Touraine, an affair with which, for right or wrong,  has become entangled the name of Swoboda, has naturally brought to the forefront of the news everything that relates to the conflagration. This is why I was keen to browse around the warehouses of the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique, where the part of  la Touraine's cargo which suffered in the fire may be found.

The impression that emerges from this bizarre pile of chests, parcels, casks, drums, barrels more or less carbonised, is unreal. It is in hundreds of thousands of francs that the losses must be counted, and when one considers the nature of this cargo, one only has a single thought: that the fire was set deliberately, by a criminal hand, whomsoever's it was.

The wreckage of this ferocious fire extends in a double line more than 400 metres long. The scale is noticeable in following the sinister corridor which passes between the two ranks that form it; hardly anything is left but charred blocks, hard as rock, with a tarry appearance. Some pieces give the impression of grilled meat, and still give out a characteristic smell, a smell of burnt hair, as if you might be at the site of a fire where animals have been half carbonised. Chemical transformations have taken place. This is a matter of chests which have stayed intact or which were merely licked by the flames, and whose contents have been modified until they metamorphosed into a completely different substance.

Le Petit Journal, 5 April 1915

Boots or glue?

I am referring to the boots which are, inside their wooden container, coagulated, melted and of a material by turns hard and gelatinous, according to the temperature to which they have been exposed during the fire in the fragile retort which was nothing other than the chest that contained them. The pairs of boots, beside their fantastic number, are mutated, if I may use such a scientific term in the present situation, into glue.

M. Sanarens, the kindly director of the municipal laboratory of Le Havre, is eager to explain to me this transformation which took place during the extinguishing of the fire. It is in fact due to superheated water vapour in contact with the inferno which the hold was at that moment. The leather of the boots, freshly tanned, produced glue. Other boots, high-topped knee boots, have partially escaped the phases of the chemical phenomenon which was occurring. They therefore only suffered superficial changes which welded them together and stiffened them. Thus congealed, they resemble a troop of German soldiers ready to goose-step out on parade.

From certain caved-in casks a brown granular substance has flowed across the floor of the warehouse, giving off an acrid, penetrating smell. It's chicory. This substance has suffered too, in spite of its containers; at the least touch, the grains break up into a dust which soon vanishes into nothing.

Le Petit Journal, 5th April 1915

The expert's report

I asked M. Sanarens if it was true that his report would be submitted soon.

My operations, he replied, have hardly begun. However, while it might take a long time, so some little discovery might cut the inquest short. But as of now, and  I haven't told anyone this, I cannot say how long it will take me. Eight days? Three months? Goodness knows.

Listening to my eminent speaker, I recalled to mind the well known response of Racine who, when asked "When will your play be published", replied "It's finished! All I have to do now is to write it". - (from our correspondant).

Monday 6 March 2017

The circle of fire - part 1: closing the circle

My interest in the French transatlantic liner La Touraine started with a small piece of newsprint that we found hidden in the masonry of our chimney. That paper proved to date from 4th April 1915, and was torn from the pages of Le Petit Journal. One of the articles on that paper concerned a fire aboard La Touraine which broke out in mid Atlantic on 6th March 1915. That article led me to the extraordinary man who was accused of setting the fire, his even more extraordinary wife, then back in time to the Universal Exhibition before la Touraine was launched,, and forward again to the disasters of the Titanic and the Volturno.

We have now come round in a circle, back to the fire again. This series of posts is intended to close the circle.

Somewhere around there, anyway. Thank goodness for the Wireless Telegraph. From New York Times
Suspicion for the fire initially fell upon passenger Raymond Swoboda. As soon as he was named, the world's press went baying after him and anybody who may have known him slightly, or even not at all, had an opinion to be snapped up and printed. Eventually it was decided that Swoboda had nothing to do with the fire, and he was released. So, let us examine the story of the fire again, this time leaving Swoboda out of the frame.  The results of so doing are most interesting.

This post follows a series of articles in, appropriately, Le Petit Journal, which simply describe the incident as it unfolded. The reports are credited to "our Le Havre correspondent", who alas must remain anonymous. The first was published on 8th March 1915, and the last,  which is part of a much longer article, on 1st April 1915.  The source of these articles is Gallica, the information base of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

Le Petit Journal, 8th March 1915

The Touraine fire - nobody hurt

The liner is expected in Le Havre

The reassuring news issued since the night of Saturday to Sunday via a dispatch from New York on the fate of the passengers and crew of La Touraine, the liner which caught fire at sea, was happily confirmed yesterday morning. The Company issued this press release :

La Compagnie Générale Transatlantique received this morning by wireless telegraph a telegram from the commander of La Touraine, saying that the fire, reported yesterday, was not very serious, and that his ship was under way, under her own power, escorted by the steamer Amsterdam, towards Le Havre, where he expected to be able to arrive tomorrow (Monday).

At last the general agent of the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique at Le Havre received, by wireless telegraphy, the following dispatch from Commander Caussin, of La Touraine :
« Sunday, 7 March, 3:45.
«La Touraine having a fire in one hold has asked for aid and is making her way towards Le Havre, under escort by the liner Rotterdam. I hope to master the fire. There is no immediate danger. Fine weather with mist. 

« I expect to arrive on Monday evening, if all goes well. Signed : CAUSSIN ". — (Havas).

They are full of confidence, in Le Havre, at the Company offices on the Boulevard de Strasbourg, about the fate of the passengers and crew of la Touraine. Our local correspondent has seen an individual there who told him that "the fire damage was limited to personal property".

Le Petit Journal, 9 March 1915

La Touraine returned to Le Havre yesterday evening safe and sound

The Captain 's report

Crew and passengers demonstrate superb sang-froid

The Marine Minister announced yesterday morning that one of the two French cruisers which was escorting la Touraine had signalled, on Sunday at 22:00 hours, that the fire was almost out and that the liner was under way at 14 knots towards her destination.

As confirmation of this good news, we have received this evening from our correspondent in Le Havre the following dispatch :
Le Havre, 8 March.
La Touraine arrived this afternoon in the roadstead and entered the docks of the Compagnie Internationale at 4pm. Nothing in her majestic appearance seemed to indicated that the ship had suffered any damage in the course of her voyage. After the usual formalities, Commander Caussin issued us this communication :

It was last Saturday, 6th March, at latitude 48°14" north, longitude 21°06" west, at 2 o'clock in the morning, while kept at my post by a heavy mist, that I was made aware that a fire had broken out in the housing of one of the ventilators of the forward boiler rooms. Voluminous smoke was invading the bridge. 

While the stokers were working at putting out the fire, I hove the ship to, in order to be able to leave the bridge and go to the seat of the blaze. Fire was reported in the post office and it was beginning to take hold in neighbouring facilities. 

It was 2:45 in the morning when I sent out a call for help. Several vessels soon responded to my request. These were the Swanmore, 80 miles away, the Cornishman, 85 miles away, the Keemen, the Rotterdam, 73 miles away, and the Anglo-Australian. All these ships set course towards our position. At 8:30, we were joined by the Rotterdam

She agreed to proceed in convoy with us towards Falmouth. I thanked the other vessels. As for the fire, it was difficult to assess its magnitude, but towards 2 in the morning the blaze appeared to have been extinguished.

At last, it was possible from yesterday (Sunday) to consider ourselves to have mastered the fire. At 11:30 in the morning, the situation further continuing to improve, I notified the Rotterdam that I could continue on my course without her and we separated. We were met at 2 o'clock by two French cruisers which soon returned to their own course.

The commander then declared that there was no substance in the holds susceptible to spontaneous combustion. Then he paid tribute to the sang-froid of the officers and men of his ship. As for the passengers, they had stayed absolutely calm. There was not the least panic. This detail was confirmed by passengers that we interviewed on their disembarkation. Some even affirmed that they had stayed calmly in their cabins.

Admiral Charlier has just decided to set up a commission which would be charged with inspecting the  merchandise which will be brought out of the hold to try to determine the causes of the fire aboard la Touraine. One has the conviction that the accident is not due to an act of malice. A large crowd thronged the quay for the arrival of the ship which bears no external sign of the accident.

Le Petit Journal, 1 April 1915 (extract)

The arrest of the arsonist of the steamship la "Touraine"

The circumstances in which a fire broke out on 6th March last aboard the French steamer la Touraine, in mid-ocean, while she was on her way to Le Havre from New York, had seemed so strange that one is not surprised to learn both that the blaze was caused by a criminal hand and that the presumed arsonist had been arrested.

It is remembered that la Touraine, with 84 passengers aboard, had asked for help by wireless telegraphy and that four vessels had replied to her appeal. One of them, the Rotterdam, stayed nearby the Touraine and convoyed her as far as le Havre, which the French steamship was able to reach under her own steam.

Since this bizarre fire became public knowledge, its cause has been the subject of speculation, and, suspecting malicious intent, the Le Havre police department decided to open an enquiry.

Admiral Charlier, the maritime prefect of Le Havre, took control of this investigation and lost no time in discovering that the explosion which caused the fire took place in hold no. 2 where the first class passengers' baggage was stowed. Therefore, either the explosive was in this baggage, or it had been placed there by one of the travellers.

A fatal decision

... because the holds were locked down during the voyage...