World War One in Fantastic Fiction: “The Lusitania”

Cover by Wayne Miller

It’s been too long since I’ve done one of these, and I want to get back to the series.

World War One in Fantastic Fiction: “The Lusitania”, William Meikle, 2011. 

The purpose of this series is to look at how fantastic fiction uses the reality of World War One. Are the details cited accurate? How does the author use those details?

Remember, this series is about literal, not metaphorical, uses of the Great War experience. It will not cover alternate histories though some works I’ll be examining were written before the war ended.

I’ve reviewed Meikle’s tale already. This will concentrate on one particular aspect of the tale.

The story is something of a curiosity for this series because it is set before the war starts. Carnacki sees a vision of the Lusitania’s sinking and that is related in the story.

Obviously there was really a ship called the Lustitania.

It really was sunk off the coast of Ireland by torpedoes fired from a German submarine. It was an event that had great effect on the war though Meikle doesn’t cover that.

It is such an iconic event of the war that Meikle doesn’t bother to give the name of the ship’s captain or the officers’ or give a death toll or tell us how long it took to sink

He does give us one specific in the text (and there is, of course, the very title of the story) that ties Carnacki’s vision with history. It is a telegraph the captain dictates as the ship sinks:

Mayday. RMS Lusitania struck by German torpedo thirty miles west of Cape Clear Island. Taking on water and listing badly. Estimate ten minutes until capsize. Many dead. Mayday.

That doesn’t seem to be the actual distress signal sent via radio telegram

According to the Irish Examiner in an article from May 7, 2015, the 100th anniversary of the, the actual telegram sent was:


Meikle is obviously taking poetic license to remind the reader what happened in the sinking of the Lusitania. The real message is understandably terser. After the second torpedo hit the ship, it sank in 17 minutes. There wasn’t a lot of time to go into details thus no mention of why the ship was sinking and “bad list” instead of “Taking on water and listing badly.”

What of the discrepancies in the ship’s location? The Wikipedia article on the Lusitania says it sunk 11 miles off the Irish coast. However, note the actual telegram says “late position 10 miles off Kinsale”.  The last position was taken at 1:50 PM according to Diana Preston’s Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy. The first torpedo was fired at 2:10 PM. The nearest land was the Old Head of Kinsale.

I’m not sure why Meikle has the telegram mention Cape Clear Island rather than Kinsale, but the ship did pass that island and the distance is approximately correct for the Lusitania‘s final position.

But there is another version of the telegram quoted in the Irish Examiner — which closely matches what I could find in the Court of Inquiry testimony of wireless telegraph operator Robert Leith regarding the sinking.

Pearson’s book says Leith transmitted the following message over and over:

[Not clear if SOS identifier preceded this] COME AT ONCE. BIG LIST OFF SOUTH HEAD, OLD KINSALE.

They are not identical but they are closer to each other than to Meikle’s. I suspect the discrepancy is that Pearson is quoting a shorter message repeated after the longer, initial one, but that’s only a guess. Leith mentions that the captain instructed him to transmit the ship’s position as 10 miles south of the Old Head of Kinsale and he did so.

I’m not sure why Meikle used “Mayday” rather than “SOS”. The Mayday signal was not instituted as a distress signal February 2, 1923.



World War One Content

  • Living Memory: No.
  • On-Stage War: Yes.
  • Belligerent Area: No.
  • Home Front: No.
  • Veteran: No.

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