Ship disasters inevitably garner great attention, but not all disasters are created equal, it would seem.
Ask most Americans which peacetime shipwreck claimed the most lives, for example, and a significant number will assert the loss of the RMS Titanic in 1912. However, that catastrophe, which took 1,517 souls, doesn’t even make the top five.
Atop the list is the Doña Paz, a Philippine passenger ferry which collided with an oil tanker in December 1987 in the Tablas Strait. The resulting fire and sinking claimed nearly 4,400 individuals, nearly three times the loss of the fabled Titanic.
Likewise, ask a group of Americans to name the greatest wartime ship disaster and many will likely venture the RMS Lusitania, the British ship torpedoed by a German U-boat in the Irish Sea in 1915, taking 1,198 civilians and crew with it.
The Lusitania is among the best-known wartime ship disasters, but it’s not even close to being the worst in terms of fatalities.
In World War II alone, there were 15 separate sinkings which took the lives of 3,000 or more individuals, including the German transport vessel Wilhelm Gustloff, sunk by a Soviet submarine in 1945 with an estimated 9,400 deaths.
The Lusitania doesn’t even take top honors for World War I. There were three ships sunk in 1916 alone that resulted in more lives lost than the Lusitania: The SS Principe Umberto, a steamship sunk by an Austro-Hungarian submarine (1,926 deaths); the French troop transport SS Gallia, sunk by a German U-boat (1,338 deaths); and the British battle cruiser HMS Queen Mary, which exploded and sank during the 1916 Battle of Jutland (1,245 lives).
But as this year marks the 100thanniversary of the beginning of Great War, over the next four years it’s likely the Lusitania will garner the lion’s share of attention. That’s unfortunate because hundreds of ships were lost during the conflict, and each sinking created a ripple effect which touched thousands, if not tens of thousands of lives.
That’s not to say those who went down on the Lusitania don’t deserve to be recognized. The sinking served a propaganda coup for Allied forces working to convince the American public to side with their cause. But there were many other craft lost during the war that also deserve to be remembered.
One such vessel is SS La Provence, a former French ocean liner that had been converted to an auxiliary cruiser and was used to transport troops.
The ship was the property of the French firm Compagnie Générale Transatlantique, and was launched in Saint-Nazaire, France, in 1905. She made her maiden voyage from Le Havre, France, to New York on April 21, 1906, and continued on that route until the outbreak of World War I.
At 602 feet long and 13,753 tons, La Provence was Compagnie Générale Transatlantique’s largest vessel when it was launched.
La Provence was eastbound from New York to La Havre in April 1912 when she was among the first vessels at sea to pick up distress calls from the Titanic. La Provence assisted with relaying the Titanic’s location to other ships.
Her last commercial voyage took place a little more than two years later, just before the outbreak of World War I. In December of 1914 the ship was renamed Provence II and converted to an auxiliary cruiser, in this case a fancy name for a troop transport.
On Feb. 26, 1916, en route with a battalion of the Third Colonial Infantry to either Salonica or Gallipoli – reports differ as to its destination – the vessel was torpedoed by U-35. The German submarine was skippered by Lothar von Arnauld de la Perière, who would go on to be the most successful submarine ace of all time.
La Provence was hit south of Cape Matapan in the Mediterranean and sank quickly. Out of approximately 1,750 individuals aboard the vessel, 742 were rescued.
Like many ships lost during World War I, La Provence is little remembered in popular culture today.
However, the story of La Provence holds special interest to me. A little more than eight years before it went down after being attacked by the U-35, my maternal grandfather had boarded the vessel in La Havre and set sail for the New World.
A native of Spilimbergo, Italy, northeast of Venice, my grandfather was 25 years old when he walked up the gangplank of the liner in the fall of 1907 and embarked on a new life. He arrived at Ellis Island, N.Y., on Nov. 30, 1907, and eventually made his way across the country, settling in Portland, Ore.
In retrospect, it was a wise move. His home area in Eastern Italy would become the scene of numerous pitched battles between the Italian and Austro-Hungarian armies during World War I that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and bled both sides white.
Had my grandfather managed to live through that cataclysm, it’s likely that World War II a generation later would have been just as bad, if not worse, particularly after the Italians switched sides in 1943 and incurred the wrath of the Nazis.
My grandfather’s brother, according to my mother, moved to Paris sometime before World War II, but my grandfather never heard from him again once the conflict began and was never able to learn what became of him.
Unfortunately, I never had an opportunity to meet my maternal grandfather; he died a couple of years before I was born, in the early 1960s.
But I do so enjoy seeing the sparkle in my mother’s eyes when she talks about him, about what he did for work, about the variety of languages he spoke, about the Studebaker pickup he drove.
While I may not have had the privilege of meeting my grandfather, I’ve reaped the benefits of his choice to leave all that he knew and load up his belongings, travel from eastern Italy to northwest France and board a passenger ship headed for America, changing the destinies of future generations in the process.
As Austrian writer Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach once wrote, “Not what we experience, but how we perceive what we experience, determines our fate.”
We are all shaped by the vagaries of chance. My life has been a most fortunate one, thanks in no small part to my grandfather’s decision a little more than a century ago.
(Top: French liner La Provence, shown in La Havre, France, prior to World War I.)