The fact of the SS Armenian’s existence is a surprise for most of the people and even Armenians themselves. The SS Armenian has been a valuable cargo vessel operating in a profitable transportation service that ran between the UK and North America in the early 20th century. The ship had been last seen in WWI until the discovery of its final resting place in 2008. The SS Armenian met its doom in 1915, the darkest year of the Armenian history, and when the Armenian Genocide occurred.
The SS Armenian was built by Harland & Wolff in 1895. This shipyard would become the one to shape the legendary Titanic, Olympic, and Britannic. The SS Armenian was 156 meters long and had a displacement of 8.825 tons. The ship was first launched as the SS Indian for Frederick Leyland & Co on November 25, 1895. However, it would be delivered in September of the following year, and by the time, it had already been renamed the SS Armenian.
At the time, there has been very little contact between Great Britain and Armenia, so we should examine the events that led to the renaming of the ship. Around 1895, the Ottoman sultan along with the ruling elite brought to life their solution to the Armenian Question, which implied the elimination of the Ottoman Empire’s Armenian minority as a binding unit, as well as required the dispersion of Armenians throughout the Empire’s territory.
The Ottoman plans involved forced assimilation, the settling of Turks in Armenian-populated areas in order to fuel clashes, as well as the instigation of Moslem fanatics and Kurdish militias to slaughter unarmed Armenians. A part of the plan was also the organized and indiscriminate killing of men, women, and children by the sultan’s military.
Since the late summer of 1894, the scale of the Armenian massacres started to grow, eventually embracing a number of large provinces to the east of the Ottoman Empire. In October 1895, the shocking reports of the slaughter of innocent Armenian men in the town of Erzurum caused indignation all around the world. Such leading newspapers as New York Times, Le Petit Parisien, and Daily News portrayed the Ottoman sultan as a bloodthirsty tyrant, and the sympathy for Armenians gradually increased.
Eyewitness accounts further provoked disgust across Europe and America. One of the accounts sent by a Catholic prelate from Western Armenia described:
“Over the whole province, the work of destruction has been pursued, every town, every hamlet having been given over to pillage and murder. The inhabitants who have been spared have been stripped of everything of use or value. Those who fled from the doomed districts were pursued and cut down mercilessly, without regard to age or sex, by the barbarous Turks. The bodies of many children and young girls lie under the charred debris of the ruined homes.”
Approximately 300,000 innocent Armenians have been lost throughout the Armenian Highlands by 1896. That year, former UK Prime Minister William Gladstone vehemently protested against the atrocities and called upon the European powers to undertake resolute actions against the Turks.
Given the continuous flow of outraging news, it is understandable why those people who built the SS Armenian would at some point choose to rename the ship. This small yet significant gesture would be an expression of solidarity with the Armenians in the dark hours of their torment.
Equipped with stables for horse transportation, the SS Armenian undertook its maiden voyage from Liverpool to Boston on September 28, 1896. The vessel would be contracted by the British authorities to serve as a transport ship in the Boer War. In 1901, the SS Armenian transported 963 Boer prisoners of war to Bermuda.
In March 1903, after the war, the management of the SS Armenian would be taken over the by the White Star Line to resume its cargo service between Liverpool and New York. This has been the same company that would operate the RMS Titanic in the near future.
In March 1914, the SS Armenian completed its peacetime assignment. In the early months of WWI, the vessel would be deployed as a horse transport. Apart from that, on October 7, 1914, the SS Armenian was used to transport the Grenadier Guards, a British infantry regiment, to Belgium, though the ship hasn’t been equipped as a passenger vessel.
The SS Armenian’s final voyage began in June 1915. It was set up to carry the cargo of 1,422 mules from the United States to Bristol in England. Those mules were to replace the horses that had been lost in the battles in France.
At around 6:30 PM on June 28, heading northeast of Trevose Head, watchman Cornwall on the SS Armenian spotted a German submarine. Captain James Trickey gave an erroneous order to sail the ship ahead full-steam in hopes to outrun the German submarine that would turn out to be the U-24. After two warning shots fired across the ship’s bow, the captain was signaled to stop and surrender. After Trickey’s refusal, Rudolf Schneider, the commander of the U-boat, opened fire with the deck gun.
Captain Trickey would finally agree to surrender after a dozen men were killed or injured. Much to his surprise, he along with the crew would be treated well by the Germans after the surrender. Trickey’s team was allowed to take the lifeboats not damaged by the fire and make for the Cornish coast, after which the SS Armenian was sunk by two torpedoes.
The Belgian steam trawler President Stevens picked up the survivors on the next day. Four of the injured died before the rescue arrived. 29 men, including Americans, lost their lives. Most of the victims were African Americans. Of the 29 fatalities, 12 were muleteers who refused to abandon the mules and would rather go down along with the ship.
The sinking of the SS Armenian caused a second crisis between Germany and the US, the one prior to this being the sinking of RMS Lusitania 52 days earlier. Moreover, British and French newspapers sought to spread anti-German sentiments in the US in the hopes of bringing the country into the war.
Meanwhile, US President Woodrow Wilson preferred to wait until the completion of the investigation before any official statements, which would prove itself expedient in the end. It turned out that the ship had become engaged in transportation of contraband to England, which had been work animals for the Allied armies in France. Some experts would argue that this fact made the ship a legitimate target.
In wartime, the accepted rules of engagement in regard to sinking merchant ships required a “stop and search” approach. However, it was established that not all U-boat commanders followed those rules. The investigation found that the commander of the U-24 Rudolf Schneider had in fact attempted to stop the ship before opening fire. It was considered likely that had Trickey surrendered, the SS Armenian wouldn’t be shot down.
The propaganda outrage surrounding the sinking of the SS Armenian eventually calmed down due to the circumstances surrounding the case. And until April 1917, the US didn’t declare war on Germany.
In 2002, a group of amateur divers claimed that they had discovered the shipwreck of the SS Armenian, but it turned out that the wreck belonged to the auxiliary cruiser HMS Patia. The vessel was eventually located and identified by Innes McCartney, an archaeologist and wreck hunter, in 2008.
The ship sits upright at a depth of 95 meters, 45 miles away from the location reported by the British crew at the time of the SS Armenian’s sinking. Animal bones were discovered inside the ship, a testament to hundreds of animals that died in the sinking. Although tragic, those deaths have been a minor event in the global-scale conflict that took away millions of lives. And let’s also not forget that WWI served as a perfect cover for the execution of the Armenian Genocide, one of the greatest crimes in the history of humanity.
Original post by Tigran Kalaydjian