By Tigran Kalaydjian
NICOSIA, Cyprus — The fact that SS Armenian once sailed the high seas and worked the cargo routes of the North Atlantic is news to most people, including Armenians.
Built as a freighter, the SS Armenian was a valuable transportation vessel in the profitable cargo service that existed between Great Britain and North America at the turn of the 20th century. The exact location of its final resting place remained a mystery until 2008, when its wreck was discovered off the western coast of England and it was seen for the first time since World War I.
For a ship born during the Hamidian massacres, it was perhaps inevitable that it would meet its doom in that darkest of years — 1915 — at the same time as the people with whom she shared her name were being slaughtered.
The SS Armenian was built in 1895 by Harland & Wolff, the Belfast shipyard that would later become famous for making the legendary trio Titanic, Olympic and Britannic. The vessel was 156 meters long and had a displacement of 8,825 tons.
The ship was launched on November 25, 1895 as the SS Indian for Frederick Leyland & Co, but wasn’t delivered until September of the following year, by which time it had been renamed the SS Armenian.
With very little contact between Great Britain and a nation called Armenia, the clue behind the sudden name change lies in the events inundating the British press throughout 1895. During this time, the sultan and the ruling elite of the Ottoman Empire were diligently putting into action their final solution to the ‘Armenian Question,’ a solution which required the destruction of the empire’s Armenian minority as a cohesive unit and its dispersal throughout the country.
This policy involved forced assimilation, the settling of Turks in Armenian-populated regions, the incitement of Moslem fanatics and Kurdish militias to commit atrocities against unarmed Armenians and a plan of organized, indiscriminate killing of men, women and children by the sultan’s military.
Starting in the late summer of 1894, the massacres of Armenians had gradually grown in scale and reach, eventually encompassing several large provinces in the east of the empire.
In October 1895, reports of the slaughter of hundreds of Armenian men in the town of Erzurum provoked shock and indignation across the world. Newspaper articles regularly depicted the sultan as a bloodthirsty tyrant, a butcher of women and children, and sympathy for the Armenians was widespread. Leading newspapers such as the Times, Morning Post, Daily News, New York Times and Le Petit Parisien published articles and editorials by prominent public figures condemning the Turkish crimes.
Eyewitness accounts brought home the magnitude of the massacres, filling the public both in Europe and America with disgust and anger.
One account sent by a Catholic prelate stationed in Western Armenia described a typical scene: “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.”
By 1896, close to 300,000 innocent lives had been lost throughout the Armenian highlands.
In a speech delivered in Liverpool that year, former UK Prime Minister William Gladstone protested vehemently against the atrocities and called for resolute action by the European powers against the Turks. Against this background, there is little doubt that the unremitting suffering of the Armenians would have been ingrained in the consciousness of the wider British public.
With the constant flow of news reports causing outrage and clamors for justice, it is understandable why the people behind the building of the SS Armenian would choose to rename the vessel. It may have been a small but significant gesture, an expression of solidarity with the Armenian people in their hour of torment and agony.
Fitted out with stables to transport horses, the SS Armenian commenced its maiden voyage from Liverpool to Boston on September 28, 1896. Three years later the ship was contracted by the British authorities to serve as a transport in the Boer War, and in 1901, it was used to transport 963 Boer prisoners of war to Bermuda.
After the war, in March 1903, the ship’s management was taken over by the White Star Line — the same company that would come to operate the RMS Titanic just a few years later — and it resumed its cargo service between Liverpool and New York.
In 1910, it was repainted in the distinctive Leyland insignia — a pink funnel with a black top.
The Armenian completed its peacetime assignment in March 1914, before being briefly laid up prior to its deployment as a horse transport during World War I. Although not fitted as a passenger vessel, it was used to transport the Grenadier Guards, an infantry regiment of the British armed forces, to Belgium on the October 7, 1914.
The SS Armenian began its final voyage in June 1915 with 175 men onboard. It was chartered to carry a cargo of 1,422 mules from the US to Bristol, England. The animals were intended as replacements for the horses that had been lost in the fighting in France.
At around 6:30 p.m. on June 28, while heading northeast off Trevose Head, Cornwall, a watchman on the Armenian sighted a German submarine. In what proved to be an erroneous decision, Captain James Trickey ordered the ship ahead full-steam in an attempt to outrun the U-boat, which turned out to be the U-24. The captain was signaled to stop and surrender after two shots were fired across the ship’s bow, but he refused. The U-boat’s commander, Rudolf Schneider, then opened fire with the deck gun, scoring several hits on the Armenian, one shot taking out the Marconi room.
After more than a dozen men lay dead or injured on the deck, Trickey finally agreed to surrender. Much to his surprise, he and the crew were treated well by the Germans from that point on. With several lifeboats damaged from the shelling, they were allowed to take the remaining boats and make for the Cornish coast. The Armenian was then sunk by two torpedoes fired into its stern. It went down in minutes.
The survivors were picked up the following day by the Belgian steam trawler President Stevens. Four of the injured died before they could be rescued.
29 men lost their lives, including 19 Americans. The Armenian needed hands to tend to the mules, so many of the 175 men onboard were muleteers who had been hired at Newport News, Virginia, before sailing. Of the 29 fatalities, 12 were muleteers who refused to abandon the animals and preferred to go down with the ship. Most of the victims were African Americans.
Following the sinking of the RMS Lusitania 52 days earlier, in which more than 100 Americans lost their lives, the sinking of the Armenian caused a second crisis between Germany and the US, as the majority of the men who died were again American. Much was made in the press of this fact, with both the British and French papers doing their best to fan the flames of anti-German sentiment in the US, with the hope of drawing America into the war.
While the propaganda war raged in the newspapers, President Woodrow Wilson considered the Armenian incident before making any official pronouncements, preferring to wait until the investigation was over. His procrastination proved expedient. The ship was undeniably engaged in the transportation of contraband to England — work animals destined for the Allied armies fighting in France — and this made it a legitimate target according to most experts.
Even though the accepted rules of engagement regarding the sinking of merchant ships in wartime required a ‘stop and search’ approach, it was established that not all U-boat commanders obeyed these rules. However, the investigation found that Rudolf Schneider had indeed tried to stop the ship before opening fire with the deck gun. It is likely that had Trickey complied with the order to stop, the SS Armenian would have been spared.
The furor caused by the sinking of the Armenian eventually abated because of the circumstances surrounding the event, and the US did not declare war on Germany until April 1917.
In 2002, amateur divers claimed they had discovered the wreck of the SS Armenian, but their claim was proven incorrect (the wreck was of the auxiliary cruiser HMS Patia.)
The SS Armenian was finally located and identified by wreck hunter and archaeologist Innes McCartney in 2008. The discovery was featured on the History Channel in an episode of Deep Wreck Mysteries titled, “Search for the Bone Wreck.”
The ship sits upright in 95 meters of water, 45 miles from the reported location given by the British crew at the time of the sinking. A mass of animal bones was found inside the ship, a testament to the hundreds of animals whose deaths were but a minor statistic in a global conflagration that claimed millions of lives and provided ideal cover for the commission of one of mankind’s greatest ever crimes — the Armenian Genocide.
(Tigran Kalaydjian is the author of Sentinel of Truth: Gourgen Yanikian and the Struggle Against the Denial of the Armenian Genocide [2012.])