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RMS Lusitania

7th May 2015 was the 100th anniversary of the torpedoing of the RMS Lusitania. The attack on this ship was integral to the events of the First World War, and one passenger's involvement plays an important role in the history of Blind Veterans UK.

 

RMS Lusitania

The RMS Lusitania was an ocean liner making regular transatlantic journeys. When it left New York for Liverpool on what would be the ship's final voyage, submarine warfare was intensifying in the Atlantic.

 

On 7th May 1915, the Lusitania was torpedoed by a German U-Boat and sunk in just 18 minutes. This is cited at the event which brought America into World War I, due to the deaths of many American citizens. It was used in numerous military campaigns to illustrate the purpose of fighting the war and to turn public opinion in many countries against Germany.

 

The sinking of the Lusitania claimed almost 1200 victims, amongst these and the survivors were many notable American figures. One individual was extravagant wine agent, George Kessler. On the afternoon of the torpedoing, Kessler emerged on the deck upon hearing the attack. He began assisting women and children into lifeboats. However, a sudden shift of the boat threw Kessler into one of the lifeboats which had not yet been lowered. As the group rowed to safety, they watched the rapidly sinking Lusitania.

 

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When the ship overturned, it caused a great shift in the waters which capsized the lifeboat holding Kessler. He was lucky to survive; swimming a great distance before being rescued by another boat, he was in the water for over seven hours. While he swam he vowed to himself that should he survive, he would dedicate himself to helping victims of war. While hospitalised in England, Kessler met our founder Sir Arthur Pearson. Pearson told Kessler about Blind Veterans UK (then St Dunstans.) After hearing about his work and the centre he had started, Kessler decided that he too wanted to aid soldiers blinded in war.

 

On 11th November 1915, George and his wife Cora founded the Blind Relief War Fund from which Blind Veterans UK greatly benefitted. They left the European arm of the fund to be run from a head office in Paris and returned to America to continue their work supporting blinded war veterans. In America they met deafblind author and activist Helen Keller. She gave her full support to the fund, becoming one of the founding trustees. The fund still exists today, operating as Helen Keller International.