Audrey Lawson-Johnston: Last known survivor of the sinking of the 'Lusitania'

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The Independent Online

Audrey Lawson-Johnston had the distinction of being the last known survivor of the Lusitania, the passenger liner sunk by a German U-boat during the First World War.

Around 1,200 of its almost 2,000 passengers and crew died, causing outrage internationally and particularly in the US, since more than 100 Americans were killed. The attack was an important staging post on the way to America's entry into the war.

The entry in the submarine's log was succinct: "Torpedo hits starboard side right behind the bridge. An unusually heavy detonation takes place. The ship stops immediately and heels over to starboard very quickly. The name Lusitania becomes visible in gold letters." Opinion in the US, Britain and elsewhere was furious. Anti-German riots erupted in many cities including London, Liverpool and Manchester, and DH Lawrence reflected public sentiment when he wrote: "When I read of the Lusitania I am mad with rage myself. I would like to kill a million Germans – two million."

Audrey Lawson-Johnston, who was then Audrey Pearl, was a baby at the time. She owed the fact that her life lasted for 95 years rather than three months to her teenage English nursemaid, Alice Lines, who got her and her five-year-old brother Stuart into a lifeboat. The Lusitania sank in 18 minutes.

Lines, too, had a hugely extended life, living to 100 and dying only in 1997. The two women stayed in contact over the decades. Audrey's mother and father also survived the sinking but her two elder sisters and their nursemaid were lost.

It was in the afternoon of 7 May 1915 that the Lusitania, which was off Kinsale in Ireland on a voyage between New York and Liverpool, was hit by a U-boat's torpedo. Alice, who was 18, was feeding Audrey while the crew were taking precautions against an attack. A steward came into the cabin to draw the curtains, saying, "We're getting close to Ireland, we must black out the ports."

Audrey's mother, Amy, saw the torpedo coming, and was knocked off her feet by the explosion. She and her husband, together with the nursemaids, headed upstairs towards the deck but the family became separated in the crush. Alice got Audrey and Stuart on to the deck and into one of the few lifeboats to be successfully launched as the ship listed.

In her testimony to an official inquiry, Alice related: "I had difficulty standing. I had a hill to climb to get into the lifeboat. I had the baby in my arms and a little boy of five hanging to my skirt. But we were quite all right, except for a few bruises." Eventually the parents, the two children and Alice were reunited, but there was no trace of the other nursemaid and the other two children: they were among the 1,198 fatalities.

The family was en route to England, where Warren Pearl, a surgeon-major in the US army, was to take up a posting in the American Embassy in London. His wife was pregnant with a son, who survived the ordeal. During the War Major Pearl, who was later promoted to colonel, served with the American Ambulance Corps as well as the British, French and Belgian armies.

Audrey spent much of her life in England, attending school in Kent and later living in Northamptonshire and Bedfordshire. She married Hugh Lawson-Johnston; they had three daughters. She held firm views on the sinking. "I never blamed the sea," she once said, "because it wasn't the sea's fault. It was the Germans' fault and that was that."

Audrey Pearl, Lusitania survivor: born New York City 5 February 1915; married Hugh Lawson-Johnston (three daughters); died Melchbourne, Bedfordshire 11 January 2011.