A Little-Known Story Behind Lassie
Less than ten years ago, British author Nigel Clarke was at work on a book about shipwrecks, when he came upon a story about an incident that occurred in Dorset during World War I. Clarke believes that the inspiration for Knight’s story came from the real-life collie, named Lassie, who saved the life of a British seaman in the First World War.
On New Year’s Day in 1915 the Royal Navy battleship Formidable was torpedoed by a German submarine off Start Point in South Devon, with the loss of more than 500 men. In a storm that followed the accident, a life raft containing bodies was blown along the coast to Lyme Regis. In helping to deal with the crisis, the local pub in Lyme Regis, called the Pilot Boat, offered its cellar as a mortuary.
When the bodies had been laid out on the stone floor, Lassie, a crossbred collie owned by the pub owner, found her way down amongst the bodies, and she began to lick the face of one of the victims, Able Seaman John Cowan. She stayed beside him for more than half an hour, nuzzling him and keeping him warm with her fur.
To everyone’s astonishment, Cowan eventually stirred. He was taken to hospital and went on to make a full recovery. He visited Lassie again when he returned to thank all who saved his life.
The sinking of the ship was a severe blow to Britain during these early years of the war. When the officers heard the story of Lassie and what she did to rescue Cowan, they told it again and again to any reporter who would listen as it was inspirational and heart-warming.
Because the story was widely reported, Clarke feels that the odds are that Eric Knight read the story during the war years, or came upon the story later on. While Knight had moved from Yorkshire to the United States and served in the U.S. military, Clarke’s suspicion seems well-founded. In addition to both dogs being named Lassie, the story of her rescue of the sailor also bore a resemblance to the Lassie rescue stories.
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