It was one hundred years ago today, 7 May 1915, that one of the fastest, most luxurious, and most popular ocean liners of its day was torpedoed without warning and sank in less than 18 minutes, taking 1,195 people to their deaths. The sinking of the unarmed passenger liner Lusitania by a German U-boat ultimately propelled the United States of America into the carnage and butchery of World War I, “the war to end all wars.”
Since I last updated this article, some new information has come to light which expands our understanding of the circumstances of the sinking, and that new information requires some reconsideration and amendment to this piece. Though History is what happened in the past, its record is a living, changing entity, and the historical record must be updated when new information demands a reassessment.
Lusitania, a Cunard liner, was launched in 1906 and began regular transatlantic service in 1907. She was the finest ship of her age when launched. Her second class accommodations were more luxurious than first class on her rivals and sister ships. (Today we would find things rather spartan: private bathrooms were only for the priciest cabins!) Lusitania set the transatlantic speed record in November 1907: 4 days, 20 hours, thereby becoming the first ship to cross the Atlantic Ocean in under five days. She and her sister ship, Mauretania, (launched 1907) were known as “The Atlantic Greyhounds.” They ensured that the legendary “Blue Riband” (not a real trophy, but the popular designation of the transatlantic speed record) would remain in Cunard’s hands (and out of the Germans’) for the next 22 years!
Lusitania became the preferred ship for the transatlantic set, and remained so even during those perilous days as the first World War was unfolding. Lusitania was ready to depart from New York on 1 May 1915 even as a widely published advertisement from the German Embassy warned Americans that British ships were fair game for German U-boats.
Lusitania crossed the open ocean without incident, her fabled speed being her best armor. Unaccountably, however, despite being notified that U-boats had sunk three British ships south of Ireland immediately prior to the time that Lusitania was expected, Captain William Turner ordered the vessel to reduce speed. Apparently he was more concerned about patchy fog on the route than about German U-boats.
Kapitanleuntnant Walter Schweiger of the Imperial German Navy’s submarine U-20 could not believe his good luck! The most tempting target a U-boat captain had thus far seen was directly in his sights!
One torpedo was all that was required to kill the great liner. Holed amidship, the damage was compounded by a secondary explosion which some believe was exacerbated by a secret cargo of munitions which was detonated by the initial blast, but which submarine archeologist Robert Ballard believes to have been Lusitania’s boilers. Lusitania sank in an almost unimaginably short time. Most of Lusitania’s 1,959 passengers had no opportunity to save themselves. The loss of life was staggering, especially considering that the great ship was within easy sight of land.
The dastardly attack provoked outrage around the world. The act was condemned even in German newspapers, and Germany’s allies Austria-Hungary and The Ottoman Empire both protested to the Kaiser’s government. Imperial Germany immediately began a propoganda campaign justifying the sinking, making note of Germany’s many warnings about the dangers to vessels of combatant nations, and claiming that Lusitania was carrying contraband arms cargo. This claim was immediately refuted by the Port Authority of New York which had inspected the ship’s cargo as required by law and had found only crates of small arms cartridges which were permitted. Cunard lines and the British Admiralty both denied that Lusitania had war matériel aboard, but the matter is still hotly debated.
In an article published in the venerable Manchester Guardian on 1 May 2014, journalist Saul David notes that in 1982, the British Foreign Office was concerned about the wreckage of the Lusitania presenting a serious danger to salvers because “there is a large amount of ammunition in the wreck, some of which is highly dangerous” and that the 1982 salvage operation might “literally blow up on us.” Mister David based his observations on an article published the day before in the Guardian:
This recent addition to the known facts makes it impossible to assert with confidence and credibility that Lusitania was not transporting war matériel. It is implausible that Captain Schweiger would have had any intelligence data informing him of this fact, however; his justification in firing upon the ship was simply that Lusitania was classified as an “Auxiliary Cruiser” by the British Admiralty.
In the United Kingdom, the sinking was predictably met with outrage and the tragedy was used as an occasion to whip up patriotic fervor. Posters were printed demanding justice for the sinking, and to inspire recruiting efforts and bonds sales. But the most significant reaction was in The United States.
The U.S. government protested to the Kaiser’s government and demanded that, in addition to paying reparation for the 123 Americans killed in the attack, that Germany abandon its policy of unrestricted submarine warfare. Unwilling to draw the United States into the European conflict on the side of the English and the French, Imperial Germany declared an end to unrestricted U-boat attacks. The termination of such attacks was more in name than in fact: in the Fall of 1915, a German U-boat sank an Italian liner without warning, killing 23 Americans. The tide of public opinion in America turned decisively against the Germans. When the Germans declared the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare in early 1917, America’s entry into the war became inevitable. On April 6, 1917, just shy of two years after Lusitania was lost, America declared war on the German Empire.
Thus did Kapitanleuntnant Walter Schweiger’s moment of irresistable opportunity turn into one of the linch-pins of 20th century history: had he not torpedoed Lusitania, it is possible America might have remained neutral. Had America not entered the war, Germany might not have been so decisively defeated. Had Germany’s defeat and humiliation not been so complete, Apolph Hitler might not have found so fertile a ground for his noxious schemes to reclaim German glory. The course of history just might boil down to one man, one moment of decision.
Flower Mound, Texas
Der Krieg ist nichts als eine Fortsetzung der politischen
Verkehrs mit Einmischung anderer Mittel.
— Karl von Clausewitz
Those who like this article might enjoy Erik Larson’s new book: “Dead Wake” entirely about the Lusitania.