The sinking of RMS Lusitania on 7th May 1915 – the victim of a torpedo fired from a German U-boat - has long been regarded as a major war crime and a prime cause of the United States entering World War I. However, there are questions that are still unanswered.
Lusitania was launched on 7th June 1906 at John Brown’s shipyard on the Clyde, Glasgow. She was a massive ocean liner, 790 feet long with four enormous funnels. At the time she was the fastest and most luxurious liner afloat and was expected to make huge profits for the Cunard Line as she plied her trade on the Atlantic between the United States and Europe.
Lusitania entered service in 1907 and soon fulfilled the promises made for her. Her maiden voyage won the coveted Blue Riband for the fastest Atlantic crossing, at an average speed of 23.99 knots, and she bettered that record in 1909 with a speed of 25.85 knots.
She was clearly a more fortunate ship than the Titanic, in that she crossed the Atlantic more than 200 times.
However, her luck ran out after the start of World War I, when Germany declared that they regarded all the seas around the British Isles as a war zone. Any ship, military or civilian, would be seen as a legitimate target.
On 1st May 1915 Lusitania left New York with 1,201 passengers and 702 crew members. Most of the passengers were British but 188 of them were American. At the time, the United States was in a state of neutrality in what it regarded as a purely European war. It was generally thought that a ship that had nothing to do with the war, and which was carrying a substantial number of Americans, would have been protected from attack on the grounds of this neutrality.
However, the German view, as mentioned above, was different. A U-boat, captained by Walter Schwieger, was waiting in the waters off the coast of Ireland. When Lusitania, moving slowly because of fog, came into range in the early afternoon of 7th May she was hit by a single torpedo. To everyone’s further surprise the ship was immediately rocked by a second huge explosion.
Panic ensued on board as the passengers rushed for the 48 lifeboats, many of which could not be launched due to the listing of the ship to one side. Other boats tipped their passengers into the sea as Lusitania lurched downwards. Only six lifeboats were launched successfully.
Captain Turner of the Lusitania only abandoned ship when the water reached the bridge. He clung to a floating chair and was eventually rescued. However, the sinking claimed a total of 1,198 lives, including 63 children and 128 Americans.
The fact that there were more than 700 survivors, despite the rapid sinking of the ship in 18 minutes and the chaos involving the lifeboats, was due in large part to the relative closeness of the ship to the Irish coast, so that rescue vessels were able to reach the scene in time to pull many people from the water before they drowned or froze to death. This situation was somewhat different to the plight of the victims of Titanic in the ice-strewn open ocean three years previously.
Explosives on board?
The German government sought to justify the attack by claiming that Lusitania was a legitimate target because she was carrying a large quantity of explosives destined for the British Army. This, they said, was the cause of the second explosion that followed that resulting from the torpedo impact. Had this been true, it would of course have called into question the supposed neutrality of the United States.
However, there were other possible causes of the second explosion, including the ship’s boilers blowing up and the ignition of coal dust in the fuel hold.
The wreck of Lusitania lies in relatively shallow water at a depth of around 300 feet. This has allowed the wreck to be explored, and large quantities of rifle ammunition have been discovered. It is also believed that the ship was carrying material that would have contributed to the manufacture of explosives, even if ready-made explosive items were not on board. These discoveries lend some weight to the original German claim, even if the second blast was not due to the direct explosion of war material.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of the matter, public opinion was swayed on both sides of the Atlantic and it cannot be doubted that the sinking of the Lusitania played a role in changing American minds. That said, another two years would pass before the United States entered the war.
There were even suggestions that the British government had engineered the tragedy as a means of getting America to enter the war on the side of the Allies. Knowing that German U-boats were in the area, why was such a large target as the Lusitania not offered any protection from the Royal Navy?
It is hardly to be wondered at that conspiracy theories abound on this incident as on so many others. Whether the whole truth will ever be known is another matter altogether.
© John Welford