The Sinking of the Lusitania

By Debbie Reid

In the early part of the twentieth century, the only way to traverse the Atlantic was by ocean liner. It was a time of fierce competition between rival lines – with passengers expecting not only a speedy crossing, but luxurious accommodations as well. In 1903 the Cunard Line led by Lord Inver Clyde began construction on two fast and luxurious liners to challenge the German vessels that had held the ‘Blue Riband’ since 1897. The resulting RMS Lusitania and RMS Mauretania would be a firm reassertion of British supremacy at sea.
Launched at the River Clyde in June 16, 1906, RMS Lusitania was a grand ship and the first of the two sister ships to be launched. At 785 feet in length and 31,550 gross tons, she took the title of largest liner afloat. Her maiden voyage took place September 7, 1907, and in October 1907 she recaptured the coveted ‘Blue Riband’ from the German liner Deutschland. The Lusitania and the Mauritania were declared by The New York Times ‘as unsinkable as ships can be ’. The Lusitania was also noted by Sir Charles McLaren as ‘the fastest and most powerful cruiser in the world ’.
When World War 1 began in the summer of 1914, no one foresaw even the contours of the disaster ahead. “However, as the land offensives ground to a halt and the casualties rose this romantic view of war quickly disappeared”. At sea, the war ought in theory to have produced a series of almighty contests between the bristling fleets of battleships. In practice, the German fleet after one major encounter off the coast of Denmark (the battle of Jutland) retreated to part.
The German naval strategy for the remainder was to use their submarines in the Atlantic to starve British into surrender. “This type of submarine warfare had intensely to the level that Admiral Pohl stated that “it will be impossible to avoid danger to the crew of neutral ships”. The British, who could claim command of the seas could not cope with German Submarines operating from Kiel to Bremerhaven which had sank over twelve million tons of allied shipping over the course of the war.
There was a dramatic turn in the Atlantic war foot plane with the sinking of the Lusitania by submarine U-20 on the 7th May 1915.
The construction of Lusitania had been financed by generous loans from the British government. In return for the generous loans, the Admiralty could requisition Lusitania or her sister in times of war. At the onset of World War I in August 1914, Lusitania, Mauretania and the newer ‘sister ship’ Aquitania were all officially requisitioned for war duties. All but Lusitania were given official orders, so Lusitania continued her regular transatlantic passenger services.
May “1st, 1915 had been a very busy day at New York harbour.” It was the day The Lusitania would set sail. There was a big turnout of New Yorkers that day. The voyage would consist of large numbers of American citizens setting out for their long destination to Ireland. Unfortunately, German agents had spread rumours that the ship was carrying high explosives which were destined for warfronts.
On Thursday evening, May 6th, the Lusitania received a message from Queenstown that there had been submarines in the area. Lifeboats had been taken out in case of danger. Only twelve miles southwest of the Old Head of Kinsale Lighthouse, off the coast of Ireland, the Lusitania had entered into a war zone. Two-thousand passengers and crew on board the Lusitania had now came under great threat. Lieutenant Walter Schwieger (Captain of the U-20 submarine) was to bring death, woe and desolation on board the ship within the next eighteen minutes. As passengers on deck enjoyed a light breeze as they viewed the shores of Ireland, a disturbance was noticed on the mirror-calm sea off the starboard bow. This was followed by” a thin streak of white foam as a torpedo sped towards the Lusitania and exploded under its bridge”.
The first explosion was quickly followed by a second. The ship’s bow had begun dipping into the sea. Women and children were to be put safely into lifeboats. Captain Turner eagerly tried to head the doomed Lusitania north towards land, to find her out of control.
An unexpected power cut left the powerless ship in darkness. Panic-stricken passengers came out on deck. As the ship began to sink beneath its feet, Turner stood calmly giving orders to his crew. Husbands and fathers stood tearfully as women and children were lowered onto lifeboats which had capsized when they’d reached the ocean. As the bow dipped to make its final death plunge,” the stern rose high in the water and exposed the brass propellers which glinted in the sunlight”. Tossed bodies like corks had been shrouded in smoke and steam. Finally, the water flattened and calmed which left a glass-like finish over the tomb of the Lusitania.
While the living cried out for help, the dead drifted by. A steamship Heron and two trawlers gathered up the dead – which later returned to Queenstown with over 100 bodies. “Queenstown became known as the town of “death”.” This was due to the ever-increasing numbers of dead bodies which had been recovered from the Lusitania and been put into temporary morgues throughout the town.
In total, 1,198 lives were lost on the Lusitania. Of the drowned, 127 were Americans, 79 were children including 39 infants under the age of two years. 200 corpses were recovered from the sea while the remainder was never found.
The sinking of the Lusitania shocked the United States. President Woodwork Wilson was so affected by the news that he went into seclusion for two days, seeing and talking to no one but family and White House staff. After the sinking, the outpouring of acrimony from the US took the German High Command by surprise and the skilled British propaganda machine did much to inflame public opinion in America against Germany. Cognizant of this perfect opportunity to incite the US into the war, the sinking was loudly proclaimed as “Demonical” and the German Kaiser himself branded, “the Lord of Torture and Bloodshed.” The Germans expected as much from a belligerent like Britain, but the volume and vehemence of the American protests took them off guard. There were calls for “action” and the U-boatmen were vilified as “murderers” and “pirates.” Nevertheless, even the most indignant shied away from demanding war and indeed, President Wilson declared that there was such a thing as being “too proud to fight.” It was the German’s failure to realize this fact, and press home their advantage, that was at the heart of Germany’s mistake.
In conclusion the sinking of the Royal Mail Ship Lusitania by U-20 on May 7, 1915 was, arguably, one of the most notorious milestones of World War I. Popular history sees the sinking of the Lusitania as the start of the U-boats’ attack on British shipping. Some historians assert that “it was the most publicized tragedy of the First World War.” Others contend that it was the “major catastrophe” that finally shifted American opinion far enough for the country to seriously entertain the possibility of joining the struggle. However, by far the most serious consequence of the sinking was the reaction of the Germans themselves. Appalled at the violence of the American response to the sinking,” the Kaiser called a halt to unrestricted submarine warfare in British waters”. Consequently, for the better part of two years, Britain enjoyed a respite from an all-out U-boat offensive, giving her some time to recoup her losses and build up both merchant and naval shipping tonnage, as well as eventually goad the U.S. into the War. This mistake would ultimately cost Germany World War I.
Two reasons for studying the Lusitania are: (1). it’s the reason why America entered the World War (2). and because it happened off the Irish coast so it is of interest to Irish people.