On the 7 May 1915, a German U-boat sunk the British luxury liner, the RMS Lusitania. 1,198 people lost their lives, including 128 Americans. Its sinking caused moral outrage both in Britain and in the US and led, ultimately, to the USA declaring war against Germany.
The ‘Great War’ was still less than a year old. On 18 February 1915, in response to Great Britain’s blockade of Germany, the Germans announced that it would, in future, be operating a policy of ‘unrestricted submarine warfare’. In other words, German U-boats would actively seek out and attack enemy shipping within the war zone of British waters. Even ships displaying a neutral flag, they announced, would be at risk – the Germans being aware of the British habit of sailing under a neutral flag.
The Lusitania was certainly not the first victim of Germany’s new policy – on 28 March 1915, the British ship RMS Falaba was torpedoed and sunk by German U-boat off the coast of southern Ireland. 104 people were killed, including one American.
Liable to destruction
Wealthy passengers boarding the Lusitania, a 32,000-ton luxury Cunard liner, in New York saw an advertisement issued by the US German embassy warning them of the risk:
Vessels flying the flag of Great Britain, or any of her allies, are liable to destruction in those waters and that travellers sailing in the war zone on ships of Great Britain or her allies do so at their own risk.
Yet any concern passengers may have harboured were brushed aside in the belief that the Germans would surely not target a civilian cruise liner. And also, with a top speed of 21 knots-per-hour, far higher than any other ship at the time, the Lusitania could easily outpace a German U-boat with a top speed of a paltry 13 knots.
Carrying 1,959 people (1,257 passengers and 702 crew), the Lusitania left New York on its 202nd Atlantic crossing on 1 May 1915. The British, knowing of the potential danger as the ship approached the Ireland, gave the captain, William Thomas Turner (pictured), specific instructions. He was told that as he approached the coast he should sail at top speed and in a zigzag fashion, hence making it far more difficult for a U-boat to score a direct hit. But with thick fog and poor visibility, and wanting to save fuel, Captain Turner sailed at only 15 knots per hour and, fatefully, in a straight line. He was also told to avoid Ireland’s jutting coastline. Yet here he was, on the 7 May, within eleven miles off the coast of southern Ireland, within sight of the Old Head of Kinsale Lighthouse.
Lurking beneath the waters was the U20, captained by Walter Schwieger. The U20 had already downed a few smaller vessels and now, in the early afternoon of 7 May, it spotted the Lusitania at a distance of about 700 metres. At 14:09, the U20 fired a torpedo, hitting the Lusitania on the starboard side. Panic ensued. Seconds later a second explosion from deep down was heard. This, the second explosion, was what doomed the ship to its fate. It was assumed to be a second torpedo but this was not the case. Captain Schwieger always maintained that he had only fired the one, claiming: “It would have been impossible for me, anyhow, to fire a second torpedo into this crowd of people struggling to save their lives”.
The ship listed so severely to the side that the lifeboats on the port side were unreachable. Those that were dropped from the starboard side fell into the water at such a distance from the ship that people were forced into making a terrifyingly long leap in order to reach them.
The ship sunk quickly – in just eighteen minutes. It sank in a mere 90 metres of water. At the point the bow hit the sea bottom, the stern was still sticking out of the water.
Rescue ships were dispatched from the Irish port of Queenstown and arrived on the scene within two hours, and, unhindered by further attacks, managed to pick up 761 survivors. But 1,198 lives were lost, including 128 of the 197 Americans on board. 59 children and 35 babies were among the dead.
A legitimate target?
So what had caused the second explosion? Records showed that down in its hold, among all the cargo and baggage, the Lusitania had been carrying ammunition for over 4,000 small arms – some four million American-made bullets. It was the unforeseen detonation of all this live ammunition that caused the greatest damage. The Germans certainly maintained this was the case but the British and the Americans denied it. History has revealed that the Germans had been right, and therefore, by carrying ammunition, the ship was, under the laws of war, a legitimate target.
Nonetheless, with the US president, Woodrow Wilson, outraged by what he saw as an atrocity, the German high command rescinded its policy of unrestricted submarine warfare, although they were later to re-introduce it, on 1 February 1917. The British government condemned the ‘barbarian’ Germans as indeed they would five months later following the German execution of British nurse, Edith Cavell.
Historians have debated whether the Lusitania had been purposefully allowed to fall into a German trap and sunk as a means of persuading the US into joining the war. Up to this point, the US had firmly remained isolationist. In the event, it would be another two years, 6 April 1917, before the US joined the Allies but the sinking of the Lusitania and the killing of American citizens certainly played a large part in swaying the opinion of both the president and US public opinion.
Captain Turner remained on the bridge of the ship until it was submerged. He then clung onto a chair in the swirling Irish waters for two hours before being rescued. He died 23 June 1933, aged 77.
Rupert Colley’s compelling novel, set during World War One, This Time Tomorrow, is now available.