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The sinking of the Lusitania

On 7 May 1915, a German U-boat fired a torpedo into the RMS Lusitania, sinking her off the coast of Ireland. While the sinking was not a direct cause of American entry into the war, it frayed relations between the United States and Germany and initiated a public debate over how best to define and maintain U.S. neutrality.

Commissioned by the Cunard Line, the RMS Lusitania was designed by Leonard Peskett (1861-1924) and built by John Brown and Company. It was fitted for service on 26 August 1907. During its eight years in service, the Lusitania made 202 transatlantic crossings on its infamous Liverpool-New York route. When Lusitania was built, her construction and operating expenses were subsidised by the British government, with the proviso that she could be converted to an Armed Merchant Cruiser if need be. At the outbreak of the First World War, the British Admiralty considered her for requisition as an armed merchant cruiser, and she was put on the official list of AMCs. The Admiralty then cancelled their earlier decision and decided not to use her as an AMC after all. At the outbreak of hostilities, fears for the safety of Lusitania and other great liners ran high. During the ship’s first east-bound crossing after the war started, she was painted in a drab grey colour scheme in an attempt to mask her identity and make her more difficult to detect visually. When it turned out that the German Navy was kept in check by the Royal Navy, it very soon seemed that the Atlantic was safe for ships like Lusitania, if the bookings justified the expense of keeping them in service.
In February 1915, Germany declared the seas around the British Isles a war zone and warned that both merchant and neutral ships entered this area at their own risk. On 18 February 1915, Germany instituted a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare. All ships were now fair game within the designated war zones. In the days leading up to the Lusitania sinking, Germany repeatedly warned American citizens not to sail on British ships in the war zone. They justified their decision to attack passenger and merchant ships by noting the British policy of transporting war munitions across the Atlantic on merchant vessels. The Imperial German Embassy even issued a warning by placing an advertisement in fifty different American newspapers.

Lusitania departed Pier 54 in New York on 1 May 1915. The German Embassy in Washington had issued this warning on 22 April 1915.

Travellers intending to embark on the Atlantic voyage are reminded that a state of war exists between Germany and her allies and Great Britain and her allies; that the zone of war includes the waters adjacent to the British Isles; that, in accordance with formal notice given by the Imperial German Government, 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 the ships of Great Britain or her allies do so at their own risk.
Imperial German Embassy
Washington, D.C. 22 April 1915

This warning was printed adjacent to an advertisement for Lusitania's return voyage. The warning led to some agitation in the press and worried the ship's passengers and crew.

On its final voyage, William Thomas Turner (1856-1933) captained the ill-fated Lusitania. The liner encountered a U-20 submarine off the coast of Ireland at 2:10 pm on 7 May 1915. The captain of the U-boat, Walter Schweiger (1885-1917), gave the order to fire one torpedo, which struck the Lusitania near its bow. The ship began to founder as the lower compartments filled with water before a second powerful explosion rocked the ship, causing it to sink in under twenty minutes. Captain Turner remained on the bridge until the water rushed upward and destroyed the sliding door, washing him overboard into the sea. He took the ship's logbook and charts with him. He managed to escape the rapidly sinking Lusitania and find a chair floating in the water which he clung to. He survived, having been pulled unconscious from the water after spending three hours there. Lusitania's bow slammed into the bottom. Investigations concluded that the second blast described by many of the survivors was either from munitions stored below deck or from a coal-dust explosion. The attack killed 1,198 people, including 128 Americans. The inability of the passengers and the crew to set up the collapsible lifeboats before the ship sank caused many to drown or die of hypothermia.

On 8 May 1915, the German government issued a statement saying that the Lusitania had been carrying war supplies, as shown on the ship’s cargo manifesto, which had been published in the New York Times prior to 1 May. According to the German government, the Lusitania was a legitimate military target. The Lusitania’s cargo included 4,200,000 rounds of rifle cartridges, 1,250 empty shell cases, and eighteen cases of non-explosive fuses. Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) did not want the American government to overreact to the situation. He chose to correspond extensively with the German government. Wilson insisted that Germany apologize and compensate the American victims and their families, steps the Germans initially refused to take, preferring to shift the blame to the British. While Germany and the United States navigated these diplomatic tensions, the sinking offered fodder for the British propaganda effort within the United States.

In the days and months that followed, the British churned out poster after poster using the Lusitania as a reason for individuals to aid the British war effort. The British published posters showing the sinking with the words “Lest We Forget” or “Irishmen: Avenge the Lusitania, Join an Irish Regiment To-day.” The British press also published numerous accounts of “circling U-boats” and “gloating U-boatmen” at the site, as well as tales of the German machine-gunners firing on passengers in the water, all of which were fabricated. British and American sentiments were further outraged after the news appeared that a German metalworker in Munich had cast one hundred medals celebrating the sinking of the Lusitania. In reality, the medallion satirised the British willingness to put women and children in danger by letting them sail on ships carrying munitions. The British, however, later created their own version of the German commemoration medal and distributed thousands throughout the United States.

The disaster also gave rise to the first American propaganda poster of the war in support of the preparedness movement, a recruitment poster that showed a woman and baby drowning with the title, “Enlist,” emboldened across it. 

Following the tragedy, the British, American, and German governments sought to place blame for the sinking. Cunard Line first came under attack because the company had promised that the ship would be protected by British destroyers during its crossing; however, no such protection was given. The British government stated that it had not given the Lusitania an escort because the government believed that the ship’s speed did not warrant the extra protection. The British Admiralty also employed various schemes to shift blame away from the British government. It used Captain Turner as a scapegoat, saying that he ignored orders to carry out zigzagging measures to out manoeuvre submarines, that he chose not to take a mid-channel course across the Atlantic, and that he reduced speed in the war zone.

Germany remained steadfast in asserting that the sinking of the British luxury liner was justified. They argued that the ship was classified as an armed merchant cruiser, had run under neutral colours, had been ordered by the British government to ram enemy submarines, and was carrying allied ammunition and possibly Canadian troops. Germany accused Britain of using civilians as a shield in wartime. In 1918, with the United States now at war against Germany, American survivors and families of the victims submitted civil lawsuits against Cunard Lines and Captain Turner. The American judge, Julius M. Mayer (1865-1925), absolved both Cunard and Captain Turner of all blame, stating that the blame lay firmly with the German government. The victims were told to petition the German government for monetary damages, which Germany paid by 1925.

The sinking of the Lusitania created a momentary crisis in German-American relations. This diplomatic impasse ended with Germany’s agreement to respect the rights of neutral nations, which allowed for an improvement in diplomatic relations until January 1917, when Germany announced that it was re-establishing the policy of unrestricted submarine warfare. This announcement, along with the discovery of the Zimmermann Telegram in April 1917, influenced the United States Congress to declare war on the Central Powers and thus to enter the war on the side of the British.
In 1993, Dr. Robert Ballard, the famous explorer who discovered Titanic and Bismarck, conducted an in-depth exploration of the wreck of Lusitania. Ballard found Light had been mistaken in his identification of a gaping hole in the ship's side. To explain the second explosion, Ballard advanced the theory of a coal-dust explosion. He believed dust in the bunkers would have been thrown into the air by the vibration from the explosion; the resulting cloud would have been ignited by a spark, causing the second explosion. In the years since he first advanced this theory, it has been argued that this is nearly impossible. Critics of the theory say coal dust would have been too damp to have been stirred into the air by the torpedo impact in explosive concentrations; additionally, the coal bunker where the torpedo struck would have been flooded almost immediately by seawater flowing through the damaged hull plates.


Lusitania carried 1,959 people on her last voyage, with 1,265 passengers and 694 crew aboard. Those aboard included a large number of illustrious and renowned people including:

Theodate Pope Riddle, American architect and philanthropist (survived)

Canadian businessman Sir Frederick Orr Lewis, 1st Baronet (survived)

William R. G. Holt, son and heir of Canadian banker Sir Herbert Samuel Holt   (survived)

Montreal socialite Frances McIntosh Stephens, wife of politician George Washington Stephens (died)

Mary Crowther Ryerson of Toronto, wife of George Sterling Ryerson, founder of the Canadian Red Cross (died)

Lindon W. Bates, Jr., New York engineer, economist and political figure (died)

British former MP David Alfred Thomas (survived) His daughter Margaret, Lady Mackworth, British suffragist (survived)

Edwin W. Friend, professor of philosophy at Harvard University and co-founder of the American Society for Psychical Research (died, left a wife five months pregnant behind)

Oxford professor and writer Ian Holbourn (survived)

H. Montagu Allan's wife Marguerite (survived) and daughters Anna (died) and Gwendolyn (died)

Actresses Rita Jolivet (survived), Josephine Brandell (survived) and Amelia Herbert (died)

Belgian nurse Marie Depage (died), wife of surgeon Antoine Depage
New York fashion designer Carrie Kennedy (died) and her sister, Kathryn Hickson (died)

American building contractor and hotel proprietor Albert Bilicke (died)

Renowned chemist Anne Justice Shymer, president of the United States Chemical Company (died)

Playwright Charles Klein (died)

American writer Justus Miles Forman (died)

American theatre impresario Charles Frohman (died)

American philosopher, writer and Roycroft founder Elbert Hubbard (died) His wife Alice Moore Hubbard, author and woman's rights activist (died)

Wine merchant and philanthropist George Kessler (survived)

American pianist Charles Knight (died) and sister, Elaine Knight (died)

Renowned Irish art collector and founder of the Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery in Dublin Sir Hugh Lane (died)

American socialite Beatrice Witherbee (survived), wife of Alfred S. Witherbee, president of the Mexican Petroleum Solid Fuel Company Her son Alfred Scott Witherbee, Jr. (died) and her mother, Mary Cummings Brown (died)

American engineer and entrepreneur Frederick Stark Pearson (died) and his wife Mabel (died)

Genealogist Lothrop Withington (died)

Sportsman, millionaire, member of the Vanderbilt family, Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt (died) — last seen fastening a life vest onto a woman holding a baby.

Scenic designer Oliver P. Bernard (survived), his sketches of the sinking were published in the Illustrated London News

Politician and future United States Ambassador to Spain, Ogden H. Hammond of Louisville, Kentucky (survived) and his first wife, Mary Picton Stevens of Hoboken, New Jersey (died), a descendant of John Stevens and Robert Livingston Stevens (parents of former New Jersey Congresswoman Millicent Fenwick)

Dr. Howard L. Fisher, brother of Walter L. Fisher, former United States Secretary of the Interior (survived)Sinking of the RMS Lusitania 

Herbert S. Stone, New York newspaper editor and publisher, creator of magazines The Chap Book and The House Beautiful, son of Melville Elijah Stone (died)

Rev. Dr. Basil W. Maturin, British theologist, author and rector of Saint Clement's Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (died)

Debutant Miss Phyllis Hutchinson, 20-year-old niece of businessman Robert A. Franks of West Orange, New Jersey, financial agent for Andrew Carnegie (died)

Irish composer and conductor T. O'Brien Butler (died)

Arthur Henry Adams, president of the United States Rubber Company (died)

James A. Dunsmuir, of Toronto, Canadian soldier, younger son of James Dunsmuir (died)

Jeffery Company after his father's death (survived)

Paul Crompton, director of Booth Steamship Company Ltd. (died), and his wife  Gladys (died), six children (died), and their governess, Miss Dorothy Allen (died)

Elisabeth Antill Lassetter, wife of Major General Harry B. Lassetter and sister of Major General John M. Antill (survived)

Josephine Eaton Burnside, daughter of Canadian department store founder Timothy Eaton (survived), and her daughter Iris Burnside (died)

Albert L. Hopkins, president of Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Company (died)
William Sterling Hodges, wife Sarah and two sons, William and Dean (all died)

William Broderick Cloete, mining entrepreneur who was returning to London from Mexico. His body was not found.

George Stevens, butcher of Princes Risborough, Buckinghamshire, England who had emigrated to the US a few years earlier but had decided to return to England (survived)

Owen Slavin, trimmer aboard ship. Survived after his arm was amputated by Dr. Silvio de Vescovi with a penknife. (survived)

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