"The Germans have been trying to spoil our trade for some time, but never until today have they manifested such an actively friendly desire to put us out of business. I anticipate that from this time on every German method that can be devised will be used to keep people from traveling on our ships.”
–Charles Sumner, Cunard representative, May 1, 1915
As May arrived in 1915, soldiers were mired in trenches across France and Belgium, poison gas had been deployed against troops of both sides, and Germany had begun rationing food owing to a British naval blockade. The Royal Navy stopped all ships suspected of carrying cargo to the Central Powers and confiscated the materiel. In retaliation, Germany declared the waters surrounding the British Isles a war zone and sent U-boats to patrol the area. In this tense atmosphere, the great Cunard liner, RMS Lusitania, began her 202nd transatlantic crossing carrying 1,265 passengers, 694 crew, $735,579 in cargo (1915 value), and three German speaking stowaways.
The Lusitania and her sister ship the Mauretania were built to dominate the luxury transatlantic passenger trade. At the end of the 19th century, the iconic Cunard Steamship Line was losing business to an American conglomerate, headlined by the White Star Line and owned by financier JP Morgan, and the Germans. To maintain its hegemony, Cunard needed to build newer, faster, and more luxurious ships, but lacked the funds. Emphasizing the British Empire’s competitive disadvantage, Cunard appealed to the government for a loan. Parliament responded with £ 2.6 million to construct the two largest and fastest ships on the seas. Until the loan was repaid, the Admiralty owned a percentage of the ships, and Cunard would turn them over to the Navy for use in the event of hostilities. Cunard also had to remain in British hands. No foreign investor could ever own a share of the great steamship line.
The ship design committee had a tall order to fill. Cunard wanted a luxury hotel for 2,300 guests while the Admiralty required an armored cruiser. They stipulated that the ship could be no longer than 760 feet at the waterline and its coal bunkers should run along the sides of the hull to provide an extra measure of protection, it was thought, from torpedoes. For eight years after her 1907 launch, the Lusitania was one of two fastest, most luxurious (excepting the brief service of the Titanic) ships on the sea. The first ocean liner propelled by modern steam turbine engines, her fastest average speed clocked in at 25.65 knots. This earned the ship four transatlantic records, the coveted Blue Riband.When Europe exploded in August of 1914, the Admiralty immediately commandeered most British passenger ships to act as troop transports. However, it soon found that the largest liners were difficult to maneuver in port and a voracious appetite for coal offset the benefit of speed. The “Great Greyhound” was returned to civilian service, but remained on the official list of British armored cruisers
Although submarines had been in service since the American Civil War, they were relatively untested. No one knew exactly what part the submarine would play in a naval war. Most were coastal vessels, unable to operate far from port. The Royal Navy had only acquired reliable long-range submarines in 1907, and Germany in 1913. These newer ships could range as far as 5,000 miles and run at surface speeds of 10 to 15 knots. Underwater they ran on battery power. On the surface, diesel engines provided propulsion and recharged the batteries. Time submerged had to be balanced with time on the surface in order to keep the batteries charged and ready for an attack, or an escape.
In 1914, Navies operated under “Cruiser rules,” international guidelines written for encountering enemy merchant ships in a war zone. These rules stipulated that offenders would be given a shot across the bow and made to stop. Subsequently, a “prize crew” would be put aboard to take possession of the ship or, once passengers and crew were taken off, the ship would be sunk. Neutral ships could also be seized or sunk if found carrying troops or supplies for the enemy. While these rules worked for large ships, they were both impractical and dangerous for submarines. Not only could subs not take on a ship’s crew or cargo before sinking it, they were extremely vulnerable to ramming while on the surface. In fact, in October of 1914, Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, issued orders directing all ships to ram any U-boat they encountered. This was in direct contravention of cruiser rules, which stipulated peaceful compliance, and made U-boat captains hesitant to challenge any ship before attacking.
At the outset of the Great War, believing that victory would come on the seas, not on land, the British Royal Navy initiated a blockade of the Central Powers. All ships suspected of carrying contraband cargo were stopped and the material confiscated. At first they were merely looking for munitions and military goods, but Britain quickly added more items, such as metals, cotton, and most importantly food, to the official contraband list. On February 4, 1915, frustrated by the blockade, the Germans declared the waters around the British Isles a war zone and sent U-boats to enforce it. Admiral Alexander Duff of the British Royal Navy noted in his diary that, “With submarines alone she [Germany] cannot hope to inflict any serious damage on our merchant shipping.” (Richard Hough, The Great War at Sea) Yet,from the February 4th to May 1, German U-boats sank 68 ships, Entente and neutral. Roughly 200 lives were lost.
On April 30, 1915, a German unterseeboot, the U-20, commanded by Kapitänleutnant Walter Schweiger, set sail up the North Sea destined for Liverpool. Her mission was to patrol outside the Mersey bar, a sandbar that, in low tide, blocked access to the Mersey River and thus, the port of Liverpool. Ships wishing to sail up the river had to wait for the tide to turn. Germany sent out the U-20 and two other U-boats in response to rumors of British troop movements from western ports. The Admiralty kept tabs on the departing subs by listening in on their wireless traffic. They had been intercepting and deciphering German messages since the previous Fall when code books for the Imperial Navy fell into Russian hands and, ultimately were shared with the British. Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, established a group known by their location, Room 40, to interpret German messages. As U-20’swireless operator reported in until the ship left radio range, Room 40 followed the U-20 out of Emden, up the Heligoland Bight, and into North Sea.
The U-20’s journey was slowed by heavy fog. In the days before sonar,submarines relied on sight and sound to prevent collisions. U-boats were especially vulnerable as they rode low in the water and were not about to signal their position with a foghorn or bell. Foggy days and most nights, even clear ones, were spent deep underwater, out of harm’s way. The electric engines she used when submerged were dramatically slower than the diesel, so the ship did not make headway as planned. Forced to spend extra time in the Atlantic south of Ireland, Schwieger stalked passing ships, sinking the Earl of Lathom on May 5th, and the steamships Candidate and Centurion May 6th. She sighted the White Star liner Arabic, but was not in a good position to attack.
On May 1, 1915, the American morning papers carried a warning from the German embassy, reminding travelers, “that a state of war exists between Germany … and Great Britain,” and that those “sailing in the war zone … do so at their own risk.” While not specifically directed at the Lusitania, the notice was placed alongside an ad for Cunard’s Europe via Liverpool service. Reporters flocked to the Cunard terminal at New York’s Pier 54, where the Lusitania was preparing to depart. That evening, papers carried stories of threatening telegrams and shady characters with messages of doom weaving among gathering passengers. Cunard spokesman Charles P. Sumner reassured the press that while, “The fact is that the Lusitania is the safest boat on the sea. She is too fast for any submarine.” (New York Evening World, May 1, 1915) Only two canceled bookings were attributed to the warning.
That afternoon, the Lusitania, captained by William Thomas Turner, left on what would be her final voyage. Aboard were business travelers, families returning to England because of the war, and an unusually large number of children. It was the largest group of passengers since the outbreak of war. Notable names found aboard included Vanderbilt heir Alfred, writer and Roycroft colony founder Elbert Hubbard, feminist author Alice Hubbard, Broadway producer Charles Frohman, Antiquarian bookseller Charles Lauriat, actress Rita Jolivet, and the Hodges family, of Philadelphia, accompanying father William on business to France. Other passengers included seaman Leslie Morton and his brother John who jumped ship in New York in order to enlist in the war effort. They booked passage home on the Lusitania only to be recruited to work on the short-staffed steamer. Red Cross volunteers Elizabeth Seccombe and her brother Percy were on their way to help with the war effort, and Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Agnew, were returning to Ireland, after four years in Pennsylvania, to run the family farm after the death of Thomas’ father.
Due in Liverpool May 6, the Lusitania was behind schedule from the start. A last minute transfer of passengers from the liner Cameronia, commandeered by the Admiralty, delayed her departure. Also, unbeknownst to the passengers, the Lusitania was not operating at full capacity. Demand for transatlantic service had declined in the last nine months and despite the mothballing of the Mauretania and other liners, none of the Lusitania’s passages were fully booked. Cunard, to save money on coal, shut down six of her 25 boilers. This reduced her top average running speed from 25 knots to 21 knots, still faster than most civilian ships, but no longer a record setting pace. Passengers betting in the daily pool on the distance traveled, not noting the lack of smoke from one of her four funnels, were puzzled by her lack of progress. “The speed of the boat was not what I expected it would be, for after the first full run of 24 hours, in which we covered 501 miles, the run dropped each day to well below the 500 mark, and the last 24 hours up to Friday noon (May 7) we made only 462 miles.” (Charles Lauriat, The Lusitania’s Last Voyage)
Fog near Ireland also caused the ship to slow. As the clouds lifted before noon on May 7th, the lighthouse atop Old Head at Kinsale was revealed and Captain Turner faced a dilemma. The Lusitania could increase her pace as the danger of collision receded with the fog, but even traveling at top speed she would reach the Mersey Bar after high tide that evening and be required to wait until morning to sail into port. Turner, knowing that it would be dangerous to bide time in that area, elected to travel at a slower pace, a consistent 18 knots, and time his arrival to coincide with high tide. Turner ordered his First Officer, John Preston Piper, to take a four-point bearing, that is, to measure the ship’s distance from a shore landmark in relation to all four compass points. This would allow Turner to confirm his estimate of the Lusitania’s location since the fog had obscured the shoreline all morning, and to corroborate his calculated arrival time off the Mersey Bar.
The u-boat and the liner met approximately twelve miles off the Irish coast on the afternoon of May 7. As the U-20 was turning for home, the fog lifted and Schweiger caught sight of the ship though his periscope. Although the Lusitania was steaming at 18 knots, normally fast enough to outrun a U-boat, she made an unfortunate turn to begin the four-point bearing that put her in an ideal position for Schweiger. One torpedo, and an unexplained subsequent explosion, sent the great ship to the bottom in a mere 18 minutes. 1,198 Argentinean, Belgian, Brazilian, Danish, Dutch, Greek, Italian, Mexican, Norwegian, Russian, Spanish, Swedish, Swiss, British, American, French, Persian, and German lives were lost.
The finger pointing began immediately. Despite knowing that there was an active submarine in the area, the Admiralty did not divert the Lusitania from its course and send it on the safer Northern route because to do so would let on that they had prior knowledge of the U-20s mission. Desperate to hide the fact that they had been decoding and following German radio traffic for months, the Admiralty did their best to turn attention from British failures to warn the ship of the U-20’s presence. To avoid blame for putting the Lusitania in harm’s way, the Admiralty and Cunard Company focused, at first, on Captain Turner. Cunard claimed that he did not take adequate precautions against a submarine attack. In fact, Turner did issue orders to seal all portholes, to swing the lifeboats out over the water in readiness position, and to observe blackout conditions, but he did not steer the ship in a defensive zigzag pattern or steam at top speed. Cunard had not ordered the latter measures since, as part of the loan agreement, they were not in control of the ship’s movements within the war zone. The Admiralty claimed they had issued orders for all ships to zigzag, but it was later shown that these orders postdated the attack. For his part, Turner expected the Admiralty to provide an armed escort within the war zone, and had been promising one to the passengers throughout the voyage. Would the escort have prevented the attack? At the subsequent hearing, Turner stated, “[I]t is one of those things one never knows. The submarine would probably have torpedoed both of us.” (Eric Larson, Dead Wake)
The British and American governments also needed to deflect speculation about the type of cargo carried by the passenger liner. The manifest listed 1,271 cases of shrapnel shells and 4,000 cases of small arms ammunition, but stories circulated citing bales of gun cotton, chemicals, and large munitions on board. These rumors strengthened the German position that the Lusitania was a legitimate target. The cargo was also cited by many as the cause of the second, more violent explosion on board. The Admiralty and the US government denied these allegations, and stubbornly stuck to the story of a second torpedo fired by the U-20. (The explosion has also been attributed to a ruptured boiler and/or the presence of coal dust shaken loose from the sides of the nearly empty coal bunkers) The Admiralty quickly convened an official inquiry into “the loss of the steamship Lusitania.” Led by Lord Mersey, the panel convened June 15, 1915 and interviewed surviving passengers, crew members, rescuers, Admiralty officials, and Captain Turner. Despite testimony to the contrary, the official finding of the British panel found that two torpedoes had struck the Lusitania. They laid blame directly at the feet of the Germans, whose “act was done not merely with the intention of sinking the ship, but also with the intention of destroying the lives of the people on board.” (Harrisburg Telegraph, July 17, 1915)
The British press condemned the “Hun’s most ghastly crime” (Daily Chronicle [Liverpool], May 8, 1915) and there was rioting in England and Canada. German newspapers were jubilant, while the Kaiser’s government held its breath waiting to see what the United States would do. The war hawks, exemplified by former president Theodore Roosevelt, were ready to jump into the fray. Two days after the sinking, Roosevelt warned, in a pamphlet entitled Murder on the High Seas, “Unless we act with immediate decision and vigor we shall have failed in the duty demanded by humanity at large, and demanded even more clearly by the self-respect of the American Republic.” Colonel Edward House, advisor to the President and emissary to Great Britain wrote to Wilson, “America has come to a parting of the ways when she must determine whether she stands for civilized or uncivilized warfare. We can no longer remain neutral spectators.”(Diana Preston, Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy) The American public was not so rabid. A popular song written immediately after the sinking, “When the Lusitania went Down,” by Charles McCarron and Nathaniel Vincent, mourns the passengers, but does not assign blame, “Although they were warned, the warning they scorned, And now we must cry in despair!” In fact, the song goes as far as to warn American travelers to sail only on American ships since “A Yankee can go anywhere; As long as Old Glory is there.”
German Americans were in a tough spot. They identified as Americans, but still felt ties to the home of their ancestors and the source of many family traditions. Fearing a rush to war, German-American newspapers and magazines advocated neutrality. The Fatherland; Fair Play for Germany and Austria-Hungary, published in New York by George Sylvester Viereck, declared:
The German-Americans stand where all good Americans stand. In case a foreign power were to attack the United States, justly or unjustly, they would rally to the defense of their country. If the United States were to attack a foreign power for good and sufficient reason, they would be ready to shed their blood for the country of their adoption. But they will not permit a small clique of Oyster Bay politicians and pink editors to jockey this country into an unjust war. (v. 2, no. 15)
Focused on the arms supposedly ferried by the Lusitania, the Fatherland blamed the British and American governments for putting civilians in harm’s way. “[T]he State Department should issue at once a formal notice admonishing American citizens to shun all ships flying the flag of a belligerent nation and all ships, irrespective of nationality, which carry across the sea the tools of destruction.” (v. 2, no. 15)
After much thought, President Woodrow Wilson, intent on preserving neutrality, had Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan send a stern, but noncommittal, note castigating the German government for its use of U-boats to attack merchant ships in “inevitable violation of many sacred principles of justice and humanity.” The US demanded that Germany decry the actions of the U-20 and other submarines responsible for attacks on merchantmen, make reparations for the damages, and end the submarine war against merchant ships. The Imperial administration apologized for the attacks on American ships, but was unrepentant about the Lusitania. “The German Government believes that it acts in just self-defense when it acts to protect the lives of its soldiers by destroying ammunition destined for the enemy … In taking [passengers] on board … [Cunard] quite deliberately tried to use the lives of American citizens as protection for the ammunition carried.” The next American note was more vigorous, and caused the resignation of Secretary Bryan. He felt that, as a neutral country, the United States should be protesting both the German and the British actions that put Americans in harm’s way. Unrestricted warfare only came to an end with the August sinking of another passenger liner, the S.S. Arabic, and the deaths of three more Americans.
If the British hoped that the sinking would spur United States to enter the war, they were disappointed. The US did not declare war on the Central Powers for another two years. Yet the Lusitania became forever linked to American participation in the Great War. Conspiracy theorists posited that the Admiralty did not do more to protect the Lusitania not because the government wished to hide their intimate knowledge of German movements, but because they were looking for a catalyst to propel the United States into war. Often cited to bolster this theory is Winston Churchill’s letter to the head of England’s Board of Trade, Walter Runciman, in which he declares his belief that American shipping traffic had been reduced by the threat of German submarines. (He did not consider that the British confiscation of all goods it labeled as contraband might have had an influence) It was “most important,” he declares, “to attract neutral shipping to our shores … the more the better; and if some of it gets into trouble, better still.” Even King George V, meeting with American emissary Edward M. House, wondered, “Suppose they should sink the Lusitania with American passengers aboard?” Whether a sacrificial lamb or not, the Lusitania did not become a twentieth century Maine. She was one of many ships, including several American flagged merchants, sunk during this first period of German unrestricted submarine warfare. Although horrified at the enormous loss of life, the Americans were soon reading other headlines as the Lusitania slipped from the headlines to the back pages.
Propagandists on both sides used the sinking to rally support. In Germany, artist Karl Goetz designed and struck a medal to celebrate the achievement. Under the headline, “Geschäft Über Alles” or “Business Above All,” passengers, including a man reading a newspaper with the warning, “U-Boat Danger,” are lined up at the Cunard office to buy tickets from Death. The obverse title is, “Keine Bann Ware” or “No Contraband,” and depicts a Lusitania loaded with munitions. Below the ship is written, Der Gross-Dampfer Lusitania Durch Ein Deutsches Tauchboot Versenkt 5 Mai 1915’ or “The liner Lusitania sunk by a German submarine, 5 May 1915.” The date the Lusitania went down was actually May 7th. British Propagandists seized on this error as proof that the German Navy was lying in wait for the passenger ship and produced 300,000 copies for sale, accompanied by a flyer stating that “This medal has been struck in Germany with the object of keeping alive in German Hearts the recollection of … deliberately destroying an unarmed passenger ship together with 1,198 non-combatant men, women, and children.” Cartoonist Winsor McCay made the sinking the subject of the first animated documentary. His twelve minute film condemned “the most violent cruelty that was ever perpetuated upon an unsuspecting and innocent people.” The New York Times commissioned Joyce Kilmer to write a poem for its magazine section. Entitled “The White Ships and the Red,” Kilmer writes of the honorably sunk “white” wrecks on the ocean floor, led by the Titanic greeting the Lusitania stained red by a “loathly deed.” Despite the propagandists’ best efforts, the United States did not rise up to avenge the 128 Americans lost on the Lusitania, but they did inexorably tie the ship to the eventual declaration of war in 1917.
Was the liner a lure, dangled by the British, to bring the United States into the War to End All Wars? Could the meeting of the U-20 and the Lusitania have been avoided? The Admiralty, knowing that the U-20 had sunk three ships in the days before meeting the Lusitania, could have warned the Captain Turner, sent the liner on the northern route past Ireland, or provided a naval escort. The subject remains controversial to this day, but the fact is that the oft told tale of the Lusitania’s demise bringing the United States into the war, is not true. While this was something the British hoped for, and the Germans feared, America did not enter the war for another two years. Americans were horrified by the tragedy and sympathetic to the British, but the majority were not interested in ending the country’s isolation. What makes this tragedy stand out, beyond the ship’s fame and the enormous human toll, is the place the ship occupies on the ill-defined line between innocent traveler and war conspirator.
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