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The Sinking of the Lusitania

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The Lusitania begins to sink as small rowing boats take survivors to safety.

On a sunny May afternoon in 1915, off the south coast of Ireland, a single torpedo ploughed into the hull of the Lusitania, one of the greatest ocean liners of its time. Over the next four hours, a dreadful drama played itself out. A world of relative comfort and calm was transformed utterly into a scene of injury, misery and despair. Before the sun set that evening, 1,198 people1 on board the ship would be dead, and the world would be thrown into a crisis that culminated, two years later, in the entry of America into the First World War. Even in modern times, the events that unfolded on that day and the questions that subsequently arose continue to occupy the minds of many people.

The Great Ships

The early-20th Century was a time of great innovation. Technology was transforming the world - this was particularly true in the world of seafaring. Just 40 years earlier, timber-framed sailing ships ruled the seas. Now, great ocean liners were cutting through the waves, carrying thousands of passengers, in relative comfort and in a short period of time, across the Atlantic divide between Europe and America. Britain, the United States and Germany fought for dominance of the seas, creating ever bigger, ever faster, ever more luxurious ocean liners.

The benchmarks of the time, from a British perspective, were the Cunard sister ships Lusitania and Mauretania2. After her maiden voyage in 1907, the 30,400 ton, 785 foot Lusitania was compared to a 'skyscraper adrift'. She was capable of making an Atlantic crossing in just under five days, and she could accommodate 3,050 people. She catered for first, second and third class passengers, all strictly segregated according to the values of the time. While first class accommodation and service was opulent in the extreme, third class passengers had still had relatively spacious and comfortable living quarters and dining space.

The U-boat Menace

It wasn't just in shipbuilding, however, that the great countries of the time vied for supremacy. Britain and Germany had long been engaged in an increasingly bitter battle for military superiority. This one-upmanship culminated in the First World War in 1914. Both countries quickly used their navies to blockade enemy ports in an attempt to cut off supplies and starve their opponents into submission. A naval war-zone was declared in the waters around Britain and Ireland which meant that any boat in this area was liable to be boarded, searched for contraband, and sunk by enemy forces.

Germany was quick to deploy its latest weapon - the U-boat submarine. Though conditions on board were cramped and miserable, the U-boat had the key advantage of stealth. It could pass through British waters unmolested, striking even the largest enemy cruiser without notice and disappearing without trace. The British Admiralty, in charge of all Naval operations, recoiled from such a hidden menace, calling it a 'damned un-English weapon'. They were slow to see the strategic importance of this new weapon of war. As submarine attacks increased, the British public were shocked, calling for German submarine crews to be treated as war criminals for their use of such an 'unfair' mode of warfare. Orders were given, even for merchant vessels, to ram submarines on sight. Day by day, the stakes in this deadly game were increasing.

Sailing Into Tragedy

On 1 May, 1915, the day of the fateful last sailing of the Lusitania from New York, the German Embassy in America published a message in the New York Times. It stated boldly that a state of war existed between Britain and Germany; that British boats were liable to be destroyed and that passengers travelling through the war-zone were doing so at their own risk. This notice fazed few passengers at the time and the ship set to sea at 12.20pm. On board ship were 1,959 passengers and crew, including Charles Frohman, a noted theatre impresario, Hugh Lane, the director of the National Gallery of Ireland, and Alfred Vanderbilt, one of the richest men in the world at that time. The ship was expected to arrive in Liverpool on 8 May.

One day before, another boat set sail from the German port of Emden with far less fanfare. This was the U-20 U-boat carrying 35 men and seven torpedoes. It was captained by Walther Schwieger, a young, tough-minded mariner who had the total trust of his crew. In order to avoid enemy cruisers in the North Sea, the submarine proceeded north of Scotland and down the west coast of Ireland. Passing the small island of Fastnet, she entered the shipping lanes south of County Cork. The hunt was about to begin.

The Lusitania's journey across the Atlantic was unremarkable, but as the ship neared the Irish coast, anxiety on board began to increase. By now, most people knew of the German warning notice and they were fully aware that they were sailing into a war-zone. Dead ahead of them, a German U-boat was causing havoc to shipping in the area.

Schwieger's first sinking was a small schooner, the Earl of Lathom, on 5 May. On 6 May, he sunk the sister steamers Candidate and Centurion south of the Waterford coast. The British Admiralty, who knew of the U-20's movements through intelligence reports and who were briefed on the ongoing situation at sea, kept their naval vessels safely stationed in Queenstown (now called Cobh), the principal naval base in the area.

Day dawned on 7 May. Whatever advice Captain William Turner of the Lusitania may have received from the Admiralty, his actions have been the source of considerable controversy ever since. Although he posted extra sailors to spot submarine periscopes, he reduced the speed of the ship to 18 knots when full speed of 25 knots would have been advisable. He then directed the ship close to the Irish coast despite getting specific orders to avoid headlands (as these were known shelters for enemy submarine craft). Furthermore, in order to calculate the position of the ship exactly, he engaged in a navigational manoeuvre known as a four-point bearing, which involves moving the ship in a straight line for a protracted period of time. In essence, and at the worst possible time, he had turned the Lusitania into a sitting duck.

The Sinking

Schwieger spotted the liner just after midday. He could not believe his luck – the massive ship was sailing directly towards his submarine. Diving and bringing the craft to within 700 metres of the Lusitania's starboard side, he let loose one torpedo. It was 2.10pm, just 10 miles south of the Old Head of Kinsale. He scored a direct hit right below the bridge. An enormous column of water and debris showered the front of the ship. A second, even bigger explosion followed within seconds.

The ship immediately listed to starboard and passengers on board were thrown into panic. There was a rush to the lifeboats. However, launching the lifeboats now became extremely problematic. The port-side lifeboats were now pushed hard against the listing ship's sides, while the starboard lifeboats hung out away from the ship. In the ensuing chaos, many of the people who had managed to reach the lifeboats were tipped out into the sea when ropes gave way. Some lifeboats fell onto other lifeboats or onto people already in the water. Many port-side lifeboats were damaged by the ship’s rivets as they plunged into the sea. Some passengers, having put their lifejackets on incorrectly, were tipped head-over-heels in the water, drowning quickly. At 2.28pm, just 18 minutes after the attack, the Lusitania disappeared beneath the waves, taking with her hundreds of unfortunates who were unable to escape in time.

The Aftermath

For those still alive, their problems were far from over. The remaining lifeboats were now full, and many people were stranded in the cold waters3 clinging on to whatever floating debris they could find. Small children were the first to lose consciousness and succumb, and as the minutes turned into hours, more and more people died from hypothermia. The first boat on the scene was a fishing boat which rescued 160 people. The main fleet of rescue craft did not arrive, however, until 6pm - nearly 4 hours after the sinking.

The dazed and wretched survivors were brought to Queenstown where food and accommodation was found for them in local hotels. It was a scene of total despair, as survivors cried out for missing loved ones – husbands, wives, travelling companions, children. By late evening no longer were the boats landing survivors, only corpses.

News spread fast, and nowhere was the grief more acute than the city of Liverpool, where anxious relatives and friends gathered by the jetty. Over the following days, survivors arriving from Ireland would be besieged by people desperate to know anything about the fate of their loved ones. Sadly, many bodies were never recovered from the scene of the disaster.

The Legacy of the Lusitania

Of the 1,198 people who perished, the fact that 128 of them were American took on great political significance. The United States was a neutral country in 1915, and so the deaths of so many civilians at the hands of Germany resulted in a heated war of words that would rage between the two countries over the following months. The United States, while still declaring neutrality, began to side more openly with Britain in their war effort. Despite Germany's attempts to placate the Americans with promises of more restrictive submarine warfare, further sinkings involving the deaths of Americans exacerbated the situation and in 19174, America entered the war against Germany.

Controversy still rages over the actions of Captain Turner, the British Admiralty and the source of the second explosion on board the ship. Turner survived the disaster and accounted for himself in three subsequent inquiries5. It is known that Turner received specific orders from the Admiralty, but to date the full extent of the information passed to him has not been made public. It is also known that Admiralty intelligence were intercepting and decoding all communications between the U-20 and Germany, but failed ultimately to act on the information provided. Finally, the source of the second explosion on board the ship has never been adequately explained. What is known is that armaments were on board, supplied to New York authorities in a supplementary manifest some days after the sailing of the Lusitania. It seems unlikely, nevertheless, that the armaments as described on the manifest could have caused an explosion of such magnitude as to sink the entire ship in just 18 minutes. Other potential causes include a coal dust or aluminium powder explosion, a boiler explosion, or a failure in the steam pipes.

The Lusitania Today

The Lusitania now lies in 90m of water, 12 miles southwest of the Old Head of Kinsale. It has been dived on a number of occasions, and is reported to be in a state of advanced decay. It is owned by Gregg Bemis, an American entrepreneur, who recently acquired the right to dive the ship without requiring a license from the Irish state. Further expeditions to the wreck are planned in the coming years.

A statue commemorating the Lusitania dominates the main square in Cobh, and behind the town, a secluded graveyard containing the mass graves of 160 victims bears silent witness to the terrible events that took place on that sunny afternoon in May, 1915.

1Not including three stowaways.2The ships were named after the Roman provinces of Portugal and Morocco respectively. The Lusitania was built in John Brown's shipyard on the Clyde, while the Mauretania was built at Swan Hunter's on the Tyne.3just 11 degrees centigrade4provoked in the end by a German telegram supporting a Mexican invasion of Texas, Arizona and New Mexico5The inquiries themselves are a source of endless controversy. The Allies had much to gain in a verdict that held Germany solely responsible for all the deaths. Correspondingly, they went to great lengths to prevent embarrassing facts being revealed that might provide propaganda value to the Germans. There is evidence that the British and American inquiries were badly compromised.

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