A century ago today, the world’s most famous luxury liner, the Lusitania, was sunk by a German U-boat. It was a shocking incident, one that signaled a disturbing change in how the war was to be fought. It also set the U.S. on a path that would eventually lead it to war. Here’s what happened on that fateful day in May.
A week before the disaster, New York residents were greeted by newspaper ads warning them to steer clear of “vessels flying the flag of Great Britain” as they “are liable to destruction,” adding that travelers who board such ships “do so at their own risk.”
The ads, which were placed by the Imperial German Embassy, were in response to intelligence reports indicating that the passenger liner Lusitania was doubling as a British merchant ship.
The embassy’s admonition wasn’t taken seriously. That German U-boats might sink a luxury liner of such stature and renown was an inherently preposterous idea. Years later, a survivor recalled: “I don’t think anyone took very much notice of this because they thought, well, no nation would dare go to the point of sinking a passenger liner and especially a liner so famous as the Lusitania.” (Image: Robert Hunt Picture Library/CC.)
No doubt the Lusitania, a British-owned Cunard steamship, was the most famous passenger vessel of its day. Dubbed the “Greyhound of the Seas,” it was the biggest, fastest, and most luxurious liner in the service. But what most people didn’t know at the time was that it was also an “auxiliary cruiser” of the Royal Navy. The British government secretly helped to pay for its construction, equipping it with concealed guns and using it to deliver munitions to Europe.
During its fateful crossing of the Atlantic, the ship was carrying American-manufactured guns and ammunition as part of its cargo. And the Germans knew it.
In the early days of the war, German naval commanders faced a conundrum. According to a protocol called “prize rules,” U-boat commanders were obliged to announce their presence to non-military ships. This would allow passengers and crew to escape their doomed vessels and enter into lifeboats before shots were fired.
But by this time in the war, prize rules were starting to become quite dangerous, particularly after British merchantmen began equipping their ships with guns. The old practice was abandoned, and merchant ships were sunk by U-boats with no advance notice. For many, it represented a horrific and barbaric new development in the war — one that would culminate with the sinking of the Lusitania.
On May 7, 1915, as it was traveling from New York to Liverpool, Lusitania entered into an area the Germans had designated a war zone — without the Royal Navy there to protect it. As it neared the coast of Ireland, the ship turned directly into the path of the patrolling submarine U-20, one of 15 subs patrolling the area at the time. At 2:10 in the afternoon, a torpedo slammed into its side. Almost immediately, the ship listed heavily to starboard.
The captain of the U-boat, Walter Schwieger, described what he saw in his log:
The ship stops immediately and heals over to starboard quickly, immersing simultaneously at the bow. It appears as if the ship were going to capsize very shortly. Great confusion is rife on board; the boats are made ready and some of them lowered into the water. In connection therewith great panic must have reigned; some boats, full to capacity are rushed from above, touch the water with either stem or stern first and founder immediately.
A second explosion rocked the ship after coal dust had ignited in empty fuel bunkers. Or perhaps it was the 4,200 rounds of small arms ammunition in the cargo-hold. Historians aren’t entirely sure — but they are certain it wasn’t a second torpedo shot from U-20, which is what many people assumed at the time.
In the precious little time they had, passengers frantically worked to get themselves off the ship. In a futile attempt to save infants, life jackets were tied to wicker “Moses baskets.” The rising water carried these baskets and their infant occupants into the water, but none survived the turbulence. Many of the lifeboats, not properly prepped, took on water and sank.
A mere 18 minutes after being struck by the torpedo, the Lusitania was gone.
Of the 1,949 passengers and crew, over 1,200 drowned, including 124 Americans and 94 children — 31 of them infants. Like the Titanic three years earlier, there weren’t enough lifeboats to accommodate everyone. But unlike the Titanic — a sinking survived predominantly by women and children — the primary survivors of the Lusitania were both women and men aged 16 to 35. Much of this had to do with the accelerated rate of sinking and the “natural instincts” of people in the midst of a rapidly unfolding crisis.
The reaction to the sinking was both dramatic and instant. In Britain, mobs smashed any property that sounded remotely German. Anti-German riots erupted in London. The disaster fueled propaganda and recruiting efforts; outraged and vengeful citizens rushed to recruiting stations in the weeks and months that followed.
“In spite of all its horror, we must regard the sinking of the Lusitania as an event most important and favourable to the Allies,” observed First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill. “The poor babies who perished in the ocean struck a blow at German power more deadly than could have been achieved by the sacrifice of 100,000 men.”
For many Britons, the sinking of the Lusitania — in conjunction with German atrocities in Belgium in 1914 and the use of poison gas at the Second Battle of Ypres in April 1915 — reinforced the burgeoning sentiment that Germans were behaving as savages in a war that was quickly getting out of control. (Image: British Government - Imperial War Museum, London.)
That the ship had been carrying shell casings and rifle cartridges was a fact hidden from the British public.
Of course, the Allies used poison gas during the war as well. What’s more, there were no German commercial vessels to sink owing to the Royal Navy’s blockade. By spring 1915, Germany was already experiencing food and fuel shortages; the country was facing starvation. German leadership regarded unrestricted submarine warfare a justifiable response given the dire circumstances. Regardless, most experts and historians agree that the sinking of the Lusitania was an illegal act under international law.
In the United States, the American reaction was swift but tempered. For ordinary Americans, the war was suddenly closer to home and all the more real. In a telegram to U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, Colonel Edward House wrote:
America has come to the parting of the ways, when she must determine whether she stands for civilized or uncivilized warfare. We can no longer remain neural spectators. Our action in this crisis will determine the part we will play when peace is made, and how far we may influence a settlement for the lasting good of humanity. We are being weighed in the balance, and our position among nations is being assessed by mankind.
In response, Wilson sent a strong note to Germany demanding that it cease submarine warfare against unarmed merchantmen. Soon thereafter, and in consideration of other controversial incidents, the German naval staff suspended unrestricted submarine warfare on June 5, 1915.
The U.S. managed to stay out of the war, at least for a time. But the incident brought the point home that America was going to have to enter into the fray eventually. In the meantime, the supposedly neutral country would have its cake and eat it too by profiting from the sales of munitions to European combatants, while screaming bloody murder any time Americans were killed at sea.
Out of desperation, the Germans renewed unrestricted warfare in 1917 — an act that, along with the infamous Zimmermann Telegram, forced the United States into the Great War. The sinking of the Lusitania didn’t bring the U.S. into the war, but it did solidify anti-German sentiment, thus paving the way to eventual American involvement.
The sinking of the Lusitania was a potent reminder that the war did not care to make distinctions between soldiers and civilians. This was total war, and ordinary people were being dragged into it, whether they be passengers on a seafaring vessel or workers in a munitions factory. War now meant that virtually anyone could become a target — a fact of war-life that would continue well into this world war and the terrible one to follow.