With the start of the First World War, many were expecting a titanic clash of the German and British navies, the race between the two for sea supremacy being one of the myriad of factors that the war had begun over in the first place. The commencement of hostilities had led to widespread fears that British maritime shipping would be easy prey for a ravenous German fleet, and that the sustainability of Britain as an island nation would be under threat.
Of course, this didn’t really come to pass. Despite German advancements in the size and scope of their fleets, the Royal Navy was still the predominate power of the waves, and it soon became clear that German naval leaders were uninterested in testing the might of their primary enemy. By November, the Royal Navy had begun a blockade of German sea ports that would eventually be a major factor in Germany collapsing in late 1918. It seemed as if the Kriegsmarine was unable to respond. At least, not traditionally.
Instead of the battleship, the Germans turned to the U-Boat, their version of the submarine. The Imperial Fleet had been experimenting with submarines for a while, and the first of their newer “U” models had been built in 1906. By 1915, it was hoped that the U-Boat fleet could do what the surface ships could not, engaging and destroying targets without ever being in danger of discovery themselves.
The faith in the U-Boats was somewhat misplaced. They carried with them inherent risk in their operation, and if successfully spotted in the process of attacking a ship, just about any vessel large enough could send it to the bottom of the sea with a speedy enough ramming, something the British military overtly encouraged civilian ships to do if they could (the Olympic, a sister-ship of Titanic, famously would do so in 1918). In other words, even a completely unarmed merchant ship could easily kill a U-Boat.
And merchant ships were on the target list. In early 1915 the German admiralty declared the entire area around the British Isles as an active war zone, meaning any British ship, military or civilian, was a fair target in their eyes if it was operating in the area. For a time, the Germans stuck to the old “cruiser rules”, whereby if a civilian ship was targeted, its crew were notified and given the chance to evacuate before the submarine opened fire. Neutral shipping was to be avoided if at all possible, especially American vessels: the last thing the Germans wanted was to antagonise the remaining neutral great power into joining the allies. The U-Boats commenced a campaign that would soon be sinking 100’000 gross tonnes of British shipping a month, and just around two ships a day, operating out of forward bases in Ostend, Belgium.
The RMS Lusitania was a Cunard ocean liner, laid down in 1904 and launched in 1906. It was one of the largest ships of its day, albeit not as large as, say, the White Star Olympic-class ships like the Titanic, though the Lusitania was designed to be faster. With crew and passengers, the Lusitania was the kind of ship that could carry nearly 3’000 people back and forth over the Atlantic, in trips of around five days each. The Lusitania was a busy ship, undertaking the crossing over 200 times in its eight-year career.
With the start of the war, the Lusitania had initially been pegged to be converted into an armed cruiser by the British government, who had helped offset the cost of her construction for just that reason, but her coal requirements and noticeable profile eventually made the Admiralty change their minds. She was re-painted to help make it less conspicuous on the waterline, but with the might of the Royal Navy showing, things became more relaxed as the crossings continued, albeit with business much slower. At times, the Lusitania was escorted by military ships inside the “war zone”, but was left to fend for itself elsewhere.
On the 1st May 1915, the Lusitania left New York on its 202nd crossing. 139 of its 1’265 passengers were American citizens. The German embassy in the States placed a newspaper notice warning any potential passengers of the dangers of travelling on the British ship, hoping, with a degree of prophecy, to avoid controversy if the ship did end up getting sunk.
The Lusitania was carrying over four million rounds of ammunition and a compliment of fragmentation shell casings, all declared on the manifest and all perfectly legal under American maritime law. Claims that the ship was carrying other explosive cargo for the British war effort have never been adequately proven. Shortly after the ship began the crossing, three German-speaking men were found hiding on board, and were detained on suspicion of spying on the ship’s cargo.
While the Lusitania went east, the German U-20 of Kapitanleutnant Walther Schwieger was on patrol around the British Isles, sailing around Scotland, into the Irish Sea, and then onto the south of Ireland. They found success on the 5th and 6th of May, sinking three merchant ships with a total tonnage of over 10’000. On the 7th, while sailing for home, they met the Lusitania.
It was sunny day with good sailing conditions. The Lusitania crossed U-20’s path in the afternoon, and was recognised by its captain as a ship from the British Fleet Reserve. Around ten minutes past 2pm, he ordered one torpedo to be fired. It struck the Lusitania on its starboard side, underneath the bridge. Another, larger explosion followed, the source of which has never been conclusively identified. Accusations that U-20 fired again are as uncorroborated as accusations that secret explosives in the cargo hold went up.
The reason that I am talking about this at all of course, is the location of the Lusitania when it was hit, which was little more than twelve miles from the Old Head of Kinsale on the Irish coastline. It was towards Ireland that the Lusitania’s captain, William Thomas Turner, ordered the ship to be steered following the attack, but the ship was in no condition to sail anymore, losing power rapidly before sinking in quick fashion, barely 18 minutes after the first explosion. The crew and panicking passengers had barely any time to organise the correct launching of lifeboats before the Lusitania went to the bottom, and so, whichever of the near 2’000 strong crew/passenger compliment made it to the outside of the vessel mostly wound up in the sea, as U-20 sailed off.
The nearest ports were on the Cork coast, and heard the Lusitania’s desperate last SOS messages. The problem was that most of boats in the nearest vicinity were local fishing vessels, most of them operating only on oar power. The few with motors were soon speeding to the scene, but for the majority the calm day proved a detriment to rescue efforts. The Irish sailors, joined by others from the Isle of Man, did what they could for those floundering in the sea and in the few lifeboats that had got underway, piling the injured and other survivors into their vessels and heading for shore, in some cases handing their passengers off to Royal Navy ships also in the area.
But there was only so much they could so, saving 764 of the 1’962. Among the dead were 128 American citizens, and the three suspected spies, the truth about their presence on the Lusitania never to be found out. In the following days, Irish sailors had the grim job of fishing the dead out of the water, paid in cash by the Cunard line for the task. 289 bodies were eventually recovered, most being buried in Cobh.
The aftermath was messy. The British board of inquiry initially targeted the Lusitania’s captain for negligence in not following directives to avoid submarine attack, but he was eventually exonerated. Instead the German government was given the blame, with accusations that two torpedoes had been fired being bandied about, thanks to suspect testimony from pressured crew members. American courts carried the same line, with neither London nor Washington choosing to make waves about the ammunition the Lusitania had been carrying. The Germans, naturally, denied any claims of war crimes or inhumanity, insisting that the war material the Lusitania was carrying, and its status as an “Armed Merchant Cruiser”, made it a legitimate target, and that the warnings previously made to passengers in New York left the German Empire blameless for the deaths of American citizens. Reactions among more left circles in Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey were much cooler.
US President Woodrow Wilson was pressured from some quarters to immediately declare war on Germany, a result that British propagandists certainly wanted, using the sinking of the Lusitania for all that it was worth. But Wilson, reluctant to get the United States involved if it could be avoided, refused. Instead, following diplomatic channels to vent his own form of fury, he demanded that Germany alter its submarine strategy, something the reluctant Germany Navy acquiesced to later in the year, promising to refrain from attacks on vessels flying neutral flags. They would reverse this policy in 1917, one of the last signposts on the road to the United States joining the war.
Neither Schweiger nor U-20 would survive the war. Schweiger was pilloried by the international community following the sinking, and was killed in action on U-88 in 1917, while U-20 was beached and blown up on Danish shores the same year. As for the Lusitania, the wreck remains around 12 miles off the coast of County Cork. Debate remains about that second explosion, what exactly the ship was carrying and whether the Royal Navy subsequently attempted to destroy the wreck. Regardless, the ramifications of what happened on that sunny May afternoon off the coast of Ireland were felt for years to come.
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