The sinking of RMS Lusitania, a large passenger liner, remains one of the most controversial events of the Great War, the circumstances of its sinking still being shrouded in official secrecy. During the course of 2015, several British newspapers (such as The Observer of 8th February 2015 p 12) continued to refer to the May 1915 sinking of the Lusitania by a German U-boat as ‘a German atrocity’. A fairer and more objective examination of the facts relating to the sinking suggests that the truth, in as far as it is attainable at all, is likely to be somewhat different and that the major share of the responsibility for the tragedy lies with the British.
At the time of her maiden voyage in September 1907, the Cunard liner Lusitania was, at 44 000 tons displacement, the largest and one of the fastest ships in the world, cruising comfortably at 25 knots and thus easily able to outpace any submarine. She was twice the holder of the Atlantic Blue Riband. She could carry 2 198 passengers and had a crew of 850 (a total of over 3 000) and was sumptuously fitted out with a view to capturing the patronage of wealthy trans-Atlantic passengers as well as the bread-and-butter income of European emigrants to North America.
In the early 1900s, the Cunard Line, which built the Lusitania was short of capital and negotiated a generous subsidy from the British government. In return, the ship had to be built to certain naval specifications so that it could be used as an armed merchant cruiser in the event of war. This involved inter alia: gun platforms under the wooden decking; the hull being designed in Admiralty experimental tanks; the engines being similar to that of a Dreadnought battleship; all machinery having to be below the waterline where it would be protected from gunfire (submarines were not considered a serious threat at that stage); a requirement of 12 watertight compartments; and a double bottom. She also conformed fully to the Board of Trade safety regulations with 16 standard lifeboats which could accommodate only 1 000 people. In addition there were 32 collapsible lifeboats, giving a total of 48.
At the outbreak of the First World War, the 1856 Declaration of Paris (as amended), which codified the rules for naval engagements involving civilian vessels, was still in force. These were known as ‘The Cruiser Rules’, with both Britain and Germany being signatories. They were essentially as follows:
* Passengers and crew had to be safeguarded in the event of a ship being confiscated or sunk;
* Ships had to fly their own flag, not a false flag;
* Ships had to stop when confronted and allow themselves to be boarded and searched;
* Ships were not allowed to be armed or take any hostile action;
* Ships were not permitted to carry munitions of war.
It is significant that these rules were agreed to before the days of wireless/telegraph technology and hence ships’ capacity to warn others that they were under attack, or call for armed assistance. In 1914 these rules had not been updated to take account of new technologies such as the submarine. Following the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, the Lusitania was, from September, placed on the official list of Armed Merchant Cruisers, about the time that submarines began to be recognised as a new threat to shipping.
Shortly after the start of the war, Britain imposed a naval blockade on Germany with a view to cutting off all her trade and starving her into submission. On 4th February 1915 the Germans responded by declaring that the seas around the British Isles would be a war zone and that from 18th February Allied ships in the area would be sunk without warning. This was not total unrestricted submarine warfare (USW) since efforts would be made to avoid sinking neutral ships. With few exceptions, the Imperial German Navy adhered to the ‘Cruiser Rules’. Britain however (with Winston Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty) blatantly contravened them: ships, including the Lusitania, were instructed not to fly their flag, and in some cases to use false flags; British merchant ships were instructed to attack submarines on sight by either ramming them or firing upon them (submarines were small and relatively frail craft and very vulnerable to even light gun fire); and Britain used passenger ships for transporting munitions of war.
This was the situation pertaining to the Lusitania when she left New York on 1st May 1915 under the command of Cunard’s senior and highly respected captain, William Turner OBE, RNR.
Prior to her departure, a group of German-Americans, hoping to avoid controversy if the Lusitania were to be attacked by a U-Boat, discussed their concerns with the German Embassy in Washington. The Embassy consequently published a warning in 50 American newspapers, including several in New York, to the effect that Britain and Germany were at war; that the ships of Britain and her allies were subject to attack; and that passengers travelling on such ships would be doing so at their risk. Where possible, these were placed adjacent to notices of the sailing.
On 7th May 1915, the Lusitania was running parallel to the south coast of Ireland off the Old Head of Kinsale where, by sheer chance, she encountered the U-Boat U-20 on her way home after a successful operational tour. Not only did the Lusitania inadvertently present a full broadside target at short range, but was, following instructions from the Admiralty, running at only 15 knots. Seeing a large ship looming ahead of him, Kapitänleutnant Walther Schwieger, who was in command of U-20, took an opportunistic chance and fired a single torpedo at 14h10. It struck the Lusitania on the starboard side just below the bridge. Less than a minute later a second, larger internal explosion took place amidships. Schwieger recorded in his log his surprise at how quickly the great liner began to sink, and only as she did so, with the survivors (including women and children) struggling in the water, did he see the name of the ship and realise with regret what he had done. Contrary to the British claim that he had fired two torpedoes, Schwieger wrote in his logbook: “I couldn’t have fired another torpedo into this mass of humans desperately trying to save themselves.”
The U-20’s log also records chaos on the decks but, fearing the imminent arrival of Royal Navy vessels, U-20 dived and proceeded to make its way home. The Royal Navy did not arrive: the cruiser, HMS Juno, which had originally been the designated escort for the Lusitania had been recalled and no replacement sent, for which no explanation has ever been forthcoming. Such rescue as did take place, was carried out by Irish fishermen from the nearby port of Queenstown (now Cobh) in rowing boats. The Lusitania sank in just 18 minutes after the torpedo had detonated. Schwieger expressed his surprise that a single torpedo could cause this, and assumed that something like coal dust must have caused the second explosion. What he could not have known was that the Lusitania had in her cargo a very substantial amount of munitions and explosive material for the manufacture of ammunition which blew the bottom out of the ship, a fact confirmed by civilian divers diving on the wreck in the early 2000s, thus accounting for its extraordinarily rapid sinking, particularly as all watertight bulkheads were closed. It has been argued that, given the structure of the ship, a single torpedo, no matter how well placed, would have required at least two hours to sink such a large ship.
The loss of life was considerable: 1 195 men, women and children. Most were British and Canadian, but of the 139 Americans on board, 128 lost their lives. While it is presumed that most of the casualties were a result of drowning or hypothermia, some may have been as a result of the explosions. The loss of life was exacerbated by several factors:
* The watertight doors which were electrically operated were closed at the time. When electric power failed four minutes after the torpedo strike, many passengers were trapped;
* The second explosion was below the First Class section where the majority of Americans were berthed;
* There were insufficient lifeboats and not all could be a launched, especially the collapsible ones. In the end only six of the 48 lifeboats were successfully launched.
* Accounts by survivors suggest that there was no orderly evacuation process. Some described it as ‘chaotic’.
The sinking led to outrage in the United States with pressure placed on President Woodrow Wilson to immediately declare war on Germany. This was fanned by the British hoping to bring the US into the war on the Allied side. The idea was resisted by Wilson, who correctly sensed that the mood of the American people was not ready for war with Germany. Largely in deference to the Americans, unrestricted submarine warfare was partially lifted, but re-imposed in 1917, when the memory of the Lusitania was again invoked as an argument for America entering the war on the Allied side. Contrary to popular mythology, the sinking of the Lusitania was not the direct reason for America’s entry. It was rather a number of accumulated factors, including financial considerations and the widespread sinking of American ships in 1917.
With the loss of the Lusitania, Britain’s propaganda machine, by far the most effective and vicious of all the belligerents rose to the occasion with intensified vilification of ‘the Hun’, accusations of a war crime, continued demonization of the Kaiser and fabrication of the most bizarre stories, such as children being given a day off school to celebrate the sinking. It was also almost immediately used as capital for military recruitment.
There was complete and official denial that the Lusitania was carrying any munitions or equipment of war, even though the cargo manifest recorded, amongst other items, 4.2 million rifle bullets. Subsequent evidence has furthermore conclusively shown that a substantial amount of explosive material (some of it recorded on the manifesto as ‘butter’ and ‘cheese’) and other munitions were also on board (See Lusitania Online u/d). Only in 2014 was a partial public admission made, when the treasury put out a warning to divers and salvage operators that the wreck still contained dangerous explosives (The Guardian, 1st May 2014). Much of the documentation relating to the Lusitania remains under embargo however and the few records which are available in the UK are often missing critical pages or have sections redacted.
For examples of ammunition and explosive materials found in the wreck of the Lusitania, see https://www.google.com/search?q=Ammunition+and+explosives+on+the+Lusitania&client=firefox-b-d&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjW_KGGkdzgAhU3TxUIHeCZALAQ_AUIDigB&biw=1536&bih=722&dpr=1.25 See also: Greenhill (2008), Lusitania Online (u/d) and Mullally (2009).
In Germany, Kaiser Wilhelm was appalled at the loss of life of so many women and children. Schwieger and his crew received no official praise for their deed and, again contrary to Allied propaganda, never received any rewards or decorations for the sinking of the Lusitania. There was in fact substantial criticism within Germany. The German government, while regretting the loss of life, nevertheless pointed out that they had given due warning, that the Lusitania was sailing under no flag, that she was listed as an AMC, and had been ordered to ram submarines – all of which were true. Although they did not, at the time, have concrete evidence of the substantial quantity of munitions and explosive material on board, they did point out that on previous voyages the Lusitania had both carried munitions and transported Allied troops.
The wreck of the Lusitania lies in 90m of water and for various reasons, including extensive depth-charge blasting by the Royal Navy in the post-Second World War II period, is in poor condition. A Dublin-based technical diving team, who dived on the site in the 1990s, reported that there were so many holes in it that the wreck looked “like Swiss cheese”, and that the seabed around was “littered with unexploded hedgehog depth-charges” (diver Des Quigley as reported in Sides & Sides 2009). This suggests a concerted attempt to blow the wreck apart and destroy evidence of munitions on board or of what was in its hold. At 90m below the surface, it was certainly not a navigation hazard. No British government has ever admitted to the depth-charging.
An artist’s impressions of the wreck of the Lusitania on the seabed can be found at: https://www.irishtimes.com/news/politics/us-owner-of-lusitania-calls-for-more-flexibility-from-state-1.1785855
Video footage can be found at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A7AuCXfNRdg
Among the questions which remain include why, when the British authorities were aware that a German U-boat was operating in the area, did they fail to divert the Lusitania to a safer route? There is furthermore no evidence that any warning signal was sent. Why was there no escort, even though destroyers were available in a nearby port? Why was the ship ordered to reduce speed in the war zone? How could such a big ship sink so quickly from a single torpedo strike? These questions have inevitably given rise to rumours, imaginary explanations of the events, and the blossoming of conspiracy theories. One of the most persistent of the latter, with some circumstantial evidence and documentation to support it, and implicating Churchill himself, is that the British Government deliberately put the Lusitania at risk in order to embroil the US in the war. This point of view is advanced by, among others Patrick Beesly, a former British naval intelligence officer.
The official inquiry into the event under Lord Mersey initially saw an attempt by the Admiralty to scapegoat Captain Turner. It took the form of a report of carefully constructed falsifications and omission of facts and was a disgraceful attempt by the Admiralty to exonerate itself from culpability. Turner found himself on trial accused of deliberately disobeying Admiralty instruction, gross negligence and treasonable behaviour, by deliberately putting his ship in harm’s way, with the preposterous suggestion that he was in the pay of the Germans. Due both to Turner’s impeccable track record and to the integrity of Lord Mersey, who strongly challenged the Admiralty’s version, he was cleared of all blame, although in his own view, and many others, his reputation was blemished. He re-joined Cunard and was torpedoed a second time in 1917. In 1918 he was awarded the OBE. After the war he retired, lived a quiet life and died in 1933 aged 77. He had found it difficult to bear the public scorn over the loss of his ship and never forgave the Admiralty and particularly Churchill, not least for the latter’s persistence in reiterating the false claims of the Admiralty, and their attempts to exonerate themselves of blame at his expense.
After the furore surrounding the sinking of the Lusitania, Kaiser Wilhelm called a halt to unrestricted U-boat warfare, but this was reinstated in 1917 when Germany found itself in dire economic straits, in large measure as a consequence of the Allied naval blockade in the North Sea. Schwieger continued his career as a U-boat commander. In 1916 he accidentally ran the U-20 aground in deep fog off the Danish coast while attempting to assist anther U-boat. It could not be re-floated and was subsequently destroyed by the Germans to prevent capture. Surviving parts of the wreck, including the conning tower, are in a Danish museum. After this he was given command of U-88, and in July 1917 he was awarded the Pour le Merite, Germany’s highest award for gallantry in recognition of having sunk nearly 200 000 tons of Allied shipping. The citation did not mention the Lusitania by name. Schwieger was killed in action six weeks later aged 32, when U-88 struck a mine and was lost with all hands. He is ranked sixth in the league of First World War U-boat aces.
Footnote: There is an interesting South African connection to the sinking. Among the passengers who succumbed was William Broderick Cloete, son of Peter Lawrence Graham Cloete and his wife Helen (née Van der Byl) of Newlands, Cape Town and at some point of Carlisle Bridge near Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape Province. Broderick, as he was known, was also the grandson of Judge Henry Cloete, who had played a major role in the British usurpation of Natal in 1842 and was subsequently British High Commissioner for the colony in 1843-1844.
Selected references and further reading
Anon 1915 ‘Sinking justified, says Dr. Dernburg’ New York Times 9th May 1915
Bailey Thomas A 1935 ‘The Sinking of the Lusitania’ The American Historical Review 41 (1) 54–73. October
Bailey Thomas A (September 1936). ‘German documents relating to the Lusitania’ The Journal of Modern History 8 (3) 320-337
Beesly Patrick 1982 Room 40: British naval intelligence, 1914–1918 London Hamish Hamilton
Danver Steven (Ed) 2011 Popular controversies in world history Volume 4 Chapter 5 pp 107-126. The URL is: http://books.google.co.za/books?id=slVobUjdzGMC&pg=RA3-PA122&lpg=RA3-PA122&dq=U-20+logbook&source=bl&ots=FHzryeKwl7&sig=FzWvJz7-ttT-ZsnrZAKq_JIGHGk&hl=en&
Greenhill Sam 2008 ‘Secret of the Lusitania: Arms find challenges Allied claims it was solely a passenger ship’ [British] Daily Mail 20th December 2008 Available at: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1098904/Secret-Lusitania-Arms-challenges-Allied-claims-solely-passenger-ship.html
Hoehling Adolph & Hoehling Mary 1956/1996 Last Voyage of the Lusitania New York Madison Books/Rowman & Littlefield.
Kingston William 2015 ‘Ireland spent $1 million preventing research into Lusitania’ History Ireland 23 (6) Available at: https://www.historyireland.com/volume-23/ireland-spent-1-million-preventing-research-into-lusitania/
Lusitania Online u/d ‘A deadly cargo and the falsified manifests’. Lusitania Online: The Home Port of RMS Lusitania. URL is: http://www.lusitania.net/deadlycargo.htm
Mersey Bigham 1st Viscount 1915 Proceedings in camera on 15thand 18thJune, 1915, at the formal investigation into the circumstances attending the foundering, on 7thMay, 1915, of the ‘Lusitania’, after being torpedoed off the Old Head of Kinsale, Ireland. Command papers. Cd.381 (Session 1919, Vol. XXV, p. 469). London, UK: HMSO
Mullally Erin 2009 ‘Lusitania’s secret cargo’ Archaeology 62 (10) Available at: https://archive.archaeology.org/0901/trenches/lusitania.html
Peeke Mitch, Jones Steven & Walsh-Johnson Kevin 2015 The Lusitania story: the atrocity that shocked the world London Pen and Sword Maritime
Ramsay David 2001 Lusitania: saga and myth London Chatham Publishing
Sides Hamptom & Sides Anne Goodwin 2009 ‘Lusitania rising’ Men’s Vogue January 2009 [This covers a report by Dublin-based technical diver Des Quigley who dived on the wreck in the 1990s.] To access this article, enter , click on ‘View PDF’ and download. See also at: http://www.vogue.com/magazine/article/lusitania-rising/
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RMS_Lusitania https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=3&ved=2ahUKEwjZmsHr7tbgAhWnBWMBHeExALAQFjACegQIBxAC&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.iho.int%2Fmtg_docs%2Fcom_wg%2FCSPCWG%2FCSPCWG2%2FDocuments%2FCSPCWG2- 9.3A_Wreck_symbols.doc&usg=AOvVaw3wX7FETp5F1ek1vpVtqNQn