The world's greatest ship sunk by a torpedo
The loss of the Lusitania cost almost 1,200 lives, but it was the deaths of 128 Americans that helped bring the US into the First World War, writes Dr Richard McElligott
Published 25/04/2015 | 02:00
At 2.28pm on 7 May 1915, the last trace of the Lusitania slipped beneath the cold waters 11 miles off the Old Head of Kinsale. Struck by a German torpedo, it had taken just 18 minutes for the 31,000 ton liner to sink. Those 18 minutes claimed the lives of 1,198 people, brought the full horror of the Great War to the Irish nation and helped change the course of European history.
Launched by the Cunard Company in June 1906, the Lusitania was at the time the world's largest ship. So opulent was the ship's interior that one writer quipped 'it seems the stately homes of England have gone to sea'. Yet what most distinguished the Lusitania was her speed. Built with revolutionary new turbine engines which generated 68,000hp, she achieved a record breaking cruising speed of 25 knots.
The Lusitania's construction expense had been subsidised by the British government with the provision that the ship would be made available for naval service in times of national emergency. However once war broke out, the ship's enormous coal consumption meant she was deemed too costly for the navy to operate. As the threat of the German fleet breaking into the Atlantic to attack allied shipping receded, the Lusitania was allowed to return to civilian duties.
By the start of 1915, the Allies' naval blockade of Germany was already having a telling effect. Conscious that their limited resources undermined Germany's chance of achieving military victory in any long drawn out conflict, German leaders were attracted to risky strategies they believed could bring victory quickly. In was in this context that the German government turned to its new weapon, the submarine.
On 4 February, it launched a campaign of unrestricted U-boat warfare. The seas around the British Isles were declared a war zone and any ships entering those waters flying allied colours and believed to be carrying war supplies were liable to be sunk without warning.
It was well known to the German navy that liners like the Lusitania were helping to transport munitions, war supplies and even troops across the Atlantic. When the Lusitania sailed out of New York on its final voyage it carried an estimated 4,200,000 rounds of rifle cartridges and 5,000 shrapnel shells (minus their explosive powder) along with its 1,959 passengers and crew.
Meanwhile Commander Walther Schwieger, captain of the U-20 submarine, had been ordered into Irish waters. By now British Naval Intelligence had cracked the German's naval codes and were well aware of the U-20's movements. In the two days before the Lusitania's sinking, Schwieger torpedoed several allied merchant vessels.
Despite knowing this, the Admiralty was so desperate to keep secret its tracking abilities that it failed to transmit a signal to warn civilian vessels that a submarine was active in the area until 11am on 7 May.
Having received the message, Captain William Thomas Turner ordered the Lusitania to turn north-east towards the Irish coast and away from where the message stated the U-boat was last seen. Unfortunately for Turner, the message's information was already 24 hours old and the Lusitania was now sailing right into the path of U-20.
Sighting the liner, Schwieger moved to intercept and at precisely 2.10pm launched a single torpedo. It exploded just under the Lusitania's bridge and was followed by a huge internal detonation which most experts accept was caused by an explosion of the ship's steam generating plant.
The ship was doomed and chaotic scenes played out on deck as the crew tried desperately to launch lifeboats while the ship heavily listed.
Only 761 people survived the disaster; among the dead were 94 children. At most 200 corpses were recovered. Three days after the sinking, 150 victims were buried in a mass grave in the cemetery at Queenstown.
Public opinion was outraged. An Irish Independent editorial stated that the sinking was a 'murderous attack upon hundreds of non-combatants … nothing transcends in barbarity the appalling crime committed so close to our own doors'.
In the aftermath the British propaganda machine went into overdrive. Photographs of drowned children were used to illustrate the racial depravity of the German people. One newspaper argued it was the 'logical expressions of the brutality and callousness of modern German nature'.
During the official enquiry all evidence that the ship was carrying munitions was kept secret from the public in order to portray it as an amoral and illegal attack on a purely civilian target.
While the Lusitania's fate was genuinely celebrated in Germany as a significant victory for her U-boat campaign, British propagandists generated fanciful stories to exaggerate its extent. It was reported that German schoolchildren were given a holiday to mark the event.
Another story described how Schwieger and his crew were presented with commemorative medals by the Kaiser for their heroic actions.
In the days which followed, the most widespread example of racially-motivated civil disorder in 20th-century Britain occurred as the newspaper campaigns helped to stoke popular anger. An editorial in the poisonously racist John Bull called for a vendetta against all Germans in Britain. The so-called Lusitania riots began in Liverpool, from where many of the ship's crew hailed, and quickly spread to other major cities.
Undoubtedly the most significant consequence of the Lusitania was felt in the United States. Of the 139 American citizens on board, 128 were lost. The Lusitania's demise would represent the catalyst for the erosion of America's policy of neutrality.
Public anger forced President Woodrow Wilson to issue a strong protest. Meanwhile the US ambassador to London stated that 'the United States must declare war or forfeit European respect'. Yet the US Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan, was a pacifist who desperately sought to keep America out of the conflict and tried to persuade Wilson of the need for compromise and restraint.
Although Germany relented under US pressure and ordered its U-boats not to attack passenger liners, the seeds of destructive distrust had been sown. On 6 June Bryan, the central advocate of neutrality in Wilson's administration, resigned. It was a stark symbol of the American government's drift from pacifist isolationism towards European intervention.
With the economic effects of the Allied blockade becoming ever more acute, Germany re-launched her campaign of unrestricted submarine warfare in February 1917. An outraged American Congress followed Wilson's request to declare war that April.
It marked the United States' first conscious decision to become embroiled in European affairs and set the tone for a foreign policy based on overseas intervention which would dominate international politics during the 20th century and continues to this day. Wilson rallied the nation to the cause by announcing the conflict was 'a people's war, a war for freedom and justice and self-government amongst all the nations of the world'.
Despite having a standing army of only 140,000, by mid-April 1917 four million men had been drafted into military service. By the spring of 1918 over 10,000 American troops were landing in France per day and by the war's end two million had been sent to Europe. For a German army bled white by four years of butchery on the Western front, this massive influx of new men and materials destroyed any possibility of it being able to sustain its campaign.
Between 1914 and 1918 America's economic output rose by 50 per cent. Furthermore, the victorious allied powers now owed the country the modern equivalent of $185billion. The United States' entry into the Great War gave this rising industrial power the pretext and opportunity to unleash its military and economic potential. In the process, the world's first modern superpower was born.
Dr Richard McElligott lectures in modern Irish history in UCD.
He is currently preparing a project to look at the impact of the Great War on Irish society
The Lusitania: Timeline of events
17 June: First rivet on the keel plates of the Lusitania was laid by the chairman of Cunard, Lord Inverclyde, at John Brown's shipyard on the Clyde in Scotland
7 June: The ship was launched by Lady Inverclyde, widow of the former chairman who had died eight months before. She named it Lusitania after the Roman name for the province which is now Portugal
Over a year was spent fitting out the ship
July: Lusitania underwent trials off the Irish coast.
August: The ship was returned to Brown's shipyard after a vibration problem necessitated the gutting and refitting of all the second class berths
September: Lusitania sailed on her maiden voyage to New York under Captain James B Watt. Bad weather prevented her winning the Blue Riband for fastest Atlantic crossing.
October: On her third crossing she regained the Blue Riband for Britain from a German liner, at a speed of 23.99 knots.
November: Captain Watt retired and was replaced by Captain William Turner.
June: Turner (pictured) retook the Blue Riband for the last time - it was won by Mauretania the following month and retained for 20 years.
December: Turner was appointed to the Mauretania, replaced by Captain James T Charles on the Lusitania.
August: Charles was appointed to the Mauretania and Captain Daniel Dowis took over the Lusitania.
August: War was declared and both the Lusitania and Mauretania were requisitioned by the British Admiralty.
November: The Lusitania's schedule was reduced to one round trip a month.
March: Captain Turner reappointed to command the Lusitania.
April: Lusitania made her last voyage to New York, with funnels now painted black (right).
May 1: Lusitania sailed out of New York for the last time.
May 7, 2.10pm: Lusitania torpedoed off the Old Head of Kinsale by German submarine U-20.
2.11-2.15pm: A huge second explosion tore through the damaged ship.
2.28pm: The Lusitania sank beneath the waves for the last time, killing 1,198 people.