Sunday 17 December 2017

Flashback 1915: Lusitania is torpedeod off Cork

This day 101 years ago the Cunard liner RMS Lusitania was torpedoed by a German U-boat off the Cork coastline leaving over 1,000 dead

Tragedy: Lifeboats from the Lusitania in Cobh
Tragedy: Lifeboats from the Lusitania in Cobh

Ger Siggins

It was just before 2.30pm on a sunny Friday afternoon when the Lusitania slipped beneath the waters off Co Cork. The great Cunard liner, the world's largest ship when launched nine years before, had been torpedoed by a German submarine less than 20 minutes earlier. Almost 1,200 people died in that short period of time, and for weeks and months afterwards their bodies were washed up all along the south and west coast.

"GIANT CUNARDER TORPEDOED", "DISASTER OFF THE CORK COAST" ran the Irish Independent headlines the following day. The impressive coverage gathered reports from New York, Cork and elsewhere and told some of the survivors' harrowing tales.

The Lusitania, like the Titanic which had sunk four years earlier, was a byword for luxury, a five-star hotel that sailed more than 200 times between New York and Liverpool. It was the fastest ship of its time, holding the Blue Riband for the speediest Atlantic crossing, taking four days 16 hours at close to 30mph.

The great liner left New York on May 1, 1915, a time when submarines made the Atlantic route perilous. There were 1,266 passengers and 696 crew aboard, and were just hours from docking in Liverpool as they neared Cork where they were spotted by U-20. Commanding officer Walther Schwieger gave the order to fire and the single torpedo struck the side of the liner.

A second explosion rang out seconds later, which has given rise to suggestions that the ship was carrying armaments, but whatever the cause, the Lusitania was already doomed. The ship had tilted so far that many lifeboats were unable to be used and the quick sinking ensured that most of those aboard died.

The explosion was witnessed on the shore and dozens of fishing boats from all along the coast sped out on a rescue mission, and helped save 764 people. The US consul, Wesley Frost, was shocked by what he witnessed in Queenstown, now Cobh: "I saw five or six drowned women with drowned babies in their arms; and the corpse of one mother who had a dead infant clasped to each of the cold breasts which had so recently been their warm nestling-places".

The towns and villages of Cork opened their doors to the survivors, one of whom was an American bookseller, Charles Lauriat: "When we went up the street in Queenstown it was filled with people willing to help and do anything in their power to relieve our sufferings. I never saw anything more spontaneous or genuine or more freely given than the Irish hospitality of Queenstown."

In an astonishing piece of instant analysis in the Irish Independent, a special correspondent in New York highlighted what was to be the greatest effect of the sinking. The loss of 128 American lives and the impact on public opinion there would help lead to its decision to join the war against Germany:

"The excitement aroused over the news is far greater than that caused by the loss of the Titanic, for in today's loss comes the black art of piracy, and the passionate anger of Americans is roused from the Atlantic to the Pacific… People here are asking what the American Government will do over the matter if American lives prove to be lost. Will another polite note be sent to Berlin, or will President Wilson take some drastic action? If American passengers on the Lusitania have been sacrificed by German pirates, the end of the war has been brought very much nearer…"

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