Thursday 12 December 2019

Maritime: War at sea and the sinking of the Lusitania

German U-Boats wreaked havoc on passenger liners with the sinking of Lusitania proving major turning point in conflict, says Damian Corless

Servicemen attend the mass funeral in Cobh, County Cork of the victims of the Lusitania disaster. Getty
Servicemen attend the mass funeral in Cobh, County Cork of the victims of the Lusitania disaster. Getty
RMS Leinster stamp.
A recruitment poster.
How the disaster was reported in 'The New York Times'.
May 1915: Survivors from the 'Lusitania', which was sunk by a German U-boat torpedo, walking the streets of Cobh, County Cork. Topical Press Agency/Getty
May 1915: Survivors from the 'Lusitania', which was hit by a U-boat torpedo, standing outside the town hall in Cobh, County Cork. Topical Press Agency/Getty
In an old churchyard in Cobh, soldiers dig graves for the victims of the Lusitania disaster.

Damian Corless

At the beginning of May 1915, as the British Cunard liner Lusitania was preparing to leave New York for Liverpool, the German ambassador to the US took space in the newspapers urging passengers not to embark on the ship. The war at sea was hotting up and civilian liners were at increased risk.

What the ambassador did not say was that German intelligence knew the vessel was running a large consignment of guns and ammunition to beleaguered Britain in breach of US neutrality.

The warning was ignored and the ship set sail with a coterie of VIPs including the powerful magnate Alfred Vanderbilt, the Irish art dealer Hugh Lane and members of President Woodrow Wilson's close circle. As the ship approached the Old Head of Kinsale, Canadian passenger Ernest Cowper saw an object breaking through the waves at speed. Seconds later two torpedoes hit, the explosives on board went up, and less than 600 of the almost 2,000 passengers made it to safety on the Cork shore.

One hundred and twenty nine US citizens perished in the U-Boat attack and American public opinion turned strongly anti-German. Angry mobs took to English streets in the wake of the sinking and German shopkeepers who had stayed in business for nine months of war were beaten and their stores set alight.

In February 1917 another Cunard liner, Laconia, was torpedoed off Fastnet with the loss of some 30 lives, many of them American. As the 207 survivors were recovering in Ireland US President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to approve "arming US vessels (to) protect our ships and our people in their legitimate pursuits on the sea". Many in a reluctant Congress feared that this would be a major step towards entering the war, but Wilson was granted his demand.

At the start of the war the Laconia had been converted into an armed merchant cruiser. In addition to the thousands of Irishmen who served with the Royal Navy during the conflict, many thousands more served as merchant seamen on the vessels that transported food and other supplies to Britain from the colonies and the United States.

These merchant ships also transported cattle, dairy products and other foodstuffs from Ireland to Britain, while supplying Ireland with coal, fruit and other necessities.

Many of the 14,600 merchant seamen who perished on British ships during the war were Irish, although the precise number that served has never been properly established.

The Germans had been targeting merchant vessels from the start of the war, but at the beginning of 1917 Berlin declared open season on all shipping, including passenger liners, that entered an exclusion zone around the British Isles. The US response that it would meet like with like was, as Congress feared, a decisive step towards outright war.

In May 1917 over 100 British merchant ships were sunk by U-Boats. The following month the British experimented with a possible solution to the carnage, moving the vessels in convoys protected front, back and sides by heavily armed destroyers. The first protected convoy from Gibraltar arrived without mishap at the start of June, and a corner had been turned.

As the maritime war intensified, the Irish Sea was labelled U-boat Alley even though the real kill zone was the stretch south of Ireland from Kerry to Waterford. As the war entered its final phase in late autumn 1918, no passenger mailboat between Ireland and Britain had ever been attacked. That changed tragically on October 10 when the MV Leinster was torpedoed shortly after leaving Kingstown (Dun Laoghaire).

The mailboat went under within five minutes. The Leinster's SOS had been picked up by its sister ship, The Ulster, which was passing in the opposite direction and within sight. Under wartime Admiralty rules, however, The Ulster was forbidden to sail to the rescue for fear of providing the U-boat with an easy second kill. The Ulster's captain sent out a telegraphed SOS in all directions which was passed on in relay from ship-to-ship until it reached the Admirality HQ at Kingstown.

As every available vessel was being dispatched from Kingstown Harbour on a rescue mission, the car owners of the greater Dublin area were press-ganged into providing emergency transport. Frozen survivors were given warm clothing and blankets, and revived with Bovril, coffee and spirits. The critical and the dead were conveyed to the local hospital. The traumatised were taken to recoup at the Royal Marine and Ross's hotels.

A reporter on the scene wrote: "A great deal of anxiety was displayed by a crowd of persons who had come from the city and other places to inquire about their friends or relatives who were passengers on the Leinster. A few ladies who failed to discover any trace of their relatives were overcome with grief and had to be attended to by the nurses at the Admirality shed."

Four weeks later the war was over.



See our dedicated  World War 1 section here.


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