10 Facts About the Sinking of RMS Lusitania | History Hit

10 Facts About the Sinking of RMS Lusitania

Image Credit: New York Times / CC

The sinking of RMS Lusitania is one of the most deadly maritime disasters in history, and played a major role in changing public opinion during the First World War. Here are 10 facts about the tragic event.

On 7th May 1915, the ocean liner RMS Lusitania was sunk by a German U-boat off the coast of Ireland with more than half the passengers and crew being killed. Some of those lost were Americans and the sinking hardened opinion in the United States against Germany and marked the beginning of the process which led to the USA entering the First World War on the side of the allies. To mark the anniversary of the sinking Stephen Payne joins the podcast. Stephen is a British naval architect and worked on designing passenger ships for over 40 years and is an expert both in their construction and their history. He and Dan discuss the circumstances of the sinking, whether there was any justification for it and the effect it had on public opinion and naval policy.
Listen Now

1. The Lusitania was one of the fastest ships of her day

The RMS Lusitania entered service in 1907, one of Cunard’s two major new ocean liners, built with government subsidies to rival the new and improved German navy. The subsidies had been given on the proviso that the Lusitania, and her sister ship the Mauretania, could be requisitioned for use by the Admiralty should the need arise.

She could reach a speed of up to 26 knots, and had a capacity of just over 30,000 gross tons – 10,000 more than her nearest German rival.

2. In 1915, the Lusitania was still a commercial passenger ship

The British Admiralty decided that they did not need the Lusitania for the war effort, and she remained on her usual route between Liverpool and New York. Bookings were not what they were, but the Lusitania was relatively large and luxurious, and stayed in business. One of her boilers was taken out of operation, slowing down her crossing time somewhat.

3. Submarine warfare meant British waters were no longer safe

In early 1915, U-boat warfare really began to take off. In February, Germany declared they would sink British ships with no warning, although they would make efforts to avoid neutral ships, and cruiser rules would apply – this basically meant they would evacuate passengers before sinking the ship in order to preserve life.

4. The German Embassy in New York posted a warning before her crossing

On 22 April 1915, just over a week before the Lusitania’s departure, the German Embassy posted warnings in 50 American newspapers, reminding the public that the waters around Great Britain were including in the war zone between Britain and Germany, and that ships in those waters could be attacked and/or sunk by U-boats.

Unsurprisingly, this notice caused some level of concern amongst Americans, and particularly those who were planning to board the Lusitania. Nonetheless, the Lusitania left New York on 1 May 1915, carrying 1960 passengers, and a cargo including shell casings and machine gun cartridges.

The Lusitania leaving New York on what would be her final crossing, 1 May 1915.

5. Lusitania’s captain was warned of sinkings on the evening of 6 May 1915

In the days before the sinking of the Lusitania, submarines were active around the south and west coast of Ireland: several ships were sunk, and Captain Turner was sent at least two warnings alerting him to this fact.

The British did not send escorts, or take any precautions other than this to help protect the Lusitania, presumably because they believed it wouldn’t be sunk without fair warning, given its status as a passenger ship.

6. She was struck by a single deadly torpedo

In the early afternoon of 7 May, the German U-boat U-20 fired a single torpedo at RMS Lusitania, which struck her just under the bridge. A second explosion rocketed through the ship seconds later, and she began to sink rapidly. The electrics failed 4 minutes later, trapping people below deck, in lifts, and the wrong side of bulkheads.

5 minutes after the torpedoing, Captain Turner gave orders to abandon ship. It took just 18 minutes for the Lusitania to sink.

7. There were 1193 fatalities

The Lusitania was a passenger ship – around 1900 had boarded her in New York. Unlike other major maritime disasters, like the sinking of the Titanic, the survivors were simply those who were able to get off the boat quick enough: mainly those who had been on deck at the time of the torpedoing.

The ship sunk in an extremely speedy 18 minutes, so those who were below deck had little time to reach deck. Because of this speed, very few lifeboats were launched either: there simply wasn’t the time. Notably, the art collector Hugh Lane and businessman Albert Vanderbilt died in the sinking.

Despite sinking a mere 11.5 miles off the Old Head of Kinsale, it still took a couple of hours for help to reach the survivors. The water temperature was around 11°C, and many drowned or died from hypothermia. Only 289 bodies were recovered.

Dan Snow visits Sarajevo on the trail of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, his assassin, Gavrilo Princip, and the fatal encounter that led to the outbreak of WWI.
Listen Now

8. The incident changed American public opinions

In 1915, America was neutral: public opinion was largely divided on the war in Europe. The ruthless German sinking of the Lusitania, a passenger ship which was carrying 139 American citizens, and several hundred more Canadian citizens, sharply changed this. 128 Americans lost their lives, and all of a sudden, the war felt like a more pressing and personal issue to Americans.

Whilst President Woodrow Wilson cautioned against over-reacting, he issued several notes to the German government in the subsequent months, stressing the need for US passengers to be able to cross the Atlantic safely, and issuing ultimatums should further loss of life occur.

9. No conclusive evidence of explosives has ever been found aboard the Lusitania

One of the justifications used by the Germans for their actions was that they believed the Lusitania was carrying undeclared explosives onboard, as well as bullets and shells. Marine archaeologists have never found any evidence that this was the case, nor of any contraband at all.

This theory gained a following as there was a second explosion reported shortly after the first torpedo struck: explosive cargo would have been one explanation for this. It appears instead that this was more likely caused by highly flammable coal dust coming free following the torpedo hit, and being ignited.

lusitania torpedo u boat drawing

Reproduction of a drawing of the Lusitania being torpedoed, May 1915.

Image Credit: Public Domain

10. The sinking of the Lusitania loomed large in British propaganda

Unsurprisingly, the sinking of the Lusitania generated real anti-German sentiment amongst the British people. The torpedoing of a passenger ship with no warning violated the so-called ‘cruiser rules’ which had been set down, and the British press shamed the German actions as war crimes and urged the Americans to see this as an act of aggression worthy of waging war.

Assorted films, books, plays and songs were written about the sinking over the subsequent years, and it remained a strong piece of anti-German propaganda in the British arsenal.

Subscribe to Dan Snow’s History Hit podcast, featuring reports from the weird and wonderful places around the world where history has been made and interviews with some of the best historians writing today.

Sarah Roller