Why Did the Lusitania Sink and Cause Such Outrage in the US? | History Hit

Why Did the Lusitania Sink and Cause Such Outrage in the US?

Reproduction of a drawing of the Lusitania being torpedoed, May 1915.
Image Credit: Public Domain

The liner Lusitania was sunk without warning on 7 May 1915.

On 1 May 1915 a message appeared in the New York papers from the German Embassy in Washington D.C. reminding readers that any ship flying the British flag or the flag of her Allies in waters around the British Isles was liable to be sunk.

Anyone considering travelling across the Atlantic and into those waters did so at their own risk. Next to this message was a Cunard advertisement for the 10am embarkation of the luxury liner Lusitania, bound for Liverpool.

Advertisement for the Lusitania next to the warning from the German Embassy about transatlantic crossings.

Image Credit: Robert Hunt Picture Library / Public Domain

Departure and defiance

Crowds gathered at the dockside to watch the Lusitania depart in defiance of the warning. Among the passengers on board was the millionaire Alfred Vanderbilt, the theatrical producer Charles Frohman travelling with actress Amelia Herbert, the Irish art collector Hugh Lane, and Paul Crompton, director of the Booth Steamship Company and his wife and six children.

With such influential figures on board the other passengers must have felt reassured in their belief that a civilian liner would not be considered a legitimate target by the German U-boats.

Meanwhile the U-boat U-20, captained by Walther Schwieger, arrived off the Irish coast, having left Emden in Germany at the end of April. On 6 May, the U-20 attacked and sank without warning the British merchant ships Candidate and Centurion.

That evening the British Admiralty sent a message to Captain William Turner of the Lusitania warning her of U-boat activity in the area. That night and the following morning the Lusitania received further warnings.

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Sinking ship

Given these warnings, the Lusitania should have been travelling at full speed and taking a zig-zag course, but she was not. She was spotted by the U-20 just before two o’clock.

The submarine fired one torpedo, without warning, and 18 minutes later the Lusitania was gone. 1,153 passengers and crew drowned.

The casualties of the Lusitania included 128 Americans, leading to outrage in the United States. President Wilson later dismissed the warning printed in the paper on the day of the ship’s departure, stating that no amount of warning could excuse the carrying out of such an inhumane act. Instead, he argued that it was necessary for civilian ships to have safe passage across the Atlantic, issuing ultimatums to Germany should they carry out any similar attacks.

However he was not prepared to end his country’s neutrality. Wilson accepted an apology from the German government and assurances that better precautions would be taken in future to avoid the sinking of unarmed vessels.

Nonetheless, many consider the sinking of the Lusitania a key event in drawing America into World War One: it illustrated to those at home who had considered the war distant and alien that Germany was prepared to be ruthless in order to achieve victory.

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.
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Not so innocent after all?

But questions remain as to how the ship could have sunk so quickly with such a great loss of life. The U-boat fired only one torpedo, which hit the liner beneath the bridge, but a much larger secondary explosion then occurred, blowing out the starboard bow.

The ship then listed to starboard at an angle that made the release of life boats extremely difficult – of the 48 aboard, more than enough for everyone, only 6 got into the water and stayed afloat.

The source of the second explosion will remain a mystery for a long time and many believe that perhaps the ship was carrying something more sinister.

In 2008 divers discovered 15,000 rounds of .303 ammunition in boxes in the ship’s bow and estimated that it could have been carrying up to 4 million rounds in total, which might account for the second explosion and would have made the Lusitania a legitimate target for the Germans.

To this day there are those who believe the wreck, which lies 11 miles off the Old Head of Kinsale, has yet more secrets to tell, despite the official line of neutrality. Full reports of the Board of Trade’s investigation, which happened shortly after the sinking, have never been published.

Sarah Roller