The Sinking of the Lusitania

In 1915, Germany’s U-Boats patrolled the seas around Britain and Ireland, attacking merchant ships. Germany’s aim was to starve Britain into ending the war. This plan would have tragic consequences for hundreds of innocent transatlantic holidaymakers.

The luxury ocean liner “Lusitania” left New York for Liverpool on the 1st of May 1915. On May 7th she was sunk by a U Boat - U20, captained by Walter Schweiger, 18km off the coast of Ireland near the Old Head of Kinsale in Cork. 1,201 lives were lost including 128 Americans. The Cork lifeboat rowed for three hours – over 18 kilometres to the scene of the disaster to recover survivors and bodies.

America at this stage had not entered the war, and the killing of U.S citizens provoked outrage – but not yet enough to make the U.S. declare war on Germany. The incident was used in Ireland to encourage Irishmen to join the army.

At the time, the propaganda value of the sinking was not lost on Britain. Germany had torpedoed, without warning, an unarmed passenger liner full of innocent civilians.

However, certain modifications carried out on the liner meant the Germany’s guilt was not as clear-cut as British media of the time would have it.

At the outbreak of war in 1914, the Lusitania was in dry dock in Liverpool to be fitted with infrastructure that would allow her to use six-inch calibre guns, and internally she had already been fitted with racks to safely carry artillery shells. On the 17th of September she was registered with the admiralty as an armed auxiliary cruiser. Indeed the funding for her building was supplied in part by the Admiralty. On her last voyage, her manifest showed a cargo including thousands of rifle cartridges, shrapnel shells and unfilled artillery shell cases. Previous voyages’ manifests showed similar cargoes.

International “Cruiser Rules” had long been in place for seagoing vessels and these were, by and large, obeyed by Germany, at least at the start of the war. The rules stated that the halting of an unarmed ship was to be carried out by firing a shot across its bows, searching it, and if the ship were found to be neutral (and not carrying contraband) it was to be let go. However, an order was issued by the British government that would make the cruiser rules unenforceable. Any British captain agreeing to surrender on foot of a warning shot would be prosecuted. British merchant ships were given orders to ram submarines that surfaced in an attempt to give warnings as per the Cruiser Rules. This British change of policy effectively changed the Rules of War and prompted the German Government to publish an advertisement in the morning edition of the New York Tribune as a warning to intending transatlantic passengers:

This, along with the fact that she was known to have carried armaments in the past, would make the Lusitania (according to the German Navy) a belligerent enemy Auxiliary Cruiser, and therefore she would not have the benefit of the protection afforded by the Cruiser Rules. The sinking of the Lusitania remains controversial to this day. Conspiracy theories abound:

  • A “second explosion” after U20’s torpedo hit the Lustania is regularly cited as “proof” of her carrying live artillery shells. She was indeed carrying “filled” shrapnel shells, but this is taken to mean filled with lead shrapnel balls. In fact, this secondary explosion is more likely to have been coal dust from her almost empty fuel store.
  • The British Government is sometimes accused of destroying evidence by bombing the wreck in the 1950s. This was explained away as target practice which involved dropping “hedgehog” anti submarine bombs on the wreck. These were wartime surplus and the explosives were used for training purposes.
  • Another persistent myth is that the Lusitania was armed, with her artillery hidden until needed. This deception was indeed carried on by British merchant ships, but there has never been proof that the Lusitania was, in fact, armed. There have been many dives on the wreck, none of which have revealed the existence of heavy artillery.
  • It was alleged that U20’s crew were decorated for the sinking of the Lusitania. They were not, although Captain Walter Schweiger was awarded the Blue Max in 1917, this was in recognition of his overall war service. The sinking of the Lusitania was not mentioned in his citation.
  • Germany was accused of minting a medal to “celebrate” the sinking. This is a somewhat skewed version of events. Karl Goetz was a satirical sculptor and medalist. After the sinking, his intention was to create a medal that would illustrate the wrongful use of innocent civilians to protect - what was perceived by Germany to be – a cargo of munitions. The medal uses imagery of a skeleton (representing death) selling Cunard tickets, an inscription “Keine Bann Ware” (No contraband goods) over an image of the sinking ship carrying armaments on deck. The medal was deliberately misinterpreted by Britain as a celebratory piece, leading to thousands of copies being produced and sold, (with a propaganda leaflet denouncing the medal) for charity.